Western Australia's remote Abolhos Islands steeped in history
Home to the first European structure on Australian soil, the coral-fringed Abrolhos Islands are steeped in history. Yet until recently, few tourists have been able to visit. Sarah Marshall joins a new cruise exploring the area
LISTENING to calcified coral cracking underfoot, I can almost hear the fragile cries of lost souls buried metres below me. Nearly four centuries ago, 126 men, women and children were massacred during one of the most blood-thirsty episodes in Australia's maritime history, and many of their bodies were laid to rest here, on Beacon Island.
A local fisherman, Chook, tells me he once spent the night on this "island of angry ghosts", awaking to the sound of panic-stricken, squawking seabirds.
For now, the windswept, barren coral mound is calm, although a fringe of blood-red fish spawn along the shoreline unintentionally nods to a sinister past.
It's not an obvious sightseeing attraction, or even one that's easy to reach, but I'm visiting as part of a small cruise through the relatively unknown Abrolhos Islands. This archipelago of 122 coral and limestone islands strung along the world's most southerly reef system, 60km offshore from west coast town Geraldton, welcomes only a handful of tourists each year, yet it occupies an important place in Australia's history.
In 1629, the Dutch merchant vessel Batavia shipwrecked after hitting Morning Reef, which sailors had mistaken for "moonshine on the water". Of the 322 passengers on board, most managed to swim to shore, although a mutiny reminiscent of Lord Of The Flies ensued.
Hero Wiebbe Hayes eventually reclaimed peace, and the stone forts he erected on West Wallabi Island are considered to be the first European buildings on Australian soil.
Providing tidal conditions are favourable, tourists can snorkel or dive the Batavia shipwreck, although up until recently, it's only been possible to reach with expensive charters or by hitching a ride with a fisherman.
A crayfishing industry developed here in the 1920s, with settlements springing up over the course of subsequent decades. But communities collapsed when a quota system was introduced in 2010, meaning it was no longer feasible to fish for more than a few months a year.
Jay Cox (54) lived on Rat Island for 14 years with his wife, Sonia, and their children. He's since swapped crayfishing for tourism, and purchased the Eco Abrolhos six years ago, after seeing it for sale in a magazine.
The 38-passenger ship, which formerly operated in the Whitsundays, off Queensland, becomes my cosy home for the next five days. I'm joined on board by a group of 15 hardy, nature-loving Australians, mainly retirees escaping the east coast winter on long caravanning trips.
During our bumpy four-hour sailing from Geraldton, I hear about a 70-year-old vet's attempts to reintroduce a rare breed of pheasant to New South Wales, and learn how one couple manage to survive for six months a year camping on a beach with just a couple of fishing rods and a biodegradable toilet.
All the while, I'm distracted by migratory humpbacks breaching on the horizon.
Lying in the stream of the Leeuwin Current, the Abrolhos Islands are surrounded by a mixture of tropical and temperate waters, making conditions extremely favourable for marine wildlife and a healthy coral reef.
Belts of turquoise and indigo wrap around the islands, melting into each other like butter in a pan.
Using the gentle current to carry me, I drift snorkel off the shores of Wooded Island, admiring some of the 100 different types of coral found here. Clownfish eyeball me suspiciously from beneath the writhing tendrils of blue-tipped anemones, as I float below a rooftop of large plate corals.
Those who prefer not to get wet take a scenic trip in glass bottom boat, the King Diver, while others fish for squid. That evening, Chook and Jay's son, Bronson, fillets snapper and coral trout for dinner as the watery silhouettes of salivating reef sharks gather around the boat.
While sitting at the top deck bar built by Jay, I learn more about the local fishing community's opposition to tourism in the Abrolhos. A story emerges, almost as cut-throat as the Batavia mutiny 400 years ago.
Three days before we'd set off, Jay had received a phone call warning him not to visit any inhabited islands as part of the ship's itinerary. Local fishermen, it appears, would prefer to keep their idyllic kingdoms to themselves.
It would probably be much easier and more profitable for Jay and Sonia to spend more time in Western Australia's Kimberley region, where Eco Abrolhos also operates itineraries.
"We put the Kimberleys into a Google algorithms search engine and in a month there were 122,000 searches," explains Jay. "In the same period there were just 80 for the Abrolhos."
But a combination of passion and anger spurs them on.
Defying threats, we land on Pigeon Island where one of the few receptive fishermen, Al, has been living since he was 15. At one time, the population swelled to 70.
Faded artwork decorates a schoolroom which closed in 2008, and freshly chalked cues still lie across a pool table in the community centre.
I tiptoe into a corrugated iron "museum piece" house, where a vintage TV set glares at a ripped, monochrome art deco sofa and dirty tea cups sit on a Formica table imprinted with an image of the Venetian lagoon.
Jay reminisces about a care-free past, and I wonder if an element of his determination to set foot on these forgotten islands is bound-up with personal nostalgia.
In reality, he shouldn't be so concerned.
While dwindling communities are a point of interest, their rundown shacks, strangled in a mass of electrical cables, are, for the most part, depressingly ugly.
For me, it's the remote, unsullied spots that prove to be the biggest draw.
More than 90 different species of seabird can be found here, including the threatened Australian Lesser Noddy. We go in search of the diminutive birds (which weigh just 100g) on Leos Island, although after lifting up a few bushes, Jay shrugs his shoulders and concludes "they're not here today".
Instead, we sit on the banks of a lagoon and watch cormorants skim the water as osprey flit back and forth to their nest.
On East Wallabi Island, one of the few limestone islands with access to fresh water, I spend an afternoon trying to spot timid Tammar wallabies in the dense thickets, while other members of our group attempt to prize free oysters clinging tightly to rocks at Turtle Bay.
Not a single – even lost – soul could disturb the peace.
Tourism in the Abrolhos Islands is admittedly in its early stages, and there's no denying the Coxes have a challenging ride ahead.
"Sometimes I think this is too hard," admits Sonia, during a low point.
But their love for the destination is too great to ignore. Jay recalls a group of visiting scientists who he guided 10 years ago as part of a charter tour. "They were visiting 40 reef systems around Australia and claimed this was one of the best," he says proudly.
"They said, just keep doing what you're doing; this could be the next Great Barrier Reef."
:: Sarah Marshall was a guest of Western Australia (westernaustralia.com).
:: A five-day cruise with Eco Abrolhos (www.ecoabrolhos.com.au) costs AU$2,175 (£1,135) pp twin share for a stateroom, including food and tours. A three-day cruise is AU$1,305 AUD (£681).
:: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.co.uk; 020 8834 8888) flies from London Heathrow to Hong Kong five times daily, and from Manchester to Hong Kong four times per week, and onwards to over 190 destinations globally. The economy return price from London Heathrow to Perth, including taxes, starts from £759.
:: Quantas (quantas.com) flies to Geraldton from Perth for £136 return.