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Spring on King : a Bass Strait island break


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Covid-19 cut a trail of disaster and distress through 2020 travel plans and instead of birding in Scotland and Goa, driving the Outer Hebrides with 2 friends and exploring the Glasgow of Charles Rennie Macintosh, I was in lockdown at home in Hobart. What to do? Well, it wasn’t possible to make any travel plans as future holidays were postponed indefinitely. I took to researching my family tree, spent more time dog-walking, discovered online bridge, spent more time on the phone than I have for years, did some overdue home maintenance and mini-makeovers and filled the freezers with home-cooked food. Sound familiar? 

However, as restrictions eased from July the future appeared brighter as the bridge club, museum, library, cafes and restaurants re-opened and intra-state travel restrictions were lifted. Daily life took on a comforting familiarity. The government announced direct flights between Hobart and Flinders and King Islands in November that seemed a golden opportunity for Bill and I to tick King Island off the bucket list. I savoured booking flights, accommodation and a hire car. I also booked a half-day birding with Margaret Bennett, a King Island based bird guide. The anticipation of getting on a plane and going somewhere “new” restored some normality to this bewildering year.




King Island is located in Bass Strait at 40° South in the path of the Roaring Forties, the strong westerly winds found between latitudes 40-50° south. The island formed part of a land bridge that linked Tasmania to continental Australia until 12,000 years ago when the bridge was submerged by rising sea levels. The lack of middens suggests that the first people crossed the island but did not settle there.


King Island was discovered by Europeans in 1799 when a sealing expedition aboard the Martha sighted land. The island had substantial populations of Fur and Southern Elephant Seals which were quickly hunted to local extinction. Governor King sent a vessel to claim the island for the British in 1802 ahead of Baudin’s French expedition after which settlements in “mainland” Tasmania were made at Hobart (1803) and Port Dalrymple (1806). Sealers visited the island until the 1820s, eventually departing in 1854 after which the only visitors were shipwreck survivors and occasional hunters.


The first short-lived submarine cable between Tasmania and Victoria was laid via King Island in 1859 and a subsequent cable operated between 1936-1963. The island opened to graziers in the 1880s and a township developed at Currie on the west coast. The waters at the western entrance to Bass Strait made King Island a notorious ship’s graveyard with over 60 known wrecks of which the Cataraqui (400 lives lost), Neva (convict ship, 225 lives lost) and the British Admiral (79 lives lost) are the best known. Overall, 2000 lives have been lost in the seas around the island. The lighthouses at Cape Wickham (1861) and Currie (1879) reduced the rate of shipwrecks to two disasters in 1910 and 1920.


The island population grew due to Soldier Settler schemes that operated after both world wars, with 200 farms being offered after 1945. Remains of houses and farm buildings from this era are dotted around the island.




Today the island is well known for the production of cheese, lobsters, bottled water (King Island cloud juice), kelp and beef. The abandoned Dolphin Mine at Grassy is a significant national reserve of tungsten. 



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Day 1



The plane was about 15 minutes late leaving Hobart due to a technical problem that was quickly fixed. We flew over the Central Plateau and left Tasmania somewhere around Smithton before flying over Robbins and Three Hummock Islands. First impressions of King Island are of a flat landscape with many hedgerows that double as windbreaks criss-crossing the farms. The island is very green and lush.


Margaret Bennett came to the airport to say hello which was the first of many friendly and kind contacts we would experience with locals. We pick up our X-Trail rental and head into town past several mature Norfolk Island pines that lend a Victorian seaside aura to the main street of Currie, the King Island ‘’capital’’. After a coffee stop we drove down to the fisherman’s wharf where colourful boats are tied up alongside or bobbing at anchor in the bay and cray pots are stacked ready for the next sailing.




Silver and Pacific gulls and a pair of Pied Oystercatchers rested on the nearby beach. The entrance to the harbour is narrow and backed by a heavy rolling sea, however local knowledge and skilful skippering saw a fishing boat safely back to port.


The King Island festival is held on a grassy area above the wharf with views of the boats, lighthouse and the Boathouse aka the restaurant with no food. 










There is time to fill before our accommodation is ready so we did the short drive to British Admiral Beach, named after the British Admiral which struck rocks on 23 May 1874 on her maiden voyage from Liverpool.  Only 9 people survived the wreck from a total of 88 passengers and crew, making this the 4th worst peacetime maritime disaster in Australia’s history.






A Blue-tongue lizard lazed on the warm road but scurried away when I approached with the camera. The drive back to Currie took us past the local Kelp Industries.


Harvesting Durvillaea Potatorum or bull kelp is a unique King Island industry that utilises a fully renewable resource to supply seaweed meal for the extraction of alginate which is used in food technology, textile printing and has pharmaceutical and industrial applications. The kelp is dislodged from the rocks on which it grows by tidal action and washed ashore where it is collected by ‘’kelp trucks.’’ The kelp dries naturally on purpose built racks before being fed through a hammer mill and packaged into re-usable one tonne bulk bags.




The factory hasn’t yet found a use for the bull kelp stalks, we found these on the breakwater.






We ate fish and chips for lunch at the Boathouse aka “the restaurant with no food”, the ultimate in BYO dining! This colourful place has a birds-eye view of the harbour and is available for social events and meetings.










A Great Cormorant perched on a rock mid-harbour.




Before checking in to Light View Villa we walked around the lighthouse for a different perspective on the harbour and breakwater.




Dinner tonight is at charming Oleada, a small restaurant in Currie with a menu featuring local produce. Char grilled octopus, lamb rump and home-made ice-cream were the perfect end to a long day.



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Day 2


Margaret Bennett called at 8 am this morning and we set out for a morning’s birding. First stop was the Shag Hide where Black Swan and Cape Barren Geese were the main event together with Eurasian Coot, Chestnut and Grey Teal and Pacific Black Ducks. The island’s famous beef cattle provided a bucolic background to birding.




Next was Tatham’s Lagoon where Black Swan dominated and a busy Musk Duck threaded between the swan.




Along the road a flock of feral turkeys gobbled it’s way through a fence and over a hill out of sight.




A Swamp Harrier glided overhead.


Over at Bob’s Lagoon a White-fronted Chat was feasting on a grasshopper and a Blue-tongue Lizard ambled along the road.








Down at Phoques Cove a Sooty Oystercatcher hides behind a rock near the high tide mark as a flock of Silver Gulls squabbles further along the beach.








A flock of Ruddy Turnstones hunkers down out of the wind on a sheltered rock before flying off. 






A solitary Black-faced Cormorant perches above the surf that throws flotsam high on the shore.






Another Swamp Harrier patrols a farm dam and lands to eat or preen on the roadside before flying off on a constant quest for food. We checked a small stand of melaleuca for the endemic Greene’s Scrubtit with no luck, while a busy superb fairy wren hugged the shadows. A Common Pheasant, the second introduced exotic to the island ran for cover as we returned down the main road to Currie.  


After lunch Bill and I drove south to the Calcified Forest and Seal Rocks Lookout via the Cataraqui Memorial where an Australian pipit hopped around the roadside. The wreck of the Cataraqui in August 1845 is Australia’s worst peacetime maritime disaster – 400 people drowned, mostly free immigrants, when the Cataraqui foundered 100 metres from the shore just one day out from its Melbourne destination. A single passenger and 8 crew members survived. Most of the deceased are buried in a mass grave, although some individual graves are recorded.








A colony of Black-faced cormorants hugged a favourite rock.





We drove south to the Calcified Forest which is a short walk from the car park. Its quite a shock after walking through shady bush to emerge into a desert-like environment. The Calcified Forest comprises numerous odd shaped limestone features that were formed when calcium carbonate adhered to the roots of coastal vegetation. The roots have since been exposed by the Roaring Forties winds that removed the sand cover. 







The Roaring Forties have shaped the island's vegetation into botanical sculptures.







Further along the coast at Seal Rocks the sea boiled and roiled at the foot of the cliffs.






Wallabies dodged around the car as we drove back to Currie in time for dinner at the Golf Club with more million dollar views of the King Island coast. Back home, the setting sun lights up the lighthouse and former keeper’s cottage.





Edited by Treepol
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Enjoying your report @Treepol, of a place I’m not familiar with.  I’d be curious to hear the Aussie pronunciation of “Phoques Cove!”  Growing up in an English suburb of Montreal, and learning French in school, there was definitely a phase where we had a bit of fun talking about seals in class... :)

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@Zubbie15thanks for reading along. The Australian pronunciation is probably something like "Folks Cove", although I am by no means sure of this.



Day 3 – Cape Wickham and the north


Today Bill and I are going to re-trace some of the drive that I did yesterday with Margaret. Shag Hide again had many swan, Cape Barren Geese and cows, whilst black swan and cygnets abounded at Tatham’s Dam.




A Superb Fairy Wren hopped around inside a dead tree but was too fast for photos. A White-faced Heron and Pacific Gull perched at Whistler Point whilst 2 Sooty Oyster Catchers scurried over the sand at Quarantine Bay.






Cape Barren Geese were doing well in the paddocks behind Quarantine Bay and were kept company by a fast-moving Common Pheasant.






Lunch today is a barbecue at Penny’s Lagoon, a rare perched lake. Perched lakes occur above the water table and are caused by an impermeable layer of rock that rests above the main water table but below the land surface. 






Welcome Swallows were feeding on insects around a group of rushes and a White-fronted Chat hopped along the water line whilst a Grey Shrikethrush sang sweetly in the bush. The swallows were very keen to get to their nest that was built in the barbecue area so we packed up and left as soon as we could.


Nearby Lavinia Beach is another pristine expanse of clean sand and clear water.  




The Cape Wickham Lighthouse was built in 1861, 15 years after the wreck of the Cataraqui and at 48 metres is the tallest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere. Despite the safety provided by the Cape Wickham light at the north of the island, shipwrecks continued along the rugged west coast of King Island until the completion of the Currie light in 1879. The Roaring Forties have sculpted the vegetation around the lighthouse.








The return trip to Currie passed many reminders of a once thriving community.










After dinner at Oleada a visit to the Currie wharf reveals the fishing boats calm at anchor on this rare windless evening. 








The use of cattle ear tags as an art medium must surely be unique to King Island. 





Primary products, Grand Designs and golf.


The island is home to the famous King Island dairy brand of quality cheeses and supports a robust dairy industry that provides the raw materials for brie, camembert, cheddar and blue cheeses. 




King Island grass-fed, free-range beef is also a quality product and served in local restaurants and select outlets in Tasmania.




Porky’s Beach is a short drive from Currie and features a number of innovative accommodation options that would not be out of place on Grand Designs. 






The unique Whale Tail House further north at Yellow Rock Beach was featured on Grand Designs Australia in 2013 and is sometimes open for tours.


The island is a mecca for golfers with two world class links – Ocean Dunes and Cape Wickham. Golf packages promote the sport, local cuisine and the natural beauty of King Island.










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Day 4 – Naracoopa and Sea Elephant Bay.


Naracoopa is a small town on the east coast of King Island that is known for its landmark jetty built around 1968 when rutile and zircon were mined from the local mineral sands.  Titanium dioxide which is used in paint manufacture and zirconium dioxide which is valued for its ability to withstand high temperatures were extracted from the raw materials. The jetty closed in 2006 and re-opened again after a joint state and local government agreement in response to local demand. Sadly, the jetty closed again in 2010 and has not re-opened. 






The east coast is the (usually) sheltered side of the island, however the weather had turned easterly and the normally tranquil east coast resembled the turbulent west coast on the day we drove over. Blow Hole Beach did not live up to its name although we could see the water foaming around the rocks.




There is a sizeable lagoon behind the beach which was sadly bereft of birds.




We followed Sea Elephant Bay around to the estuary which was alive with black swan and did a short walk where we saw a blue-tongued lizard lazing in the sun and White-fronted Chats hopping around a dead tree.






Baudin’s French expedition stayed at Sea Elephant Bay for a fortnight in 1802. Francois Peron the expedition naturalist was excited to see the beach littered with huge sea elephants. However, as sealers were already active on the island he accurately predicted that “This great species of seals is going to find itself attacked on all sides at once.“ Prized for their rich oil and skins, the Southern Elephant Seals were hunted to extinction on the island in the mid 1800s. The Bass Strait Wombat and the Dwarf Emu suffered the same fate.


We ate lunch at the boat ramp before a final look around the town and the return drive to Currie.











We stopped for a drink at the local pub and before returning to the villa where a Superb Fairy Wren was feeding on the lawn.



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Really enjoying your report @Treepol.  King Island is somewhere I have always been curious about visiting - and I do love their brie. 

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On 1/6/2021 at 2:33 PM, Treepol said:

The Australian pronunciation is probably something like "Folks Cove",


Yes that's what I was thinking too

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@shazdwnKing Island is a perfect place for a break, we could have easily spent an extra 2 days exploring the island. We bought a good selection of cheese home with us and particularly enjoyed the black label cheddar (aged for 2 years). The island is a long hop, skip and jump from Darwin though!


Day 5 - Grassy and south.


Today is our last day and once we have packed and moved out we have 6 hours left to explore the southwest corner of the island, starting with breakfast at the acclaimed Wild Harvest in Grassy. The restaurant is built from recycled materials.


Unusually for King Island it is foggy on the east coast, mostly the westerly winds blow across the island and fog doesn’t have a chance to linger. The King Island Farmer’s breakfast is delicious and sets us up for the day. There are extensive views over the Grassy wharf and harbour from Wild Harvest as well as the abandoned open-cut scheelite mine.






Scheelite is an ore closely related to tungsten (wolfram). The King Island deposit was discovered in 1911 and mining began in 1917. The mine’s fortunes fluctuated for the next 70 years, flourishing during World War 2 and the Korean and Vietnam Wars and languishing during peacetime.  Grassy was a company town dependent on the fortunes of the mine and during the boom times boasted a population of approximately 700 people and enjoyed facilities including a picture theatre, tennis, basketball and badminton courts, a nine-hole golf course, squash courts and an indoor heated swimming pool. Low scheelite prices in the 1980s forced the mine to close in 1990 and the processing facilities and infrastructure was removed, the town site was sold and the open cut mine was allowed to flood.




The port is the main area of activity in Grassy today with a once a week shipping service between King Island and Tasmania. We walked around a headland which is home to a large Little Penguin colony.




Members of the sailing club spent the morning on the water.




A pair of Common Pheasants lurked around the harbour turn-off and a Brush Bronzewing rested on the grass at the roadside. Bennett's Wallabies are abundant in the south of the island.




We had just enough time to visit the picturesque City of Melbourne Bay named after the wreck of the City of Melbourne.  The overcast day didn’t do this sheltered inlet justice - it would be pleasant on a sunny day.




A pair of Pied Oystercatchers picked through the kelp and we rock-hopped out to a small point before hot-footing it back to Currie airport for the flight home. 






This colourful garden was the last reminder of "Spring on King."









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thanks for this lovely TR on a place we are unlikely to visit. really sad to hear about the extinction of the sea elephants. I had hoped to hear perhaps they had returned but that's just a hopeless thought. 

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