A look back at Kangaroo Island

By Paul Mann 16 June 2010
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One-time pirate fortress, this rugged southern Australian island has some intriguing tales to share.

Published in AG Issue 10 April/June 1988.  Read more about Kangaroo Island in the latest issue of Australian Geographic.

WORD WAS OUT AROUND the island. The defects man was back. Within an hour every road was deserted. Not a car, truck or motorbike was moving and the only sounds along the empty country lanes were the hissing of the wind through the bracken and the distant grumble of the surf. If there’s one thing everybody fears on Kangaroo Island it’s the annual visit by the defects man.

The defects man is the hapless South Australian policeman rostered at random to make the half-hour flight from Adelaide to spend a few days checking island vehicles for mechanical defects. A bald tyre, a broken tail-light or a few slashes of rust on the bodywork and the defects man is there to slap a notice on the windshield, a defects notice which dictates the vehicle must be taken off the road immediately and kept off it until repairs are carried out. Failure to comply means jail, and only a policeman can remove the notice after approving the repairs.

On Kangaroo Island almost nobody has a vehicle without some kind of defect. “It’s the salt air:’ explained Peter Telfer, former cray fisherman, abalone and salvage diver turned charter operator. “It eats through metal in no time. The salt air and the rough island roads are very hard on cars. That’s why everybody ducks for cover when they know the defects man is around.”

Traditionally, the islanders used their CB grapevine for a few days to track the defects man and travelled the back roads to avoid him. But this time he stayed for six weeks, and when he left hardly anything with wheels and an engine on the island’s 1600 kilometres of roads had escaped his attention. The island’s five garages did a roaring trade. One truckie had four trucks from his fleet of five in for repairs while farmers waited angrily for their wool to be hauled to the island’s freight terminal in Kingscote for shipment to the mainland.

When the defects man had finally gone, dark threats were muttered around the front bar of the Queenscliff Hotel, where deep-sea fishermen, abalone divers, deckhands and farmhands gather on Friday nights to mull over island affairs.

“One day,” grizzled the man standing next to me, his jowls coated with silvery stubble, head polished to jarrah by the weather, “one day that bloke is going right over a cliff.”

He was having me on. I think. You can never be sure on Kangaroo Island. Earning a living here has always been hard and it makes people hard – people who treasure their independence and like to keep a barrier between themselves and authority. Which is why they choose to live on an island. They are free from the irritations of the mainland: smog, crime, traffic jams, parking meters and the increasingly pervasive intrusion of bureaucracy -like the defects man into everyday life.

Kangaroo Island has the cliffs too. Cliffs to put a stab of fear in your heart just by looking at them; cliffs that rear 200 metres from the surf in some places. Ramparts of shining stone haughtily indifferent to the tantrums of the Southern Ocean which has hurled so many shipwrecks in tribute at their jagged feet. These terrifying cliffs have helped define the character of Kangaroo Island. They make it a natural fortress. They discourage the fainthearted, are merciless to the foolhardy and encourage a siege mentality in those who live there.

Beyond those fortress walls I also found it to be a place of surprising romance, great spectacle … and drama. Drama most Australians would never imagine could come from these chill, grey southern waters. Drama to rival all the swashbuckling sea stories to sail out of the Caribbean with the buccaneers of another era. Because it was not always just a natural island fortress. Kangaroo Island was also a pirate fortress.

VIEWED FROM ABOVE, KANGAROO Island resembles a giant turtle swimming eastward across the mouth of Gulf St Vincent. It is Australia’s third largest island after Tasmania and Melville. With most of its beaches along the north shore and its great cliffs along the south it looks rather like a half-submerged wedge, and visitors are invariably surprised by its size -156 km long, 57 km wide at its widest, barely 1 km at its narrowest where the turtle’s head joins its body, and 4409 sq. km of land mass.

Officially it was discovered by Matthew Flinders in March 1802, during a mapping expedition aboard the Investigator. He named it Kangaroo Island because of the many kangaroos he saw and it was subsequently colonised in 1836 by the South Australian Company, a private venture formed to encourage investment in the new province.

Unofficially, the island was discovered at least a decade before Flinders by freebooting British, French and American whalers. Shanghaied from the waterfront taverns and bordellos of Europe and the Americas, the crews of these ships were little more than cutthroats. Shipboard discipline often meant flogging, food was awful, conditions appalling, the work was hard and dangerous and there was no pay – only a share of the ship’s catch, if it made any. It’s hardly surprising that men jumped ship on an island with a good water supply and teeming with game.

Kangaroo Island was big enough to accommodate dozens of these runaways and it did. They were joined by escaped convicts from New South Wales and Tasmania, some of whom brought abducted Aboriginal women, called “lubras”, with them. These renegades traded seal and kangaroo skins with passing ships for rum, tobacco, firearms, tools and other necessities.

One, a black American nicknamed “Abyssinian Jack”, used his lubras as slaves to scrape salt from the island’s two principal salt lagoons which he traded to visiting skippers who used it to preserve animal hides. Another, George “Fireball” Bates (so-called because of his flaming red hair and whiskers), deserted from the Royal Navy and led murderous raids on mainland villages for the handsome women of the coastal Narinyerri tribe. Legend says one of these women escaped by swimming 14 km back to the mainland with her baby clinging to her neck.

Around the waterfront in Hobart and Sydney the islanders were known as Straitsmen, from Investigator Strait which separates the north shore of the island from the boot of Yorke Peninsula. They were also less flatteringly called “sea rats”, and clad in wallaby skin moccasins and smelly kangaroo hides they looked the part.

The worst of these sea rats was John “Black Jack” Williams, an Englishman reputed to have murdered an entire ship’s crew stranded near Port Lincoln. It was Black Jack who first used the island’s cliffs as a means of enforcing discipline. One of his men, a Portuguese mulatto known only as Antonio, had talked too much about Black Jack’s affairs to a visiting ship’s crew. Days later Antonio was lowered over a high cliff to skin some seals spotted basking on the rocks below. After sending the skins aloft Antonio began his long haul back, only to be told as he neared the top that he had wagged his tongue once too often. Black Jack cut the rope.

Major Lockyer’s report in 1827 warned that the Kangaroo Island pirates had become so numerous, well armed and bold that it would soon be dangerous for even a heavily armed vessel to venture past its shores.

Britain had already earmarked the island for colonisation to discourage any grand designs by the French or Americans along Australia’s vast, unprotected southern coast with its vital sea lanes from Cape Hope to Sydney. Spurred by Lockyer’s warnings the British dispatched a company of soldiers and at the end of 1827 the worst of the Straits’ pirates were taken back to Port Jackson in chains.

Of no more than half a dozen Straitsmen left behind, one, Nat Thomas, a former seaman-turned-farmer who sold fresh vegetables to passing ships, had brought his own woman to the island, a Tasmanian Aborigine he called Bette. The last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine to die in Tasmania is thought to have been the celebrated Truganini in 1876. But the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine to die may have been Bette Thomas, on Kangaroo Island in 1878.

On a sparkling island morning 109 years after Bette’s death, I sat down for a yarn with Mavis Golder, Nat and Bette’s great-great granddaughter. “I found out only a few years ago that I have Tasmanian Aborigine blood in me,’ said 66-year-old Mavis, a small, plump woman with a shy smile and eyes like shiny black buttons. “I think it makes me a bit special, don’t you?”

We were sitting in the kitchen of Mavis’s comfy, cluttered home behind the Kangaroo Island ice works, which her father built in 1934. At the back door a sheep named Chops nibbled the lawn. Most of Mavis’s forebears were subsistence farmers but her father was a fisherman who built the island’s only ice works after tiring of watching his catch rot before it could reach the Adelaide market. Today, Mavis and her husband Les are retired although Les, a quiet, roundish man with white mutton chop whiskers, still likes to tinker with the improbable 1940s vintage Hornsby & Sons petrol engines from Grantham, England, which look like giant sewing machines and keep the old freezers thrumming.

The couple have three sons and it was their eldest, Michael, 38, an amateur historian, who dug up the family’s fascinating ancestry. It seems Nat Thomas and Bette had three children, including Mary, born in 1833. Mary had a son, Joseph, and he had a daughter, Annie. “Annie was my mum:’ Mavis said proudly.” And I think that makes me one-sixteenth Tasmanian Aborigine. I do know that Mary used to sing to her children and my grandfather, Joseph, remembered some of the songs!’

Michael confirmed: “We know an anthropologist spent some time with Joseph back in the 1930s and traced the words of the songs back to Tasmanian Aboriginal dialect … but it’s all lost now!’

Mavis left the kitchen and returned a moment later with a box full of papers and yellowing snapshots. She laid them on the table and pointed to a picture of an elderly woman with unmistakably Aboriginal features, wearing late Victorian dress.

“That was Mary,” she said. “My great-grandmother. She was three years old when the settlers from the South Australian Company got here in 1836 thinking they were the first. I reckon they got a shock when they ran into Nat and ‘Bette’ and their kiddies. Mary died in 1913 in her 80th year and she’s buried here on the island.”

About 400 settlers landed from the Duke of York on 27 July 1836. They set up a makeshift town of sailcloth tents and prefabricated wooden huts on the grassy slopes overlooking the Bay of Shoals on the north-eastern comer of the island – pioneers for Australia’s first colony to be founded by free men and women. The town was called Kingscote after Henry Kingscote, a director of the South Australian Company who suspected the venture was doomed to failure.

He was right. There was nowhere near enough fresh water to support 400 people and the land was so saturated with salt that large-scale farming was impossible. The other main intended industries, whaling and sealing, were no longer viable because the whales and seals of the Southern Ocean had already been hunted to the edge of extinction.

It was Colonel William Light, South Australia’s first surveyor-general, who solved the colonists’ dilemma. Light bowled up five months after the landing at Kingscote and ordered the colony to a promising new spot he’d surveyed on the mainland and which he’d decided to name Adelaide. The settlers gratefully decamped and the colony of South Australia was proclaimed on 28 December 1836. Kangaroo Island was left in peace for more than a century.

Curiously, the lubras brought to the island by their abductors were the first Aborigines to set foot on it for thousands of years. It is only in the past few decades that remnants have been found of a primitive stone age occupation: grinding-stones and spear-heads. Aborigines were marooned by risings seas at the end of the last Ice Age, but best estimates say these first islanders died out between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. Why they expired on an island so rich in game remains a mystery. The Narinyerri people on the mainland called the island Karta, for old woman’s place, and Narungawai – hunting place of the dead. 

WOKEN ONE MORNING BY a shaft of sun light in my eyes, I glanced through the window of the beach shack we had borrowed and did a classic double take. The sea was boiling. I blinked, looked again and the sea was still boiling. I dressed and hurried outside onto the low, limestone cliffs overlooking the white, sandy bay. At the foot of the cliffs South West River emptied sluggishly into the bay, its water the colour of strong tea from the rotting vegetation it carried. Once in open water, the river seemed unsure of its destination and coiled into a big, rusty question mark against the hard blue-greens of the ocean shallows. It was one of those winter mornings when the air has a cold, gem-like clarity, except that in the middle of the bay great roiling clouds of steam were gently composing themselves into fantastic shapes over an eerily still ocean.

I walked to the furthermost point of land to cliffs about 20 m above the water, my breath frosting in the cold air, and looked out at one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen. From east to west across the great sweep of Hanson Bay ghostly regiments were marching silently out from the shore in perfect military columns to do battle with spectral armies waiting mistily on the horizon. All around me there was this unnatural calm, the only sounds were the slap of water on rocks below and the occasional cry of a vexed gull.

The explanation was simple enough. Currents of water at Antarctic temperature had been forced to the surface by underlying coastal thermals and had begun to vaporise on contact with the air. The effect was eerily beautiful and served to emphasise the sense of melodrama that surrounds the island, its bloody beginnings, stark grandeur and volatile meteorology. Kangaroo Island is no lush tropic, or even semi-tropic, resort island. With its glowering cliffs of limestone and coagulated magma, its storm-blasted coastal scrub and inland pastoral charm, it has the same tough romanticism as all those other places around the Earth where character has been defined by big, bad tempered oceans, like the Atlantic coastlines of Ireland, Cornwall and Newfoundland.

“We’d gone out to the west coast to do some abalone diving,” said 45-year-old Gifford Chapman, whose family settled on the island as farmers in 1858. “We anchored in West Bay with about half-a-dozen cray boats and went aboard the Storm Eagle for tea. Fresh abalone and cray with champagne … very nice. We were back on our boat, a 20-foot Caribbean reef runner, when a big westerly blew up about two in the morning. The cray boats took off and left us to it. We rode it out at anchor till dawn, hoping it would blow through – but it didn’t. By that time the waves were running, oh, four, maybe five metres high. Things were looking decidedly bloody dirty, so we decided to make a run for it, up past those big cliffs around Cape Borda into the lee shore. It took us a while and it was hairy, but we got there. I’ve been caught a couple of times like that. You learn to be careful working these waters because things can get nasty very bloody quickly. It’s just the way it is!’

Gifford would be well aware of what could have happened to him as he battled past those cliffs; he wrote the only book about the island’s 60 known shipwrecks and has dived on most of them. Kingscote’s modest museum is brimming with old bottles, china, pots and pans, pintles, anchors and other relics he has recovered over the years.

We were sitting in the living room of Gifford’s showpiece farmhouse, the jewel in the crown of the 688-hectare sheep property he bought when he sold his abalone licence in 1983 for $180,000. The same licence would fetch anything from $700,000 to $800,000 today in South Australia’s strictly controlled abalone industry, limited to 35 licences. With good green lip abalone fetching up to $70 a kilo in Tokyo, the best divers can gross over $300,000 a year. “And they earn every cent they get:’ said Gifford. “It takes a bit of nerve to get into 70, 80 ffeett of cold, dirty water with visibility maybe 5 feett and a heavy swell running.”

Gifford never used a shark cage when he dived. “You couldn’t use them on the south coast,” he said. “All the best abs are up against the cliffs and there’s always a bit of a surge throwing you around so you can’t use a cage. There have been times I’ve been thrown around so hard I’ve had my mask ripped off. I’ve had my air hose cut off at 90 feet. After 15 years I decided I’d had enough. I’m a farmer now. I like being a farmer better.”

Farming offers a good living on Kangaroo Island now, with wool, fat lambs and beef the biggest money spinners, but that’s a recent development. Island soils have always lacked essential trace elements and it wasn’t until the CSIRO laced the land with super phosphates and anchored the soil down with clover just after World War II that serious farming could be attempted.

Until then the islanders tried anything and everything to make a living. Pit props were cut for the Moonta copper mines on Yorke Peninsula, salt was taken from the lagoons, basalt rock was mined for mainland roads, kangaroos and wallabies were trapped for their skins, gold and silver were mined briefly, and gypsum was mined until 1986. All flourished and faded, but the two most esoteric industries were yacca cutting and the distilling of eucalyptus oil. Acaroid, the gum from the yacca tree, also known as the blackboy or grasstree, was used in varnishes and explosives. Eucalyptus oil was distilled from the oil-rich narrow-leaf gum into a pungent coffee-coloured potion claimed to cure everything from arthritis to impotence.

It was yacca cutting that got Ivan and Joy Davis through the first hard years on their property in the wild, western-most reaches of the island. A Methodist home missionary, Ivan was sent to Kingscote to replace a minister serving overseas with the troops during the war. Ivan says God told him to farm the western end of the island, speaking “as plain and as clear in my mind as you’re speaking to me now”. At that time the island’s population was barely 1000 – the first motor car didn’t make it to the lighthouse at Cape du Couedic until 1945.

Ivan doesn’t look like pioneering stock. He’s 66 now, white-haired and slender and has the most delightfully self-conscious smile while he tells the story. Yet he took his wife and two infant children into the scrub in 1947 with only an axe, half a ton of corrugated iron, two cows and a staghound.

“We lived in an iron shed 16 ft square,” says Joy, still handsome at 63. “We hung flour sacks to divide the hut into three rooms and slept on sacks filled with bracken. We snared kangaroos, wild pigs and wallabies for food and used the skins to cover the furniture. All the bones and leftovers were dug into the vegetable garden for fertiliser. Nothing was wasted!’ Ivan and Joy raised six children on the 750 acres (300 ha) of virgin mallee scrub they bought for 10 shillings an acre, but no matter how rough things were, every Sunday Joy dressed the family up and went for a walk.

“One Sunday I was with the children and we saw this bird fly into a creek pool,” recalls Joy. “We hadn’t had any meat for a while and when the bird tried to fly out we beat it back with our hands until it drowned. I don’t know what kind of bird it was, just a big grey bird, but it made a good Sunday dinner. Lots of things taste good when you’re hungry.”

Today Ivan and Joy are retired and live in Parndana, in the middle of the island, while their second-oldest son, Peter, 40, runs the family property, now 930 ha, and a prospering merino wool farm. Parndana is a sleepy township of perhaps 500, but just after the war it was a boom town, the focus on the island of the War Service Land Resettlement Scheme. Returning soldiers claiming their 1400-acre blocks under the scheme really opened up Kangaroo Island.

One of them was Bert Telfer, a digger who served with the AIF in North Africa. Bert brought his wife Edna and their sons Donald, 5 and Peter, 7, to the island in 1957. While the ex-servicemen worked in rotation clearing each other’s land, they lived with their families in buildings from a prisoner-of-war camp for Italians in Loveday, on the Murray River in SA, which had been dismantled and reassembled in Parndana.

Now 73, Bert sold his property in 1984 for $320,000. He was one of the luckier ones. For many reasons – bad luck, bad judgment, bad management or a bit of all three – many soldier settlers never made a go of it, wound up way over their heads in debt and, in one of the sorriest chapters in modern Australian history, were evicted from their properties.

Today there are only 17 soldier settlers still residing on their land of the 280 who moved to the island in the 20 years following the war. The land, however, has been tamed. Only the 803 sq. km of Flinders Chase, proclaimed one of the world’s first conservation areas in 1919, remain native scrub.

The population of Kangaroo Island hovers around 4000, held constant by slow migration from the mainland that replaces the steady trickle of youngsters leaving the island in search of work or adventure. The second-biggest money-spinner after farming is tourism, with around 50,000 visitors a year coming to see the Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals that have repopulated the coastline, and to enjoy the peace and beauty of the island’s relatively pristine condition.

The hottest debate on the island now is the issue of tourist management. But, as Neville Cordes, founder and editor of the local daily newspaper, The Islander, confirms: “Everybody knows there’s a problem; everybody knows something has to be done … but nobody knows what.”

Thus far the island has been protected by the expense and inconvenience of getting to it. It may only be 14km across the “firebreak” (as some old-timers refer to Backstairs Passage, which separates the island from Cape Jervis), but until 1961 the only sea link was the ketch Karatta. It was replaced by the government car ferry, Troubridge, operating from Port Adelaide and which has since been supplemented by the privately owned car ferry Philanderer 3, running from Cape Jervis. The Troubridge has been replaced by the super ferry Island Seaway, which should substantially increase the flow of visitors. Three airlines already operate daily flights. 

The tourism debate has settled into a three-way battle between local government, which means Dudley Council at Penneshaw and the much larger and dominant Kingscote Council, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and private enterprise. Three years ago Kingscote Council rejected a proposal for a garish resort that islanders regarded as out of tune with the local environment. Since then they have become concerned that NPWS will go over their heads with its own ideas, which include a caravan park in Flinders Chase.

“We’re worried that if we’re not careful the very reasons people come here – the peace, the quiet and the natural attractions – will be destroyed by unwise development,” says Kingscote’s Mayor, Mrs Judith Morris.

“Tourists come here for the way it is now and while we want them to be comfortable and to have good food and accommodation while they’re here; we do not want Gold Coast-type development. It’s not that kind of island!’

The NPWS Department of Environment and Planning meanwhile has come up with a hefty draft management plan that sets out its own proposals, including preservation and development in co-operation with private enterprise.

“We’re already under pressure from private developers,” says Fraser Vickery, the island’s chief ranger. “We believe development is desirable; we believe it is inevitable. The department doesn’t have the funds to do it on its own – therefore we think it is better if we work with private enterprise to develop in a way that blends with the island’s natural environment!’

Bert Telfer’s son Peter, now 37 and married with two young children, belongs to a new generation of islander who also believes change is inevitable. Peter made a living as a cray fisherman for 11 years and an abalone and marine salvage diver, and he now works as a marine salvage contractor. He is easing into tourism by jointly chartering his 48-ft former cray boat Wave Dancer to diving and fishing groups and operating 4WD expeditions. He also hopes to turn a farm he part-owns at Middle River into a low-key resort with bush cabins, a prototype for the kind of development he hopes will be acceptable to island sensibilities.

Before returning to marry and settle on the island, Peter spent a few years working his way around the world. “When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to get away from the place,” he said as we walked up to one of the 60-m cliffs on the 108-ha farm at Middle River. “But something brought me back. Wherever I went in the world I never saw anywhere that was better.”

We walked through thick bracken, saltbush, scrubby coastal mallee and narrow-leaf gums, dwarfed to bonsai proportions by the cold fury of the southern gales. Below the cliffs the ocean sulked and surged like the mob around the walls of the Bastille.

In a keyhole bay the water was already milky with foam. The light changed rapidly as clouds flickered past the sun – one moment we were bathed in the brief glow of artificial summer, the next in the bleak cold of the approaching storm. The first drops of rain stung our eyes and we leaned toward the edge of the cliff against the buffeting wind.

Peter has been involved in most of the searches and body retrievals from recent shipwrecks. The men drowned when their boats were swamped or smashed on the rocks by storms as sudden as this. And Peter knew most of these victims. A couple were good mates. Still, when the storm passes, Peter always goes out to sea again.

“You remember the good times,” he says, “those days when you’ve anchored with a few mates off some beach you can only reach by water, and you have a game of cricket on the sand and then barbie a few fresh cray. One of those days when the sun is shining and there’s 80-90 foot vis’ in the water.”

He hesitated a moment, and added: “If you work on the water long enough you get to read the weather and you know your limits, what your boat can handle. On those days that you know you can’t handle it you don’t go out. There’s no shame in that. But on one of those days when it’s perfect … it’s that good you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. I suppose I’ve had enough good days that they outnumber the bad. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”