Land, rediscovered

By Fleur Bainger 20 October 2016
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Four hundred years ago a Dutch explorer made landfall on WA’s remote coastline at Dirk Hartog Island. Alongside this year’s commemorative events, a unique ecological project aims to restore the state’s biggest isle to the wilderness it was in 1616.

ON A LONE, limestone-capped strech of the West Australian coast, all that remains of an off-course explorer’s chance encounter with our continent 400 years ago is a weathered wooden post. Few have seen, let alone heard, of the humble sign, which marks the spot where Dutch East India Company captain Dirk Hartog had his moment in world history.

Rowing ashore, Hartog made his way up the pale sand and crumbling, salmon-pink cliffs to become the first European known to land on Australia’s west coast. He nailed an inscribed pewter plate to signify the occasion. It was 25 October 1616 – 154 years before Captain James Cook claimed Australia’s eastern side for Britain.

The Dutchman and crew of the Eendracht had been returning to the trade port of Batavia (now Jakarta), when they overshot the fast southern route, ending up at what is today called Cape Inscription, in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area. His chart of this stretch, roughly halfway up Western Australia, filled in blanks on the emerging world maps and inspired a completely new understanding of what was then the mythical Terra Australis ­Incognita – the unknown southern land.

The spot where he made landfall is about as remote as it gets. The only way to reach the far north-western point of Dirk Hartog Island in 2016 is via boat, or by taking a barge from the mainland, then crawling in a four-wheel-drive for at least three hours over violent corrugations and eroded potholes. The lonely views are rewarding: tickled by a glistening ocean, Cape Inscription’s transparent waters are mottled in ­iridescent aqua and Prussian blue. Giant manta rays wing their way through the Indian Ocean, sharks swarm and loggerhead turtles lift their heads to breathe, migrating from one of the threatened species’ most important nesting grounds.

Aerial footage of beautiful Dirk Hartog Island. (Credit: Andrew Gregory)

During migration, thousands of whales pass by, and dugongs come to feed on seagrasses. Back from the cliffs, low, khaki scrub speckles the landform’s flat crust like patchy stubble, and peach-hued soil illuminates the cracks. The lighthouse, erected in 1908, acts as a beacon both to neighbouring Turtle Bay’s calm waters, and to Hartog’s historic post, along with another added by Willem de Vlamingh some 81 years later. In 1697 Vlamingh was sent to navigate the south-western coast of New Holland (Australia) and replaced his predecessor’s plate with a new one, copying Hartog’s inscription and adding a record of his own arrival. It wasn’t the last “I was here” proclamation to be made. A natural anchorage, it was popular with subsequent explorers – Dutch, English and French – and went on to become one of pre-settlement Australia’s most frequented outposts.

These days, just one resident family calls the island home, and only 15 vehicles are allowed onto the 80 x 10km piece of wilderness at any one time, making it tempting to imagine little has changed since Hartog’s stopover. The scars of human activity seem minimal – ruler-straight dirt roads, barely cleared camping spots with basic shelters, an airstrip and the lighthouse keeper’s cottage are the only obvious markers. But it’s the ripple effect of human interaction with the remote island and its delicate ecosystem that is currently being tackled by a $16.3 million project called Return to 1616.

WHEN HARTOG came upon Australia’s westernmost point, subfossils show there were 13 mammal species there. Today, there are just three. Human activity, from pastoralism and pearling to whaling and guano collection – and the associated introduction of feral and farm animals – spelt the end for most native species. Among them are the woylie, chuditch, dibbler (see AG 131) and western barred bandicoot, all of which are now either threatened or extinct on mainland Australia.

Return to 1616 aims to restore Dirk Hartog’s natural environment and reintroduce its missing mammals. The ambitious project is backed by a colossal war chest – the Gorgon Barrow Island Net Conservation Benefits Fund, which was secured in an environmental offset deal between the WA government and mining giant Chevron. Establishment of the fund was a condition of Chevron’s huge Gorgon gas project proceeding on Barrow Island, off the Pilbara, to the north. Two-thirds of the Return to 1616 money is coming from the fund,with WA’s Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPAW) providing the rest and running the show.

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These cliffs at Turtle Bay were scaled by Dirk Hartog in 1616. The posts in the foreground are the remains of a jetty built at the same time as the island’s lighthouse; between 1908 and 1910. The bay is home to Australia’s largest loggerhead turtle breeding colony. (Image: Andrew Gregory)

Two other threatened species, the banded hare-wallaby and rufous hare-wallaby, will also be also translocated from neighbouring Bernier and Dorre Islands to aid their conservation. But first Dirk Hartog’s 63,000ha must be rid of all introduced animals, and the native vegetation allowed to heal. Enter the most extensive feral-animal eradication ever attempted in Australia. DPAW project operations officer Shane Heriot is a shipwreck buff who happily upped stumps for Shark Bay nearly four years ago, when Return to 1616 began. “To be involved in the island program, eradicating ferals and starting reintroductions – it’s one of the ­pinnacles of my career,” says Shane, who has spent two decades in environmental management and who is charged with removing every last goat from Dirk Hartog. The first are thought to have been let loose by departing lighthouse keepers. By the time eradication began the population had exploded to number about 10,000 and the impact of their grazing and trampling on native vegetation was drastic.

Remote motion-sensor cameras have been placed at watering points to observe all ferals. Meanwhile, so-called ‘Judas’ goats wearing radio collars – females that attract and betray other goats – have been used to pinpoint mobs during aerial shooting programs. Monitoring flights are extremely thorough, meticulously combing the landscape and clocking up an average of 3000km each trip. With recent searches finding only Judas goats, Shane believes the goat population has now been reduced to zero. One more year of surveillance is needed before reintroductions start on the future safe haven in 2018. “I’ve known the history of Dirk Hartog Island since I was a kid, so I was thrilled to get a chance to work on this,” Shane says. “But it’s probably been one of the most challenging jobs in my career.”

The island’s wild cat population has been targeted in tandem. It’s believed Dutch mariners were to blame for the first offending felines: island tabby DNA has been traced back to Holland. Fortunately, efforts to introduce rabbits in 1858 failed, so limited food kept numbers from rapidly expanding. Nonetheless, cats are ferocious predators and tough to wipe out. To divide the vast eradication zone, DPAW erected a 1.8m-high, cat-proof fence in 2014. More than 40 tonnes of fencing material was brought in by barge to form a barrier stretching 13km between the island’s eastern and western cliffs.

Novel methods such as pheromone lures and mouse sound-­effects have been used to trap the cats, and baiting has eradicated many. Watching for remaining felines are more than 150 automated infra-red cameras backed up by cat-detector dogs, brought in to hunt for signs of any left south of the fence in 2015. The dogs will return next year to survey north of the barrier.

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The pink and red hues of the island’s east coast lakes contrast dazzlingly with the turquoise waters near Withnell Point. (Image: Andrew Gregory)

Success signs are already surfacing and Shane says total eradication is within reach. “Ground-nesting birds are in the best health we’ve seen for decades,” he says. “There are more birds, more native mice, more lizards. Visually, you can see the environment has had a chance to bounce back.”

IT’S A BITTERSWEET victory for the island’s only permanent residents, Kieran and Tory Wardle. The couple runs a low-impact tourism operation, having agreed to quit their pastoral business when Dirk Hartog Island was gazetted as a national park in 2009. A massive destocking effort saw 4000 sheep and 750 goats removed by barge, with the remainder shot. It was the end of 139 years of running livestock there; the 1920s heyday saw sheep numbers peak at 26,000. But without this shift, Return to 1616 might never be possible.

Walking through the retired shearing shed, Tory says she still misses the sheep, but she’s made good use of the shed’s planks: they line her new kitchen and bar in the homestead where she and Kieran host guests. A city girl from Perth, she moved to the island when she was 19 and part-way through a chef’s apprenticeship. Her best friend’s boyfriend had been working with Kieran and phoned to say the station, which had already begun its transition into tourism, needed a cook.

Having always loved the outback life she’d glimpsed during weekends away and stints as a jillaroo, Tory obliged. Nine months later she and Kieran were an item. “I fell in love with the island before I fell in love with Kieran,” she says. That was three children and 21 years ago.

Kieran’s association goes back even further. His grandfather Sir Thomas Wardle, a supermarket chain proprietor, purchased the island lease from the Australian government in 1968. Perth-raised Kieran spent school holidays on the island, but never expected to end up there. “After I left school, a station hand got sick so I was sent up to look after the place for a week,” he says. “A week turned into years and I’m still there. I still get ribbed because I spent about $1500 in phone calls to Dad in that first week asking what to do, I was so green.” Kieran was just 18 when he took over in 1993. “Then Tory joined and suddenly the standard of cooking and cleaning went up, and clientele got word of it and things went from there,” he says.

They lived in the guest areas of the ocean-facing homestead-turned-ecolodge before building their own home from limestone that was transported across on their rickety old yellow barge. Things are less basic now, but little comes easily in a place this remote. A bore 7km north, pumped by a windmill, provides their water when the skies fail to break, while a desalinator helps fill tanks. Meat is brought over from the small mainland town of Denham every three weeks, and fresh fruit and vegetables arrive once a week.

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The remoteness of the island affords clear, dark night skies – perfect for star gazing. (Image: Andrew Gregory)

Solar panels and a wind turbine create their power, with a generator for backup. Four chooks, a crack team of snake-­deterring guinea fowl and Salty the labrador complete the team. “­People ask if it’s isolated up here,” Tory says. “I think it’s more isolated in Perth: we’re surrounded by 20 people each day here.”

With tourism now their main income, the Wardles have recently repositioned their business. The ecolodge, a repeat pilgrimage for 80 per cent of guests, can now only be rented as a whole, along with a new, eight-bed villa they built from stones collected on the island. They’re instead focusing on boosting interest in camping and four-wheel-driving. “We want people to jump in their cars and experience the island for themselves,” Tory says.

The duo constructed a basic camp kitchen near the homestead in February, and plan to add another, along with wooden platforms for more tents along the shallow turquoise bay. They manage a further nine wild campsites on behalf of DPAW; with names such as The Block, Urchin Point and Dampiers Landing, they are all on the doorstep of white-sand beaches and dunes.

“Urchin Point has a shack, and you can sit inside it and watch the sun go down,” says Kieran. “I’ve got some incredible photos of 20 dolphins launching out of the water in front of the campsite. By the end of your stay, you’re fed up with seeing whales. And there’s a beautiful rockpool just down by the ocean.”

THE WARDLES ALSO operate the island’s sole landing barge, Hartog Explorer, which replaced their older, more precarious incarnation in 2015. The new, all-weather model carries only one vehicle and one trailer at a time (it costs $340–$680 return for a 4WD and its driver for the 15-minute journey, not including passengers).

Currently, it grants about 850 annual visitors access to the protected haven, but, this year, Kieran expects to welcome 1200 campers alone. “It’s a bit like Fraser Island in Queensland: ­everyone knows about Fraser and wants to go because it’s the adventure of a lifetime. Now in WA, people are starting to see that you can access Dirk Hartog with the barge and we’re getting families saying ‘Let’s do that,’” he says.

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Greg MacKenzie, with Ollie Wardle, Rosie Ball and William Wardle (L–R) check out reefs from a dinghy on the east coast of Dirk Hartog Island. (Image: Andrew Gregory)

It’s something Kieran expects to see more and more as the Return to 1616 project progresses. “At the moment, people come to Shark Bay and Monkey Mia for the dolphins, but in future they’ll come to see these rare and endangered animals being bred on Dirk Hartog Island,” he says. “A bloke from DPAW said to me: ‘The biggest problem you’ll have, Kieran, is you’ll have them hopping about on your front lawn.’ That experience alone for a tourist from overseas, or even locally, is going to be sensational.”

The Wardles are introducing two new ways to explore the island, to coincide with a series of commemorative events being held in October, to mark 400 years since Hartog left his footprints in the sand. One of them will sail people up to the place where it all happened, Cape Inscription, a site that Kieran says is a must-see for all Australians.

“If you’re coming all this way, you’ve got to see where Dirk Hartog landed – but not just him, also Vlamingh, then Dampier, who made the first botanical collection of Australian plants, which still exists today back in London, and then Saint-AloÜarn, the Frenchman who claimed the country for France in 1772,” he says (see AG 132). “And just nearby, Turtle Bay has Australia’s largest loggerhead breeding colony, with 3000 turtles nesting there over summer. A lot of people don’t know about it.”

Interpretive signs are to be dotted around Cape Inscription, and replica pewter plates added. All are to be unveiled at a commemorative event, which will close a four-day festival in the region. Three tall ships – Leeuwin II, Young Endeavour and the Duyfken replica – will travel to Shark Bay for the celebrations, the latter calling in at seven ports over a 10-week sail up the WA coast. An outdoor concert, photographic exhibition and the Golden Age 1616 Ball will round out the anniversary 850km north of Perth.

“It’s a chance to let people know what we’ve got here,” says Cheryl Cowell, Shark Bay WHA project officer and also the shire president. “It’s amazing and quite sad that so many people, even in WA, don’t know the Dirk Hartog story. We’re hoping it will showcase Shark Bay and we’re planning to have an annual festival to flow on from this, to perpetuate that awareness… It’s an ­awesome story. It’s a shame he only stayed three days, but ­nevertheless, he left his mark.” 

GALLERY: More photos of Dirk Hartog Island

This article was originally published in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#135).