Australia: Fishing Hartog Island

by Greg Milner

Wrestling simultaneously with the wheel and the gearstick, Nick Wardle had just managed to light a cigarette, which was an admirable achievement in itself, considering the circumstances. Fully loaded with seven men, a tonne of fishing and camping gear, and a heavy enclosed trailer bringing up the rear, the big OKA all-terrain vehicle was rearranging our internal organs as we bounced and lurched along the sandy wheel tracks beside the clear blue waters of Shark Bay. There were muffled complaints from the rear about the difficulties of holding a beer steady.

Nick was explaining, over the growl of the turbo-charged Perkins diesel that laboured between us, how he was crawling along the same track a month before with a cargo of 16 year old girls from Presbyterian Ladies College.

"We were looking forward to a hot shower after a week at the camp. A stake went through the sidewall of a tyre. Then the jack sank into the sand under the bus. It took three hours...three bloody hours...to fix it.

"Then a couple of kays further on I had another one. And another one. All up, four flat tyres in one afternoon. We got back to the homestead at three in the morning. I was so...well, pissed off."

He’d just finished this tale of woe when a loud and very unhealthy clanking reverberated through the OKA, one of those dreadful Something Has Gone Terribly Wrong noises. It was more than a flat tyre this time. The right hand wheel of the trailer was sitting at a crazy angle, six of the seven wheel studs having given up the ghost under the strain. There was nothing for it but to transfer all the gear from the trailer to the OKA’s roof rack, and leave the crippled vehicle where it sat straddling the track.

Nick Wardle’s reaction is unprintable. He would have to return, a two hour drive back up the same track, with replacement studs a few days later.

Such are the trials and tribulations of a budding adventure-tourism operator on Australia’s westernmost sheep station, Dirk Hartog Island, 850km north of Perth.

Dirk Hartog himself might have dismissed Nick’s predicament as a mere inconvenience. "I’ve sailed round the world, son. Battled storms, scurvy, trecherous reefs, murderous natives, not to mention the ever-present risk of mutiny! A few busted wheel nuts? Bah!"

But Hartog, the first European to set foot on Australian soil, a hundred years before Captain Cook was even born, might also have sympathised. When the little Dutch East India Company spice trader Eendraght hove to in Turtle Bay at the north end of the island on October 25, 1616, there was little to encourage the Netherlander to stay.

No water, no food, and nobody with anything to sell. Hartog had his crew fetch a tin plate from the galley, hammered it flat, scratched a few words on it, and nailed Australia’s first "I was here" sign to a post.

What were his impressions? We’ll probably never know. But based on the brevity of his stay, it’s probably safe to say Hartog’s opinion was a17th century version of ‘The hell with this, let’s sod off to Indonesia.’

Nothing much happened for another eighty years, when Willem de Vlamingh stopped by, took Hartog’s plate and nailed up one of his own. Another century or so of neglect, and Frenchman Louis de Freycinet called in, swiped the Vlamingh plate, and took it back to France. (After being buried in a damp storeroom in the Paris Museum for more than a century, the Vlamingh plate was finally returned to WA after the Second World War. Hartog’s plate resides in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum).

Back in 1616, young Hartog and his crew were on an adventure, and as they stepped ashore at Turtle Bay, they had the place pretty much to themselves. When our little fishing party of six stepped ashore nearly 400 years later, so did we, for Dirk Hartog’s island remains much as it always has.

A century or more of sheep grazing has changed much of mainland Australia forever. Not here; a wild place of saltbush and sandstone, where crest-torn Indian Ocean swells scour ancient cliffs, and a weathered timber post stuck in a rock crevice on a windswept outcrop is all that marks the spot where Europeans first touched Australian soil.

That it took them another couple of hundred years to really get a taste for the place is neither here nor there.

Invented for the young, adventure has always been a minimalist thing of bare bones and opportunity. Nick’s brother Kieren is just 21. Their grandfather, the late supermarket millionaire Sir Thomas Wardle, took over the pastoral lease on Dirk Hartog in 1969. Now, Kieren runs the island, and running your own island has to be more adventurous than punching a keyboard in a city office.

While their contemporaries are in serious party mode in the city, Kieren and girlfriend Tori Pyman are prince and princess of an isolated grass castle with no subjects, but a very large moat.

Once there were 35,000 sheep. Only 5,000 remain, and Kieren is trying to replace some of those with people prepared to pay for the privilege of fishing unfished waters, diving among bright coral, or standing on a hill overlooking a pretty bay and imagining the clank of chain securing a 17th century square rigger to safe anchorage from heavy seas.

For us, it was fish. We’d left our vehicles in Denham, near famous Monkey Mia (home of bottle-nose dolphins which tourists hand feed in the shallows), and caught Les Fewster’s 15 metre charter boat Ocean Invader the 19 nautical miles across Shark Bay.

Our embarrassingly large load of tackle, an armoury of rods, camping gear and ‘refreshments’ deposited on the beach, Tori prepared coffee and cakes while Nick loaded the OKA.

Inside the homestead, just 50 metres back from the waterline on the eastern or lee shore, hung prints of the charts made by the Dutch explorers so long ago. In a perspex case, one of only two replicas of the Vlamingh plate.

The homestead, converted from shearers quarters constructed of limestone blocks, accommodates visitors in comfortable twin-share rooms. But we weren’t here for comfort.

Our mission, to seek and photograph, to walk in the very footsteps of explorers, to fish for sport and fresh food, to sit with our faces lit by the flames of a remote campfire under a black velvet sky scattered with diamonds, to drink good wine and tell outrageous lies.

For most of its hundred year history as a pastoral lease, Dirk Hartog Island has been closed to the public. With the mainland coastline of Western Australia under increasing pressure from an increasingly mobile population, the island is one of the few places where the recreational fishermen, divers, campers and four wheel drive fans can go and know they’re likely to encounter nothing but a few sheep.

On a privately leased island, you get to control the number of visitors, and this week there were none. We had the entire island to ourselves.

Our destination, a rough camp at Urchin Point, three hours drive away on the exposed western side, near Cape Inscription.

What’s there, I asked Nick as the OKA left the homestead behind.

"Um, a bit of a shed. Well, I hope it’s still there. We’ve had a bit of a blow the last few days."

As we began the slow grind across drifting sand dunes, I was secretly relieved Plan A had fallen through. We’d intended bringing our own four wheel drives, and barging them across the narrow strait from Steep Point. But the island’s vehicle barge had had an engine siezure two days before.

Plan B, on Kieren’s suggestion, was to take the OKA. Nick, who’d driven up from Perth with a truck load of fuel drums only that morning and come across to the island with us, had only just been told he was taking us camping.

For the hard-core four wheel enthusiast, Dirk Hartog Island must be heaven. But the salt and sharp stakes are hard on vehicles. More than one spare tyre is a must.

So far the island has hosted one party of specialist four wheel drivers.

"There were five of them," says Nick. "They weren’t exactly...well prepared. It took us five hours to do a three hour trip."

Eventually we cleared the sand and turned left for the middle of the island, the difference being that the dunes were now covered with the only vegetation able to withstand the combined efforts of gale-force south westerlies, sheep and feral goats; a low and prickly saltbush which never rose more than a metre. Even the most vertically challenged would be assured of a view.

Two thirds of the way up, we stopped at deserted Mill Point Outcamp, Australia’s most westerly shearing shed, complete with Australia’s most westerly outback dunny, and stood marvelling at how batallions of Japanese tourists could possibly waste kilometres of Kodak on koalas and Kings Cross, and totally miss the significance of such Aussie iconography. I assured Nick that once they read this story, Dirk Hartog Island would need an airstrip capable of handling Boeing 747s on direct flights from Tokyo. He looked sceptical.

There was a cheer above the roar of the engine as we lurched over a hill and caught sight of the Indian Ocean. My fellow voyagers had holes burning in their tackle boxes, undaunted by the rain squalls scudding in from the west over a sea turned to lather by the remnants of Cyclone Rhonda. Anybody can lose expensive lures on ungrateful fish, but only the most dedicated get the chance to do it in such a wild and unspoiled place.

Our camp, three kilometres from Hartog’s fateful first landing, was certainly unspoiled by the customary comforts to be found at even the most basic late twentieth-century council-run camping ground. Like trees, or a windbreak. Or, for that matter, a dunny. A shovel, however, is supplied as part of the deal.

There was, thankfully, a shelter of sorts, bolted together from treated pine poles and corrugated plastic sheeting on three sides, positioned in such a way as to catch the full force of the prevailing wind. The marine-ply foor was intact, but much of the roof had been torn off by the fag end of the cyclone.

A large chest freezer, however, was unscathed, and soon had our supplies properly chilled under the power of a petrol generator which emitted just enough mechanical clatter to drown out the rumble of big swells demolishing themselves on the beach forty metres away.

Like most city-bred Australians (i.e., most Australians) I hold to the myth that only a microwave oven and a mobile phone separate us from the rugged self-reliance and outback resourcefulness of our convict forefathers. At a pinch, I can cope with a gentle breeze on a warm summer’s evening around a campfire on the banks of a softly gurgling trout-filled stream.

That night, intermittant squalls beat a tattoo on the sides of my tent, which heaved loudly in and out like an asthmatic lung with each gust. Every ten seconds or so, the fly threatened to disappear with a noise like Clint Eastwood’s stockwhip in Rawhide, and fly skywards in the manner of a meteorological balloon.

Miserably, I lay awake imagining myself to be the only one lying awake, and was secretly pleased to discover that everybody else had spent the night in a similarly sleep-free zone. But by dawn the weather had cleared, the wind had dropped and swung to a gentle offshore easterly.

Nick took us a couple of kilometres south to a section of cliff-face low enough for us to be able to land fish with the aid of a gaff attached to a length of rope. Protected from the breaking swells, the sea below us was a blue so deep it hurt your eyes, and we spent the entire morning in a kind of piscatorial heaven, happily catching fat snapper and bluebone, enormous acrobatic tailor, shark-mackerel, trevally that made the reels sing, and barrel-chested tuna so fast they would take your breath away as they bolted with a half-swallowed lure.

We could see three-metre tiger sharks patrolling the surface, attracted by all the activity and the chance of a free feed. Every so often, one of us would hook into a decent spanish mackerel or tuna, only to feel the line suddenly go slack as a body-less head floated to the surface.

A family of huge manta rays joined the party, gliding in and out with the grace of Concorde, and as sunset turned the cliffs the colour of Elle MacPherson’s tan, a pair whales pretended to be Polaris missiles, launching themselves clear of a flat-calm sea and re-entering with a belly-flop big enough to empty an Olympic pool.

It went on for three days like this. We got sunburnt, while the people down south wrapped up for winter. In the evening, good red wine washed down teriyaki marinated whole snapper baked with butter, garlic and fresh chilli.

It couldn’t last. The wind turned north west, bringing storm clouds, heavy seas and a different kind of spectacle. The OKA growled over a lunar landscape of dunes strewn with sandstone boulders, and we peered in awe over the edge of the precipice.

"Watch this!" Nick shouted at us, his words whipped quickly away by the onshore gale.

Through a metre-wide hole in the ledge at the foot of the cliff came the whine of a Boeing turbine, and a supercharged jet of high-velocity air shot a vertical column of seapsray 50 metres into the air with each surge of the swell.

I tossed a rock the size of a grapefruit over the cliff. It disappeared into the blowhole, which spat it out again with the speed and trajectory of a mortar. The missile lobbed with a thud near the OKA, parked a hundred metres behind us. It was pretty silly, really. I could have brained somebody.

At Cape Inscription, under rainbows that grew from the sea, we stood at the very spot where Hartog nailed that famous plate overlooking Turtle Bay in October 1616.

The weather was deteriorating. None of us fancied trying to strike camp in the rain, so we packed the OKA, hitched up the trailer, and set off for the three hour drive to Homestead Bay. It was not far up the track that the wheel nuts on the trailer gave way.

Back at the homestead, we bunked down in a disused shearing shed, a relic of the days when wool was a pound a pound. The shearing stands, the holding pens draped with dry and cracked saddles, all left as if the ringer had just dispatched his last blue-bellied joe. At the foot of my bed stood the 19th century hand-cranked wool press, ornate gold lettering still visible under the dust: Humble & Nicholson of Geelong. To get to the kitchen, we walked past a still-gleaming single-cylinder Lister engine once used to drive the clattering combs.

Tossing flies and lures into the shallows right in front of the homestead, we caught fat whiting and flathead for dinner. The full moon rose orange above the flat water of Shark Bay. Were the men who went there atop rocket ships any greater adventurers than the men who stumbled on this place in sailing ships? I doubt it.

As always on such trips, the weather cleared, to a bright pink dawn, on our last day. Ocean Invader was waiting to take us back to the mainland. Tori made coffee for everyone on the homestead verandah, while skipper Les Fewster spun yarns about snapper schools the size of football fields.

Keiren had left for Perth earlier in the week, and as we left the island in our wake, Tori waved alone from the shore. Until Nick returned from Denham in the morning, she really did have the entire island to herself now. If you discount the ghosts of Dutch explorers

END

BREAKOUT BOX:

You can cross the 19 nautical miles from Denham to Dirk Hartog on Les Fewster’s 50ft Ocean Invader for $30 a head each way. 08 99448 1113.

Or the Island’s barge will take your four wheel drive across from Steep Point at $1200 return per vehicle for a week, including farmstay accommodation in the shearing shed.

Beds in the shearing shed are $25 per night, with a self-contained kitchen nearby.

Accommodation in the homestead, including all meals, is $150 per person per night. The 12-seat OKA is available for $400 a day.

Contact: Dirk Hartog Island, 08 99481211, or Perth 08 93162959.