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.

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