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Visit to Houtman Abrolhos Islands October 2020

by Theodore and Elizabeth Kitchen

Houtman Abrolhos Islands

With the cancellation of our booked Cruise on the Rhine due to the outbreak of Covid 19 Pandemic, we have reviewed our recreational plans. We were blessed that the small outbreak in Western Australia was rapidly brought under control with moderate control measures, the most notable of which was the closing of the borders of Western Australia.

So by July 2020 we were free to move around Western Australia. Visiting the Abrolhos group of Islands was on my “must do” list. We investigated and found that there is a firm which runs a 30 person Catamaran, the “Eco Abrohlos”, on a five day cruise from Geraldton. Due to the closure of the border a large group from New South Wales had to cancel their booking , so Liz and I were able to get good accommodation on the cruise starting on Wednesday, 30th September.

We decided to take our time traveling to Geraldton going by the inland route and staying the night in Morowa in the midst of Wild Flower Country. We stayed in an interesting Guest House which 1 would have been built in the early 50s as miners accommodation. Our room had been reconfigured to have an ensuite bathroom. There was a large dining room and kitchen with many interesting photos and artefacts. Good meals were available at a reasonable price.

Liz with Wild flowers

Yvette, the manager advised us after breakfast which roads in the area to take so as to make the most of the flowers. Even on the main road there were great varieties of flowers, for which we stopped quite often to have a close look. The beauty and variety were a great delight.

Morowa is 160 km from Geraldton but we travelled a greater distance that day as we dropped into the Coal Seam National Park which is in a hilly area on the Irwin river. There is coal but not in profitable quantities. South of this the country is relatively flat so that we had good views from the hills in the park.

We arrived in Geraldton early in the afternoon and found the fishermen’s wharf where the Eco Abrohlos was moored. We did some shopping and walked along the foreshore and had a coffee and cake which we did not need. At five p.m. we made our way to the wharf. Passengers were milling around having parked their cars. For us there was great excitement as Liz met her school mate Priscilla who was also travelling. There was no case of social distancing with loud exclamations and hugs.

Priscilla and her husband Ken had been booked for a long time, but unfortunately Ken was in hospital with heart trouble, so Priscilla was accompanied by her daughter Ellie. Ellie is a keen AFL(Australian Football) fan and loves snorkelling. She and I shared a seat in the bus returning after leaving our cars in the company yard.

The loud voice of Paul broke through the chaos on the wharf. Paul is a birdwatcher and photographer who was given the task of checking us in in the dining room. We had to sign the appropriate forms for fishing and snorkelling. We were then able to settle into our stateroom which had a nice queensize bed and ensuite bathroom.

Later we were gathered in the lounge/diningroom where we were introduced to the crew. Jay Cox the owner/manager, his son Bronson, the skipper, deck hands Hayden and Riley, Dive Master 2

Coronation Island

Lauren, supported by Danish Gemma and Alexis who was on the bar. All the crew were multitasked. In particular the three girls waited on the tables, cared for our rooms and served at the bar. The deck hands drove the two tenders and the glass bottomed boats.

We set out the Thursday morning before 6 am. The crossing to the Southern Group took 4 hours and was moderately rough. Liz was sick and the crew were helpful in providing a bucket and emptying its contents. Those who were snorkelling were provided with their gear which included a short sleeved wetsuit for me.

The sea between the islands is calm. Our first walk was on Coronation island where there is an inland pond with some large cod. The fish were reticent to put in an appearance and only some of us caught sight of them

That first afternoon I opted to go fishing with Liz in the “King Diver” fishing boat which had been towed behind the Eco Abrohlos all the way from Geraldton. Others went snorkelling that afternoon.

Jay took us quite a long way to catch fish. He indicated that a lot of the waters were fished out.

There were 8 of us on board and 11 fish were caught mainly sweet lip snapper. Liz caught two and I did not catch any. Liz was astonished and dismayed at the struggle she had to bring the fish in. Jay stood by and kept coaxing her to keep going and in the end she was successful. The years since she last fished have taken toll on her strength . As we moved north from Perth we found the climate was warmer, so Liz did not take her jacket when we went fishing and found the evening breeze was cold. Initially she grabbed my jacket, when I demanded it back Jay came to her rescue and lent her his vest.

Australian Sea Lion

Australian Sea Lions are widespread throughout the islands. We often saw them sunning themselves. Occasionally one would go into the water to swim or frolic. The largest group we saw was on Morley Island on Saturday morning.

Friday morning we went for a walk on Pelsaert Island. Most walks involved a “wet landing” as the tenders were not able to get close to the shore. We had to have shoes with substantial soles as we were walking on broken up coral. Priscilla was a little handicapped and walked slowly needing a walking stick. However the distances were not great and it was no problem for her to continue to be involved at her own pace.

Noddies disturbed by sea eagle

On most of the islands we had to walk near the waters edge, as the inland was covered with nesting birds, Noddys and Terns. Most islands had a sea eagle which frightened the birds, so as well as nests on the ground there were hundreds of birds in the air.

Jane’s beautiful pearls

On the second afternoon we transferred to Post Office Island where we visited Jane Liddon who has set up a Pearl farm. She produces rare black pearls, they are grey with a wonderful lustre.

Jane is a remarkable woman who has lived on the Abrolhos most of her life with many roles. She trained as an art teacher and later owned a boat and fished commercially.

We then transferred from the Southern Group of islands to the central group which are known as the Easter Group. By this time the cool dfSoutherly wind was increasing and we had our drinks on the rear deck rather than on the upper deck as we had done on the first evening.

Day 3 we moved to Morley Island in the Easter Group where there was good coral and fish and I had my first snorkel. The other snorkelers drifted off, they were warned about the current and that they would have to swim back 200 metres against the current. I knew that would be too much for me so I hung around the King Diver and enjoyed seeing many beautiful fish. I climbed back on board and the crew asked if I had I looked at the reef. Hayden was kind to me as the grandpa of the cruise and took me the 200 metres in the tender to the reef where I once again took to the water and was able to be delighted with the beauty of the various shapes and colours of the coral. Non snorkelers were able to view the coral from the glass bottom boat and go for a walk on the island.

In the afternoon Jay gave us a conducted tour in the small boats to inhabited Rat Island where he and his family had lived for years and where Bronson grew up and went to school. We saw a great variety of homes.

That evening was the televised match between the West Coast Eagles and Collingwood. The great excitement in the saloon was almost as good as being at the Match which was a nail biter but tragically the Eagles lost by a point.

Fishing for Squid

The next morning, Sunday, after pulling the cray pots we moved to Wooded Island where there was an elongated lagoon with squid. We fished for squid, only two were caught, many snorkelled in the lagoon and saw a good number of interesting fish.

After Lunch we moved to the Wallabi Group of Islands in the North. This is where the Batavia was wrecked in the seventeenth century followed by mutiny and murder among the survivors. Jay described graphically the various events and showed us some of the places which have been marked out but not developed as historic sites.

Bronson and Jay

On the final evening Jay gave us a 20 question quiz about what we had learned. 6 passengers at each table answered the questions collectively. Our table came last with 15 out of 20. Every evening prior to this Bronson and Jay held up a map of the Islands and discussed the events of the day and the plans for the next day. Their team work was entertaining and impressiv.

We were an interesting group of passengers. Priscilla, Liz and I were the oldest being in our 80s.

On Monday we set sail for Geraldton at 11 am, however the earlier part of the morning was not wasted. Jay regrettably cancelled the fishing because of the rough weather, but cray pots were pulled. Paul took us on a good walk on East Wallaby Island identifying skinks and a wallaby and various birds and plants. We saw an unused Osprey nest which was decorated with bits of plastic and other flotsam . This is a contrast to Sea Eagles which build their nests of natural materials.

After the walk, Liz shucked oysters on the rocks, and I joined the other snorkelers for a final swim among the beautiful coral and fish. I got a bit cold and was rushed back to the ship to have a hot shower, but I am really glad that I made the effort..

The 6 hour journey back to Geraldton was unpleasantly rough making it an endurance test.  However this was a small price to pay for a wonderful experience.

Eco Abrohlos