Abrolhos for the Echoes of the Past

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One of the islands currently under archeological exploration for Batavia shipwreck victims

Originally published by the West Australian newspaper

Before driving to Geraldton to meet a charter flight to the Abrolhos Islands I did a quick internet search on the drive from Perth. Just checking the distance and potential stops along the way to have a stretch.

In 1629, a good sailor had the remarkable ability to calculate latitude but not longitude. So sailors who could navigate were, at best, capable of working out how far up or down they were but had to guess how far across they were based on the estimated speed of their vessel.

It’s for this reason that so many ships from centuries past slammed into our coast as they flicked under the Cape of Good Hope and belted across the Indian Ocean on the Roaring 40’s and made a guess when to turn north for the Dutch East Indies.

And there I was, calling up in a matter of seconds on the internet a route map for my north bound destination.

In 1628, preparations for a greater voyage than mine in 2015 were well underway.

The Batavia had just been built. It was the most magnificent ship that the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, had ever built. It promised its owners years of delivering valuable cargo and satiating European appetites for spices, bringing with it enormous profits for an already wealthy and powerful shipping company.

My preparations for this trip had largely been based on rereading one of Western Australia’s great books, Islands of Angry Ghosts by Hugh Edwards. First published in 1966, my copy got wet at the beach many years ago and has an odd look and smell to it but that’s become part of its appeal.

I am reacquainting myself with the story of the Batavia; how it became shipwrecked off the Western Australian coast and the unfolding drama of 386 years ago which saw villains and heroes fight out a remarkable battle for survival that left over 120 men, women and children brutally murdered.

Geraldton is 424km north of Perth and is the heart of the Mid West Region. Driving with a few rest breaks in quiet seaside towns like Leeman, Jurien Bay and Dongara will get you there in about five hours or you can fly up and miss all the scenery and be there in an hour. The shared fascination my daughter Matilda and I have for the story of the Batavia and the curiosity to see the Abrolhos Islands where it all happened is why we’re sharing this adventure.

Our flight with Geraldton Air Charters is one of several available that operate from Geraldton Airport. While there are also plenty of boat charters that make the 70km journey out to the islands we had some time constraints that have us choose an option that gets us in and out in a day.

The Chief Pilot, Wendy Mann, has a busy weekend ahead of her. As well as our flight there is a local band to fly out for a party on one of the seasonally occupied islands. Easter is one of the busiest weekends on the Abrolhos and the flight out just needs to follow the long white wakes of the numerous boats making their way out to the islands from Geraldton.

Our first look at the islands are those in the Pelsaert Group, wrongly named after Commander Pelsaert of the Batavia in the belief that the ship sunk in this group of islands.

This is the most southern group of islands and we fly over numerous wreck sites including the Zeewjik, Ocean Queen, Windsor and Ben Ledi.

Further to the north is the middle group of islands in the Abrolhos, the Easter Group. Of the 122 islands in the Abrolhos around 20 have established camps for the fishing community and nearly all of these are in the Easter Group. Jetties protrude over the coral from these islands that are dotted with colourful huts that are home for fishers and their families through the crayfishing season of March to June.

We fly on and soon reach the Wallabi Group and our pilot skilfully tips the wing so that it is just above sight of Wiebbe Hayes’ stone fort on West Wallabi Island.

After Pelsaert and a number of his crew sailed the longboat to Batavia to seek help, the highest ranking official in charge was Jeronimous Cornelisz whose leadership style was keen on mutiny and piracy. He scattered the survivors to various islands under the pretence of searching for food and water.

Hayes and his soldiers found plentiful water and food on the island and constructed the fort with flat rocks as protection from the wind and later as a defence from repeated attacks by well-armed mutineers led by Cornelisz, who they managed to capture shortly before the return of Pelsaert in the rescue ship Sardam.

Wiebbe Hayes was promoted on the spot by Pelsaert and later became an officer. There is nothing else we know about this remarkable young man who designed and constructed the first European structures in Australia.

We land on East Wallabi Island, where Wiebbe Hayes and his men first landed before crossing the shallow water to West Wallabi Island. The gravel airstrip, one of three throughout the islands, was built during World War II by the RAAF and the occasional flight of Avro Ansons was stationed there with staff from the Flying Training School based at Geraldton. We walk from the aircraft to Turtle Bay, a beautiful curved stretch of white sand, strewn with an assortment of shells.

Snorkelling in Turtle Bay is amongst the best you will find in Western Australia. Over 200 coral species have been identified in the Abrolhos and I think I saw all of them. The vivid colours of the coral stay fixed as hundreds of differently coloured fish mix the palette by swimming across your view and trepang loll back and forth to the rhythm of the sea. We give our favourite coral the scientific name of Ladies Hanky; it is bright purple and looks like it has been gently draped on the reef.

We explore the shoreline, filled with stubborn oysters, grumpy crabs and a feeling of discovery around each craggy bend. Walking around the island reveals massive osprey nests and skinks with black and gold speckled scales. Elusive from our view are the tammar wallabies that on West Wallabi Island were such a valuable food source to Wiebbe Hayes and his men.

In the afternoon, we decide to go searching for flotsam and jetsam along the beach, leaving our pilot to relax on the beach.

By the time we reach the western tip of the bay I am laden down with a bag of beachcombing treasure. As we walk along we hear a cry for help.

Marooned on the beach, with hulls fixed as fast on the sand as the Batavia on the reef, are two jet skis whose riders need the combined pushing power of a dad and his daughter.

After a few minutes of rolling and cajoling we have the jet skis free of the Abrolhos grasp that seems so eager to hold vessels that touch her shores. One of the jet ski’s drivers is Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop.

 

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One daughter and one Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs

 

On a recent island adventure Matilda met Ashton Agar but, with apologies to Ashton, in the eyes of this eleven year old girl a jet skiing Minister for Foreign Affairs trumps an Australian Test and Perth Scorchers cricketer.

After more snorkelling, sorting through our beachcombing, writing some messages in the sharp, white sand and watching a seal shuffle along in the shallows, we return to our aircraft.

After the wheels lift off at the water’s edge we fly over the wreck of the Batavia and the other islands of importance to the Batavia story; Traitors Island where Pelsaert left a note to the survivors saying he would be back with a rescue ship, Beacon Island where most of the survivors of the shipwreck were killed and Long Island where the mutineers, including Cornelisz, were tried, found guilty and had their hands cut off before they were hung.

Before heading north back to Batavia, Pelsaert sailed the Sardam to the mainland where two mutineers were put ashore, most probably near Hutt River between Geraldton and Kalbarri, to make whatever life they could for themselves. Ever mindful of opportunity for the VOC, Pelsaerts last words as they sail away advises the two young men that if they find riches to make signal fires to attract future ships. They’re never heard of again.

When we contemplate the possible fate of these two men, and perhaps other shipwreck survivors, read what the English explorer George Grey recorded in his diaries. In 1839 he led an expedition through the Mid-West Region.  His observations of what he saw as completely different to other Aboriginal communities included huts with clay rendering, a series of deeply sunk wells and cultivated crops of local root vegetables.

As the plane descends to Geraldton airport late in the day I make the travellers mistake of becoming melencholy that this modern day adventure is about to end. I tell myself it’s OK. With good travel and good travel companions the adventure never really ends. You pull out all the books and stories that got you there and read them all over again. And write your own.

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Abrolhos Islands

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