King Island: King’s banquet

By Andrew Bain June 23, 2009
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Amid the constant onslaught of the Roaring Forties, King Island remains rustic and isolated, yet with a powerful export industry and a unique community spirit.

ON KING ISLAND, THINGS and people don’t always conform to type. A school bus driver can also be a horse trainer, postie and undertaker. A music teacher can trap rainwater and sell it to the world’s finest restaurant.

A man can buy an entire town, and north-facing beaches can draw their surf from the south. At race meetings, thoroughbreds and pacers share the card. In winter, three teams make up perhaps the country’s smallest football competition. Even the island, although aligned politically with Tasmania, looks unconventionally elsewhere. Named in 1801 after NSW Governor Philip King, Bass Strait’s second-largest island is regarded by many of its 1800 residents as almost an outlying suburb of Melbourne. Its exports are shipped to Melbourne and the cheapest flights head there. When people travel off the island, they usually go to Melbourne, which is less than an hour’s flight away.

“My best mate lived in Portland,” abalone diver Grant Jordan says. “I’d hate to live there because it’s a four-hour drive to Melbourne, whereas here it’s an hour to fly.”

But when ranger-in-charge Shelley Davison looks over King Island, a land hunched low against some of the world’s roughest ocean waters, she sees a place that’s purely Tasmanian.

“To me, King Island is like Tasmania in miniature,” she says, waving an arm across the white sands and momentarily flat sea at Lavinia Beach, in the far north-east of the island. “There’s the rugged, rocky west coast and then these long beaches in the east.” The former is a jumble of rock that occasionally softens into sand; the latter a streak of sand that occasionally hardens into rock.

Shelley guides me to some of the island’s natural treasures in 6800 ha Lavinia State Reserve, King Island’s largest protected area: Pennys Lagoon, a rare perched lake (it’s above the water table); Tasmania’s longest parallel dunes and the State’s largest stand of swamp paperbark (until it was burned in 2007). To the south, Seal Rocks State Reserve contains a calcified forest and sections of sheared-off cliff that rest in a fury of white water.

But for most outsiders, a visit to King Island is not about nature or landscape, it’s about food. There are natural delights here but, according to ranger Nigel Burgess, “nothing exotic, nothing erotic”. ?Instead, what draws most people to Bass Strait’s most remote island can be written on a shopping list: cheese, beef, yoghurt, crayfish, abalone, bottled water.

A life of luxury

(Photo: Bill Bachman)

Pottery studio of Caroline Kininmonth View Gallery

In 1802, King Island’s first surveyor, Lieutenant John Murray, looked over a wilderness with thousands of elephant seals lolling on beaches and forest smothering the land, and predicted the future. “Thus we take leave of this large and fine island where the benevolent hand of providence has fixed the chief necessities of life and the means to procure some of its luxuries,” he wrote with remarkable foresight about an island that wouldn’t be settled for another 86 years.

Today the elephant seals are gone – hunted almost to extinction in just three years – and so is most of the forest, but the luxuries are in abundance on this island where even place names read like a menu. There’s Pearshape Lagoon and Egg Lagoon Creek. Currie is the main town, and at Porky Beach, the white sands and blue waters match the moulds inside the renowned cheese dairy on its shores.

Premium produce drives the island’s economy, generating more than half its annual $60 million income and employing two-thirds of its 1000-strong workforce. King Island Dairy is the largest employer.

“When I came to the factory it was still in a very early stage of specialty cheese making,” says Swiss-born head cheese maker Ueli Berger, who 10 years ago swapped mainland Tasmania for this small and isolated island. “I learned cheese making in my homeland and emigrated to Australia in 1975, aged 19. The product was very inconsistent and I saw a big opportunity to improve what was already here. It was a lot of hard work the first few years but I’m very proud of where we are now.”

Which is no small boast. Cheese has been made on the island since 1902, though for more than 80 years its mozzarella-style and Emmenthaler (Swiss-style cheese) struggled to compete against larger Tasmanian and mainland producers. In the mid-1980s King Island Dairy shifted production to specialty cheeses. Today it commands about 25–30 per cent of Australia’s specialty cheese market, racking up double-digit growth almost every year since Ueli began  as cheese maker. “What we have to understand is that being an island, everything is very expensive,” Ueli says. “Just making a commodity product, you can’t compete, so you have to produce something special.”

This business model has permeated the island’s food industry. Slapped by the elements, King Island is a harsh land where tough people craft, conversely, delicate flavours and fine food. Cloud Juice, the rainwater trapped and bottled on the island, is sold into five- and six-star hotels around the world. King Island crayfish and abalone grace tanks and plates in fine restaurants along the east coast of Australia, and market research has shown King Island beef to have the highest brand awareness nationwide.

“The cattle are a bit like us on King Island,” beef farmer Fred Perry says as he drives through axle-high summer pasture of rye-grass, clover and fescue. “They lead a good life. That’s where the tenderness comes from.”

This is the sort of rampant grassland that legend credits to seeds washed up inside a shipwrecked sailor’s mattress, though Fred discounts tales of luck: “The dairy industry might go on the legacy of the grass seeds in the mattress, but the beef industry’s on the legacy of the pastures sown for the soldier settlers.”

Fred, the son of one of the 161 veterans allocated blocks of land on the island after World War II, is among King Island’s most respected beef farmers, with local menus boasting about “Perry beef” much as mainland restaurants proclaim King Island beef. Born into dairy farming, he’s part of a shift that’s seen cattle numbers grow in line with the island’s beef reputation. In the 1950s the island had 8000 beef cattle; today it has about 110,000 – some 20 per cent of Tasmania’s beef herd on an island that represents less than 2 per cent of the State’s land mass.

“I think there were once 150 suppliers of dairy and now there are 20,” Fred says. “And there were probably 20 beef farmers and there’s now something like 130. It’s the predominant industry here now.”

Wind and water

Crossed by the 40th parallel south – and its infamous Roaring Forties – King Island is a grid of farmland and windbreaks, as flat and geometric as a chessboard. Roadside paperbarks are scoured bare by wind, and outside Currie, the blades of five turbines turn cartwheels at Tasmania’s first wind farm, producing about 35 per cent of the island’s energy needs. In the island’s south, Duncan McFie looks over a section of polyethylene roof crumpled by 110 km/h winds last September.

“A friend of mine who used to live here was in a cyclone in Cairns,” Duncan says. “I asked her what it was like and she said, ‘really it was just like a rough day on King Island’.”

This roof is Duncan’s office: 400 sq. m of polyethylene on which he captures the rain that hurries through on the world’s cleanest air – an official declaration by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology – selling about 150,000 hand-polished bottles of Cloud Juice each year into luxury markets throughout the world. In Britain, newspapers have called it the country’s most expensive water, with a 750 mL bottle selling for the equivalent of $18 in London’s five-star Claridge’s hotel. It’s on the menu at the restaurant that has been judged as the best in the world, El Bulli, on Spain’s Costa Brava. Not bad for a bloke who still teaches music three days a week at the local school.

“I have a great life,” Duncan says. “If the business could have me full-time, would I ditch teaching for it? Don’t know.”

A short drive from the roof, Charles Arnold’s coastal home all but rests against the 40th parallel. He says the property is named Stillwater because of its springs, not in jest at the fuming ocean below. Charles is King Island’s mayor, and an accidental one at that. Holidaying in 1987 from north Queensland, he expected King Island to have taxis and an abundance of hire cars. Finding neither, he took up a real estate agent’s offer of an island tour and finished up buying 240 ha Stillwater, with its unbroken view along the coast to the distant Currie Harbour Lighthouse.

Eight years later, after a stint as a director in a London architectural practice, Charles and wife Julie moved to King Island, building a solar- and wind-powered home in the scrub, a short stroll above ocean rock pools filled with a personal larder of crayfish and abalone. It’s given him a first-hand appreciation for King Island’s gourmet gifts.

“I tell you what, it makes it easy to be the mayor of King Island,” he says. “Mention the island and the doors fly open; take some cheese with me and I can get in anywhere.”

However, he’s also aware of the gulf between the perception about King Island and the reality, for it can be easier to find King Island food off the island than on it. The 1800 residents and approximately 9000 visitors a year do not create a worthwhile market, so almost all of the island’s produce is shipped offshore.

“Tourism is the major industry we need to pick up,” Charles says. “The problem is there’s not enough tourism to get enough market to make the food work well.”

Others share the concern. “The food is what we’re famous for; what else is there?” Duncan says. “And people come here wanting the food and can’t get it. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d put an El Bulli-esque restaurant here. I’m not saying it would have to be the best in the world but I’d put a restaurant here that people came solely for.”

Martha’s magic

Before food, King Island was all but defined by shipwrecks. More than 100 vessels have been torn apart on its rocks and reefs, resulting in hundreds of deaths. In Australia’s worst peacetime maritime disaster, 400 people perished when the emigrant ship  Cataraqui broke up on rocks south of Currie in 1845.

Today, three lighthouses flicker along King Island’s edges, including 48 m-high Cape Wickham, the tallest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere, and the very conditions that once drove ships aground now lure surfers out to sea. South-west swells wrap around the island like a frigid hug, but nowhere more famously or fiercely than at Lavinia Beach in the north-east, where the break (which is called Martha, supposedly after a shipwreck) was once rated among the world’s top 10 waves by Surfing Life magazine. World champions Kelly Slater, Sunny Garcia and Tom Carroll have surfed here, and in 2000 the world’s first tow-in championship was held on the island.

Jeremy Curtain, the man who first surfed the beach 40 years ago, lives above a Currie cafe, in a flat staring along the town’s nondescript main street.

“We were up there fishing and saw the surf,” Jeremy says. “We used to surf beaches north of there, but we’d never been down to Martha because the access was really bad – we had to bush-bash through in an old Holden. We had the place to ourselves all through the ’70s and ’80s, just us and blokes we worked with down the [scheelite] mine [at Grassy].” Even today, crowded waves are nonexistent, with only about 25 surfers on the island. It’s an unwritten rule that if you go to one beach and someone’s there, you move on.

Local kids are being encouraged into the waves, with youth development officer Chris Green buying a dozen or so boards. There are plenty of children looking for things to do. Almost 200 are enrolled at the island’s district school, which offers K–10 classes as well as limited studies for years 11 and 12. Last summer, two residents, including 25-year-old Nick Johannsohn, trained as surf instructors.

“The main focus is to get things for local kids to do because there’s not a lot for them over here,” says Nick, who works for the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research, monitoring King Island’s 500,000-plus wallaby population. With word of Martha’s surf percolating through the seas, Nick imagines a day when Chris’s boards might also be used as part of a surf school for visitors.

“There’s a lot of potential for that sort of operation,” Nick says. “This is only the start of things. Hopefully it will gain momentum after a couple of years.”

The sport of kings

At the King Island races, blue singlets mingle with frilly racing frocks, cold beer with bubbly. The grandstand is a grassed sand dune and a stable of horses is scratched because a jockey is sunburnt. Ian Johnson has trained his two thoroughbreds into last-place finishes, a result he shrugs off during a chat in the stables as only marginally less successful than his gamble of buying the entire King Island town of Grassy when it closed its scheelite mine in the early 1990s.

“I’m still paying for that disaster, if you want to call it that, but I’m here because of the lifestyle,” Ian says. “Coming up with the $1.2 million was easy. It was the ridiculous figures that came after it – the town planners, the engineers, the infrastructure.”

At its mining peak, the company town was home to about 1300 people and, supposedly, the highest alcohol consumption per capita in Australia. After the mine closed, the population fell to four, all but abandoning the town to Bennett’s wallabies, short-tailed shearwaters and little penguins. Slowly, Ian sold most of the 130 homes, some for as little as $13,000, and the population has rebounded to about 120. Ballarat Clarendon College has created a Grassy campus, where Year 9 students spend a school term. The island’s best restaurant lurks inside the low-key Grassy Club, and approval has been granted to reopen the scheelite mine in search of tungsten. Things are green again in Grassy.

“Realistically, it’s been a good-news story for King Island, though not so much for myself in monetary gain,” Ian says. “King Island’s been good to me, but if you stop the average Joe Blow and ask, ‘where’s King Island?’ he’ll say, ‘That’s where all that good food comes from; isn’t it off the coast of Queensland?’

“If I could do anything to help King Island it’d be to let the world know that it’s in the middle of Bass Strait and it’s a wonderful place to visit. It takes money to beat that drum, so we’re fortunate that we’ve had a couple of industries that have helped put us on the map.”

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 95 (Jul – Sep 2009)