JUST ADD WATER
Chris Pritchard pitches up on the little-frequented Mackerel Islands off the West Australian coast
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.
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