Coas stt ories
Neil Oliver on the spooky Australian island you’ll never visit
IT’S sunset at Byron Bay’s main beach, and archaeologist, historian, journalist, author and Coast Australia presenter Neil Oliver is sipping a cup of tea, his Scottish lilt all but drowned out by a cacophony of lorikeets farewelling the day in a nearby tree.
The screeching might eclipse Oliver’s voice in volume, but after a day spent filming around Australia’s most easterly point for the second series of Coast Australia, nothing can mute his enthusiasm.
Earlier in the day, the seemingly unflappable Scotsman, known worldwide for his original series, Coast, which he presented for five series in the UK before heading to Australia to present Coast Australia last year, has inadvertently showcased his beach credentials after a tour of Byron Bay lighthouse. Wandering down for the next spot of filming at Australia’s most easterly point, engrossed in chat, we overshoot the turnoff and instead of hitting Little Wategos Beach, wind up one beach too far, at Wategos.
No film crew. Oliver turns silent, and rather than retrace his steps up the track, heads unerringly for the
beach, then, like some kind of mythical merman, vanishes.
I follow his footprints, which peter out at a rocky outcrop. There’s no sign he’s turned back, so I scramble on. Five minutes later, a rushing tide brings me to a halt. How the hell did he get across that? I pick my moment, leaping into wet sand, bolting as the next wave bearing waist–deep water rushes in at my heels. A leap and I’m back on pointy, wet rocks. Topping them, I finally see Little Wategos. Another mad dash between wave sets, and shoes squelching, gasping for breath, I’ve made it.
About 100m away, an unruffled Oliver is already filming. His shoes are dry. The bugger hasn’t even got the bottom of his long pants wet.
The first season of Coast Australia wasn’t enough for Oliver. It served only to whet his appetite.
Series two sees him and his team of palaeontologist and explorer Professor Tim Flannery, marine ecologist Professor Emma Johnston, landscape architect Brendan Moar, anthropologist Dr Xanthe Mallett, and historian Dr Alice Garner, take in eight new locations including the Pilbara, Torres Strait, Norfolk Island, South Australia and the Bass Strait discovering the history, the science and the stories of its people.
One place – an untouched island showcased in the first episode that few Australians would ever have heard of – captured Oliver’s heart. He unreservedly describes it as “the most special place I’ve ever seen”.
Officially called Cleft Island, but known locally as Skull Rock, it sits 5km off the coast of Victoria.
“It looks from certain angles like a skull, and a huge cavern takes up one whole side of it,” Oliver says. “You can’t climb up – it’s 50m of sheer cliff. You can’t land on its shore. “Twelve people have been on the moon. On Skull Rock, including us, I think it’s less than that number – probably since the Ice Age.”
Oliver and two scientists helicoptered to the top of the island, abseiled down to the cavern. And it took his breath away.
“The cave is 130m wide and 60m deep, the roof is 60m above – you could fit the Sydney Opera House inside it,” he enthuses.
“It must have been cut by the sea when the sea levels were much higher, thousands of years ago. That, and the possibility nobody has ever been in it was amazing.
“It was like being on the set of King Kong, you expected prehistoric beasts. It sort of felt like nobody had ever been there and your footprints were maybe the first footprints.”
It was a reminder to Oliver to savour the delights of his job amid the logistics of filming in beautiful locations and telling stories.
“It’s like people who spend their whole holiday taking pictures. You have to remember to stop and soak in the moments. We are here, this is real,” he says.
It’s a feeling reflected across the whole second series.
“Last time we were showing Australia off like a sort of a trophy prize – which is partly how it came across,” Oliver says.
“This time it’s been like a case of getting to know the person better and seeing beyond the immediate, delving into the history of that person. The stories I think are more journalistically strong and in depth and you find out more about Australia and all its different personalities. I don’t want to be seen to be telling Australians about their country. It’s not my style anyway.
“My approach has always just been sharing my immediate reaction to things. I am an archaeologist who retrained as a journalist and on Coast, I am an interested tourist.
“Coast doesn’t have an agenda. It’s not saying the world should be a certain way, it’s just an observation of what is happening on the coast, what animals live there, what the geology is that formed it, who lives there now and what are people doing with it.” COAST AUSTRALIA MONDAY, 6.30PM, HISTORY CHANNEL
Untouched: Cleft Island, or Skull Rock.