Chain of isles
Granite cliffs, white-sand beaches and clear blue waters typify the remote and ruggedly beautiful islands of the Recherche Archipelago, Western Australia.
Explore the Recherche Archipelago’s ruggedly beautiful islands.
Aerial photos of the island’s most famous feature, a bright pink lake, are readily available online, but the island itself is far less accessible. Despite the frequent use of the images in tourist brochures, this destination is a long way off the average tourist’s beaten track.
As one of 105 islands and 1500 islets and submerged rocks that form the Recherche Archipelago, Middle Island sits off a remote and exposed stretch of Western Australia’s southern coastline, about 9km from Cape Arid. Powerful Southern Ocean swells, a near-relentless wind, the lack of a nearby harbour or landing facilities and the requirement for hard-to-get access permits make reaching this island an adventure.
After drying our feet and pulling on shoes, our landing party – of parks off icers Brendan Williams and Stephen Butler, photographer David Dare Parker and myself – sets off towards a rocky headland with views of the island’s longest beach, which is covered in the f ine white sand for which this part of WA’s coastline is known.
At the far end of the bay, partly submerged in the clear blue water, are the iron remnants of tug SS Penguin, one of many shipwrecks in the archipelago. Owned by the West Australian government and used as a survey vessel, the Penguin was, ironically, involved in other rescue and salvage efforts before being grounded in a storm herself in 1920.
It’s speculated that the area’s f irst wrecks might have been as early as the 1600s, when ships headed for the Spice Islands and were washed far off course by ferocious weather and their crews’ limited navigational abilities.
The area’s first known western visitor was Dutch sailing master Pieter Nuyts, documenting the islands in 1627. More thorough exploration and charting by RearAdmiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux aboard French ships Recherche and Esperance followed in 1792. And Matthew Flinders conducted surveys from 1802. Throughout the area’s maritime history, the hazardous nature of the archipelago has claimed many ships.
On his second visit to Middle Island in 1803, Flinders himself narrowly avoided becoming one of those wrecked. A sudden strong change of wind direction rendered it necessary for him and his crew to cut free two of the anchors on HMS Investigator. Rediscovered, and raised from the water in 1973, one of the anchors is now in the South Australian Museum.
The archipelago’s most recent signif icant wreck was the 33,000-tonne bulk carrier Sanko Harvest, in 1991. Hoping to shorten her passage, the ship’s master strayed from normal shipping channels and grounded on Harvest Reef, 10km south of the Australian mainland.
Shayne Starr, skipper of a local charter boat, was in primary school at the time but remembers the day well. Despite early reports that salvage was possible with little environmental impact, rough seas and the ship’s movement against the reef saw it lose oil and its phosphate cargo. The local Esperance community rallied to assist the clean-up effort. Shayne recalls being pulled out of school and “sent to the beach to collect bags of oil”.
BACK ON MIDDLE ISLAND, WA Parks and Wildlife Service district nature conservation coordinator Stephen Butler leads us off the beach to a rocky clearing where the ruins of a f ishers’ hut stand on a site that was likely used by sealers in the early 1800s.
Black Jack Anderson was the most notorious of these sealers. He was known to carry a brace of pistols and
Leaping ashore from the dinghy and quickly scrambling up the steep white beach, out of reach of the surging waves and onto Middle Island, my f irst thought is that I’m lucky to be here.
steal from shipwrecked sailors while based on Middle Island during the 1830s. To evade capture, Black Jack was reported to have crossed to the far side of the island to take refuge in a cave concealed at the base of the cliffs.
Reports of his wild band of followers, rumours of the wealth he amassed, and the dramatic island setting make it easy to see why Black Jack became notorious – he is Australia’s only known pirate. Over the years, Black Jack’s fame has f lourished in the many retellings of his escapades, and in the wild theories of where his hypothetical treasure might be buried.
But, as local Indigenous elder Doc (Ron) Reynolds bluntly explains, the tale of Black Jack is “not a good story from an Aboriginal perspective” because of the women he kidnapped to enslave as concubines and wives. “He sort of had an aura around him at the time,” Doc explains. “Men were scared of him.”
HEADING FURTHER INLAND ON Middle Island, the vegetation gives way to an expanse of open granite, typical of other Recherche islands, many of which are covered mainly in bare granite interspersed with occasional limestone structures. The granite here features a round ‘gnamma’ waterhole, painstakingly hollowed into solid rock by Indigenous people. Doc, who’s not only the proprietor of the popular Esperance coffee van Lucky Bean, but also a cultural researcher with a fascination for the archipelago’s history, explains that the early inhabitants would have made the hole to collect and store rainwater “about 5000 years ago”, before Middle Island was separated from the mainland.
Evidence of people visiting the islands after the sea separated them from the mainland, is lacking. “We’ve tried from an archaeological perspective, we’ve tried from an anthropological perspective, we’ve tried from an epigraphical perspective, and we’ve tried from a botanical perspective, but everywhere we’ve
Early inhabitants would have made the hole to collect and store rainwater “about 5000 years ago”.
hit a roadblock,” Doc says. “There’s no material that could have been used for watercraft for Aboriginal people to get out onto the islands,” he says, adding that food sources along the mainland’s coast were bountiful, so there was no need for people to venture to the islands.
The track beyond the open granite becomes heavily overgrown with vegetation that slows our progress to an occasional crawl, and almost obscures the remnants of old stone dwellings and a well. These are thought to have been constructed as a base for early sealers and whalers, or as part of the salt-mining venture that was brief ly established on the island from 1889 to 1890.
Finally, a little further along the track, the island’s famed pink lake becomes visible through the dense scrub. A fresh wind covers the surface in small ripples and the strong pastel colour doesn’t disappoint.
Stephen Butler says the lake is a unique feature of the archipelago and that its online celebrity is proving to be a challenge, with growing requests for access threatening the delicate ecosystem.
“I don’t think we should stop visitation, but we need to control and restrict it,” he says, explaining that people can’t be allowed to walk into it. “There’s a salt crust on the lake, they’ll break that, stir up sediments and we don’t know how that would affect the chemistry.” He says that a pink lake in South Australia lost its colour because people were entering it.
Stephen explains that the lake gets its distinctive colour from high salt loads in the water. “The salt concentration is maybe eight or 10 times higher than that of sea water and in the [lake] water, you’ve got a bacterium that produces beta-carotene, which essentially acts as a pigment,” he says.
WITH THE WIND FRESHENING through the afternoon, our return voyage from Middle Island to the mainland isn’t smooth. The steep sea state and intensity of the dense Southern Ocean breeze are a reminder that this area is a wild one. Other than in the most perfect conditions, the waters surrounding the archipelago are not for those without sea legs.
We pass rocky outcrops that send spray f lying high into the air, submerged or semi-submerged reefs that create perfect curling breakers, and patches of icy blue turbulence that vividly contrast the surrounding deep blue ocean. One of these submerged reefs, in certain conditions, produces the infamous and unpredictable Cyclops surf break, which includes waves considered to be among the world’s largest and heaviest, surfed only by the the most daring and experienced.
Each island in the archipelago has a different dramatic, craggy prof ile, but the steep rocky cliffs of many are covered in the same black algae that signposts how high the swell continually washes up the smooth surfaces.
Stephen Butler, whose extreme sporting hobbies indicate athleticism and an appetite for adventure, describes the diff iculties of landing on such exposed islands. He explains that during seal surveys conducted by the Parks and Wildlife Service in 2001, he and his team had to swim onto several survey locations. “A lot of the islands are just rocky slopes,” he says. “You can’t land a small boat on them, so you’ve got to get in the water off the back of the boat and swim the last 20m.” This certainly wasn’t without risk. “There’s a technique to it,” he adds. “If the swell is too big you have to be realistic about it.”
They also had to be wary of sharks. An off hand comment made by local Esperance Museum volunteer Don Fiercey provided me with a sobering illustration of the area’s reputation as a great white shark haven: “Saw a big fella the other day – longer than a 17-foot boat,” he said.
BACK ON THE MAINLAND, the coastline itself is an attraction featuring numerous stunning beaches covered in squeaky white sand. The most famous is the iconic Lucky Bay, located about an hour’s drive east of Esperance, in Cape Le Grand National Park. The idyllic beaches strike me as somewhat at odds with the harshness of the region’s rugged headlands and wild conditions.
In Esperance, there’s no denying the town’s close connection with water. Its port, southern Australia’s deepest, can handle ships up to 200,000 tonnes and is an
Finally the island’s famed pink lake becomes visible through the dense scrub.
imposing presence on the edge of town. A handful of large bulk carriers anchored just off the coast is visible from The Esplanade.
If the frequency of sailing-branded clothing spotted around town is any indication, the local yacht club appears to be of a reasonable strength in proportion to the town’s modest population of just under 10,000. Timothy (Tim) Stewart, commodore of the Esperance Bay Yacht Club, explains that 18 of their 24 races are around islands in the archipelago. “There is a bit of a trick to getting around the islands in the shortest possible way,” he says, adding that the islands are picturesque and the club’s relative proximity to the archipelago encourages organisers to schedule events further from shore.
“Most of the time we know where we’re going; we don’t need a chart,” Tim says with a hint of humour that refers to the hazardous nature of the local waters. This sentiment is echoed by Alan Byers, general manager of the Esperance Port. “There are a lot of reefs here, but it is well charted,” Alan says, explaining that despite the archipelago much of the nearby ocean is deep.
ISEE THE ISLANDS from another perspective via the living room of the family home of local environmental engineer Shelley Payne. Some southern Recherche Islands are visible through the windows as Shelley explains her involvement in an Australian Geographic Societysupported project underway on Salisbury Island, one of the archipelago’s most remote locations.
Thought to be one of the first of the Recherche Islands created by rising sea levels an estimated 13,000 years ago, Salisbury is unique in that its ecosystem has seen very little human impact.
“We really want to coordinate the research to limit the impact and also do as much non-invasive research as possible,” Shelley says. Although the research team’s investigations cover the island’s endemic population of black-f lanked wallabies, New Zealand fur seal colony, a nearby shipwreck and potential Indigenous artefacts, it is their work studying the island’s great white shark hotspot that draws the most attention. “There’s a congregation there at certain times of the year, and that’s what our research is looking at,” Shelley says.
ASECOND EXPEDITION TAKES me to another of the Recherche islands, the accessible Woody Island, located about 15km off the Esperance coast. The late Don Mackenzie, an Esperance fisherman, tug operator and the man credited with pioneering tourism on the islands, f irst offered tours here as a way to subsidise the cost of his tugboats, before establishing Woody Island as a family destination in 1974.
In what Malcolm ‘Fud’ Mackenzie, one of Don’s sons, describes as the “golden years” between 1995 and 2005, the island saw as many as 16,000 visitors a year. Woody Island remained empty for a number of years after that but was reopened to visitors last year and is one of the few publicly accessible parts of the group.
Fud explains that his father had a long-held affection for the place. “Dad’s history with Woody Island goes way back; he was the last person to graze sheep there,” Fud says. “Dad loved Woody Island. He could always see the attraction.”
On the island, from the large deck of a small eco-style resort surrounded by tall trees and enclosed in a small protected bay, there is a view of the jetty, and of distant whitecaps, islands, and the mainland beyond it. It’s easy to understand Don’s fondness for the island.
A handful of short bushwalks weave between a stand of western she-oaks, providing views across the surrounding striking blue waters and f ields of succulent herbs, dotted with bright f lowers covering the rocky cliffs. The island, one of the most heavily vegetated in the rugged archipelago, feels like a haven, protected from the harsh conditions and far from civilisation.
AUSTRALIAN GEOGRAPHIC would like to thank Tourism Western Australia, Duke Charters and Goldfields Air Services for their assistance with this article.
“There is a bit of a trick to getting around the islands in the shortest possible way.”
WA Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Brendan Williams seems unaffected by the bitter Southern Ocean breeze as he courses his way around the islands of the archipelago.
Huge swells from the Southern Ocean break on the mainland’s Twilight Beach, making this one of Australia’s legendary surfing locations.