JUST ADD WA­TER

Chris Pritchard pitches up on the lit­tle-fre­quented Mack­erel Is­lands off the West Aus­tralian coast

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

THE fish­er­man is up to his neck in it. His two fe­male com­pan­ions are bur­dened by guilt. The rea­son be­comes ap­par­ent as the story un­folds. They are blamed for spoil­ing his day’s fish­ing in the Mack­erel Is­lands through ab­ject care­less­ness. Worse, he al­most drowned.

The day starts well. The women, his good friends who share his two-bed­room cabin, rent a boat and plan to spend much of the day cruis­ing. The man re­mem­bers a mid­dle-ofnowhere sand­bar, 2km from the is­land, ap­pear­ing as a splen­did sliver of white-sand beach at each low tide. It is a renowned fish­ing spot. ‘‘ Drop me there and pick me up later,’’ he sug­gests.

He plonks a fold­ing chair on his private slice of heaven and fishes for sev­eral hours. He is not alarmed when the sand­bar be­gins to di­min­ish. The women will soon re­turn and he fore­sees a few more bites be­fore leav­ing.

The sand­bar keeps shrink­ing. This be­lat­edly be­gins to worry him. Soon the sand­bar is mi­nus­cule. Wa­ter laps his feet. He no­tices the is­land in the dis­tance, re­mind­ing him­self he can­not swim that far. A few min­utes later he’s im­mersed in deep wa­ter, aware he is out­side a pro­tec­tive reef in a fish-filled do­main favoured by big sharks. He has seen many on pre­vi­ous vis­its.

His chair, the least of his wor­ries, floats away. He places a knot­ted plas­tic bag, with bait and small fish he caught, atop his head. He rea­sons its pres­ence in the wa­ter along­side him may at­tract sharks. Some­one once told him: ‘‘ You wouldn’t last long out here, mate.’’ Sea­weed drifts past his legs. He shud­ders, de­cid­ing he is be­ing left to die. A cou­ple of plea­sure craft pass in the dis­tance but his des­per­ate cries and waves are nei­ther heard nor seen.

The women, mean­while, are hav­ing a glo­ri­ous day. They put­ter about, fish, swim and feast on a large lob­ster. Some­time later, re­al­ity bites: ‘‘ Oh my God! We’ve forgotten to pick him up!’’ They gun the boat to­wards the sand­bar, ar­riv­ing to see wa­ter smack­ing the man’s chin. They pull him aboard but, even in this warm cli­mate, the voy­age back to the is­land has an icy edge. The vic­tim is irate.

‘‘ Get me out of there!’’ he thun­ders to the man­ager. ‘‘ I’m not shar­ing a cabin with those two!’’ He’s moved to the far­thest cabin. Mer­ci­fully, frosti­ness ends next day when the women opt to head home.

True story? I don’t know but the Mack­erel Is­lands peo­ple as­sure me of its ve­rac­ity. I re­main scep­ti­cal as re­sort man­ager Dun­can Smith re­lates it con­vinc­ingly while our speed­boat cuts through calm sea on an ex­cur­sion to an un­in­hab­ited isle.

The Mack­erel Is­lands? The name hardly trips off the tongue as read­ily as those of far­west­ern des­ti­na­tions such as Nin­ga­loo Reef or Mon­key Mia. And the isles seem the an­tithe­sis of Queens­land’s much-vis­ited Great Bar­rier Reef.

A Perth-based pho­tog­ra­pher friend, well­trav­elled in his home state, con­fesses he has not vis­ited and sug­gests the place is well­known only to peo­ple who fish, dive or snorkel. This may be so but the is­lands also prove won­der­ful for laz­ing with good books, beach­comb­ing along pris­tine stretches of sand or ven­tur­ing on un­de­mand­ing bush­walks.

Lo­cated 22km off Onslow, north­east of Ex­mouth at the edge of the Pil­bara, the Mack­erel Is­lands — 10 tiny In­dian Ocean isles — are 1400km north of Perth. It’s a long way, ex­cept in West Aus­tralian terms. Low-slung coral atolls, they barely poke from ul­tra-clear, reef-pro­tected wa­ter. Prom­i­nent in fish­ing mag­a­zines, they are oth­er­wise ob­scure.

Theve­nard Is­land, the largest, is the only per­ma­nently in­hab­ited isle. It has a small re­sort at its edge. Six kilo­me­tres long and 1.2km across at its widest point, it harbours a trio of ugly oil stor­age tanks — vis­i­ble from afar and dom­i­nat­ing one cor­ner — as a re­minder of the pres­ence of a ChevronTex­aco fa­cil­ity. Pumped from un­manned off­shore rigs, oil is stored un­til tankers, an­chored at sea, take it to for­eign buy­ers. Not a drop trick­les on to the Aus­tralian main­land.

The oil firm is af­fec­tion­ately re­garded on Theve­nard. It paved the airstrip and pro­vides the re­sort with power and de­sali­nated wa­ter. Com­pany staff in­habit their own com­pound. Though I am mostly blind to the tanks af­ter my first day, I find them use­ful in de­ter­min­ing Theve­nard’s lo­ca­tion from the sea.

The flat­tish Mack­erel Is­lands are scrub- cov­ered. I wan­der across the coun­try­side in safety. Snakes are ab­sent and aside from nine va­ri­eties of lizard, the only wildlife is two types of mice, one of them mar­su­pial. A small hillock, Theve­nard’s high­est point, is jok­ingly re­ferred to by re­sort staff as Mount Theve­nard. Beaches line the is­land, of­fer­ing safe within-the-reef swim­ming. I am trans­ported by car to the west-fac­ing ex­trem­ity, far­thest from the re­sort, to en­joy a spec­tac­u­lar sun­set. From the re­sort, sun­rise is more dra­matic.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion is, in part, in a dozen cab­ins, not op­u­lent but ap­pointed to re­sort­style four-star stan­dard with spa­cious kitchens and bath­rooms. Clev­erly an­gled sails pro­vide shade and im­prove the ex­ter­nal ap­pear­ance of the cab­ins.

The re­sort’s mo­tel com­plex of­fers an­other 30 rooms, in grouped de­mount­a­bles, as well as a bar, restau­rant, gen­eral store and swim­ming pool. Restau­rant fare is coun­try-style Aussie: heaped roasts, bar­be­cues. Sashimi ap­pears as an ap­pe­tiser one evening, mak­ing the most of freshly caught fish and squid.

The pub-style bar’s wall of pic­tures re­veals a cer­tain un­o­rig­i­nal­ity: snaps of men, women or chil­dren pos­ing with a catch. Feisty game fish are the prime lure. Fish hooked lo­cally in­clude Span­ish mack­erel (one re­cently caught spec­i­men weighed 35kg), red em­peror, snap­per, coral trout, cod and yel­lowfin tuna. Guests fish from boats or from beaches.

Mys­te­ri­ous in­den­ta­tions along the beaches are the work of tur­tles. Th­ese crea­tures lay eggs by the thou­sands on Mack­erel Is­lands’ beaches from mid-Oc­to­ber each year. From late De­cem­ber un­til early April, newly hatched tur­tles scut­tle to the ocean, as birds screech hun­grily above.

They con­sti­tute an im­por­tant at­trac­tion for the Mack­erels, which re­cently be­gan mar­ket­ing it­self be­yond the tra­di­tional fish­ing-and­boat­ing fra­ter­nity that has vis­ited on an or­gan­ised ba­sis since the 1960s.

Dol­phins in­habit nearby wa­ters and dur­ing one day’s boat­ing I watch a pod at play, leap­ing from flat-as-a-board wa­ter just 6m away. Hump­back whales ca­vort be­tween June and Oc­to­ber. Dugongs and placid whale sharks also of­ten ven­ture close to Theve­nard.

Bird­watch­ers in­creas­ingly visit, at­tracted by 24 species of lo­cal land birds and about 30 mi­gra­tory species, along with many sea birds. An easterner I en­counter on a beach­comb­ing ram­ble con­fides that Theve­nard re­minds her ‘‘ of the Gold Coast in the early ’ 60s’’.

One cou­ple I meet prefers to fish from the jetty rather than the beach. They en­joy 10-hour fish­ing stints, brag­ging they’ve in­dulged their an­gling pas­sion here for six win­ters. A small ham­mer­head shark swims be­neath the pier but I no­tice it does not scare snorkelling hol­i­day­mak­ers. On a boat trip into open sea, I spot sev­eral 3m tiger sharks. How­ever, within the reef, snorkelling is un­threat­en­ing and pop­u­lar.

A 20-minute speed­boat ride whisks me to Di­rec­tion Is­land. The op­er­a­tors of Theve­nard Is­land also lease part of Di­rec­tion Is­land (the rest, like much of Theve­nard Is­land and the other islets, is na­tional park). Its only build­ing, a sim­ple A-frame house for self-cater­ers, is adored by die-hard fish­er­folk. The build­ing, slated for de­mo­li­tion, will be re­placed early next year by a largely pre­fab­ri­cated home.

‘‘ It’ll be ul­tra-lux­u­ri­ous,’’ says Gra­ham Shields, one of the re­sort’s direc­tors. ‘‘ Sadly, it’ll be be­yond the means of some peo­ple we’ve been get­ting . . . they’ll switch to mo­tel rooms on Theve­nard.’’

Bird life on de­serted Di­rec­tion Is­land is di­verse. I thrash through knee-high bush (no snakes, re­mem­ber?) across the isle’s cen­tre, an al­ter­na­tive to a half-hour’s cir­cum­fer­ence walk along white beaches slop­ing to the clear­est of blue seas. Trees mostly grow no taller than 3m. Ea­gles usu­ally pre­fer loftier eyries but build their lat­tice­work plat­form-like nests in th­ese since there’s noth­ing higher. Chris Pritchard was a guest of Aus­tralia’s North West Tourism.

Check­list

Mack­erel Is­lands Re­sort op­er­ates boat trans­fers (less than one hour) from Onslow. The same com­pany’s Onslow Mack­erel Mo­tel, on the main­land and an op­tion for overnight stays, has lock-up park­ing for guests headed off­shore. Or fly from Ex­mouth, Onslow or Kar­ratha by light air­craft to Theve­nard Is­land’s paved strip aboard Nor­west Air Work. www.mack­erelis­lands.com.au www.nor­wes­t­air­work.com.au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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