A huge easterly swell pushes the waves through the chute as the boat tries to exit the harbour. White, frothy breakers splinter driftwood logs against the rocks as a warning. The redhead captain, Wazza, sucks the spraying seawater through his moustache and tells the passengers to hang on. Wazza slams the throttle down on his 315-horsepower vessel and the boat charges out into the rolling open sea.
We’re heading eight kilometres offshore to the isolated Montague Island, a place of Aboriginal lore and natural wonder. Some call this the Galápagos of eastern Australia because of its large population of seals, penguins, terns, whales and dolphins, which thrive in the nutrient-rich water of the East Australian Current.
The east coast of New South Wales has hordes of cafes and holiday homes filling the once empty patches of land. But I’ve been told there’s still a place that remains rugged and undeveloped. Montague Island can only be reached using a licenced operator, and trips are dependent on the weather.
We see the silhouette of the granite lighthouse that was manned by hardy lighthouse keepers until automation in 1986. Through the mist above the water there’s a man in a yellow jacket waiting on the jetty. Our guide on the island is Dave Blakeney, a local Koori who works as a caretaker for the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Dave helps us, and our crate of supplies, onshore. “If the weather’s bad we could be stuck here for a week,” he says matter-of-factly.
We walk the trail up to the crest of the island. Dave speaks over the squawking gulls, as he tells us of the Aboriginal significance of Montague Island. To the local Koori community, Montague Island is known as Barunguba. The Dreamtime story associated with the area tells of a father, Gulaga (now known as Mount Dromedary), and his sons, Barunguba and Najunuka (the hill at the foot of Mount Dromedary). Dave points to the Stonehenge-like rocks on the far side of the island. It is a sacred Aboriginal burial ground and there are still numerous middens on the island that show its importance as a feeding place. The area is off limits to visitors because it’s still used by the local community to pass on the teachings of the Yuin Aboriginal people.
As we walk through breeding seagulls and crested terns, Dave reminds us that we’re observers here. “We can’t interfere with the life on the island at all,” he warns. We watch a tiny seagull the size of my thumb separate from its mother. Another seagull approaches it and pecks at its exposed head until specks of red appear on the rocks. “It’s survival of the fittest. You have to let nature take its course,” he says as we look back at the dead chick.
We continue down to ‘the fingers’ that jut out into the ocean from the rust-coloured cliffs. The isolation here is immense. I imagine it as an inescapable Australian Alcatraz. I’m told that one resident did break out from here many years back, though. A determined Clydesdale, who was apparently beaten by its owner, braved the eight kilometre ditch between here and the mainland and swam to its freedom.
Thankfully, our accommodation on the island is the refurbished lighthouse keeper’s cottages, not at all prison-like. The walls are decorated with photos and old lanterns from the lighthouse. I sit on the balcony overlooking the broiling ocean and flick through a book on the area’s history.
The lighthouse was built in 1881 after the parts were constructed in Birmingham, England, and transported here for assembly. “It was like an early Ikea flat pack,” Dave adds with a grin.
He jumps around like a kid, pointing out the largest fur seal colony in NSW and the freshwater spring that makes this place self-sufficient. “I reckon I’ve got islanditis,” he says. After weeks at a time with barely a visitor, I imagine he relishes the kind of company that answers back.
After a hearty dinner of local produce, Dave takes us back down to the jetty at dusk for the most spectacular show on the island. We take a seat looking out to the ocean and wait. Just as I start getting fidgety, I see what looks like a little gnome waddling in from the shallows. Then another, and another. As the gnomes get closer, I see that they’re actually little penguins, hundreds of them, clambering up the rocks and waddling to their nests like lemmings invading the island.
In addition to the little penguins, the island also has a large whale population, a variety of different fish and gangs of Australian and New Zealand fur seals. The seals don’t breed here so the area’s pretty much free from sharks looking for an easy meal. This is just the news I’m after, as next morning I get an appreciation of the island from the surrounding ocean.
I tread water in the murky brine. Dave and local diver Frank van Zyl from Underwater Safaris swim off to find a Port Jackson shark and I’m left alone. Something touches my leg and I swivel in panic. There is another bump against my ankle and I suppress the urge to pee in my wetsuit. Below the choppy swell the ocean is alive with life. Fur seals torpedo through the water, twisting and wrestling each other like ocean labradors. Through my mask, I spot a manta ray on the sandy bottom, and to my right Dave and Frank swim next to a Port Jackson shark. A pair of Australian fur seals choose me as their next target and take turns zipping as close as they can to my submerged torso. I duck-dive down and join them as they approach me again. It is a magical moment.
The next morning Wazza roars into the jetty ready to pick us up. As we leave, there are humpback whales frolicking in the bay, and I watch mischievous seals circling around the boat looking for a playmate. I wave goodbye to Dave happy in the knowledge that there is still a slice of unspoiled nature out here on the New South Wales coast.
Montague Island can only be reached by licenced operators. Contact Lighthouse Charters Narooma for transport and tours of the local area.
For information on the history and activities on Montague Island check out the local tourism website.