Historically important island famous for its
Located approximately 80 km northeast of
Tasmania and about 90 km southeast of Cape Otway
on the Victorian coast, King Island, with a
population of over 2 500, is one of Australia's
undiscovered island retreats. Windswept, rainy
(it has an annual rainfall of over 1000 mm),
rugged and attractive it boasts over 145 km of
untouched coastline, an estimated 57 offshore
wrecks (a legacy of the dangers of trying to
cross and pass through Bass Strait in inclement
weather) and a wide and unusual variety of
seabirds and wildlife.
This is not a tiny island. It is some 58 km
long and 21 km wide and has a total area of 126
000 ha. Before the arrival of Europeans the
island was richly forested but today it has been
cleared for farming and the huge trees have been
replaced by low lying scrub and ti-trees.
In recent times King Island has gained an
extraordinary reputation for its dairy products.
King Island butters, cheeses and creams
(particularly clotted cream) have found their
way into fashionable suburban delicatessens on
the mainland and have become a by-word for dairy
This is just the latest chapter in a long
history of agricultural activities on the
island. In the late 1790s sealers, often
accompanied by Aboriginal women who they had
taken into slavery, were attracted to the lonely
island. Within a decade they decimated the
island's population of seals and sea elephants.
The island was first sighted by Captain
Campbell in 1797 and later that year Captain
Reid sailed the Martha along the coast at the
southern end of the island.
In the early years of the nineteenth century
a number of explorers passed the island. In 1801
Captain John Black, the commander of the
Harbinger, sheltered near two small islands
which he named the New Year Isles. He then
sailed on and named the larger island after
Governor King. In January 1802 John Murray,
captain of the Lady Nelson, surveyed the
coastline and later that year a surveyor,
Charles Grimes, walked across the island.
In 1802, as part of a concerted effort to
keep the French from establishing a base on
Australian territory, Lieutenant Robbins was
sent to formally take British possession of the
island. The incident, which occurred near the
present site of Naracoopa, was notable for the
fact that it was done while the French explorer,
Nicholas Baudin, was moored offshore. Robbins,
in his haste to beat the Frenchman, raised the
Union Jack upside down. It is claimed that
Baudin, amused and annoyed by the absurdity of
the incident, observed that the flag looked as
though 'it was hanging out to dry'. Before
sailing off Baudin tartly remarked that he had
'no intention of annexing a country already
inhabited by savages'.
The first leases on the island were taken up
in the 1830s and the first permanent European
settlers arrived on the island in 1855. For the
50 years after 1830 the population of the island
was tiny. Most of the settlers did not prosper.
Conditions were harsh and lonely. However,
slowly they established the agricultural base -
beef and dairy cattle and sheep for both wool
and fattened lambs - which is still the mainstay
of the island's economy.
Although the island had only a small
population it became quite famous during the
nineteenth century because it was the site of
numerous shipwrecks. In fact the wreck of the
Cataraqui in 1845 resulted in the loss of 406
lives, one of the worst maritime disasters in
Australian history. The incident is recalled in
the naming of Cataraqui Point at the south end
of Fitzmaurice Bay.
In an attempt to prevent such shipwrecks no
fewer than five lighthouses were built around
the island's coastline. The most important
lighthouse was built at Cape Wickham in 1861.
Granite was quarried nearby and the stones were
hauled to the top of the hill on a horse-driven
tramway. It was a suitable, if somewhat ghoulish
irony, that while constructing the lighthouse
skeletons, thought to be survivors from the Neva
which had been wrecked on the coast in 1835,
were found in the area.
In total there have been 57 shipwrecks along
the island's coasts. The unreliability of the
weather is Bass Strait was obviously the main
factor. It is still possible for skindivers to
explore the wrecks of the Neva (1835), Cataraqui
(1845), Netherby (1866), British Admiral (1874)
and Blencathra (1875).
The island's population expanded dramatically
after J. Brown carried out an extensive survey
in 1887. The island was opened up to settlement
and a number of families, who still live on the
island today, took up holdings.
In 1904 scheeite, Australia's chief source of
tungsten, was discovered and, with the advent of
war, it was first mined in 1917. It was
initially mined by the open-cut method but
subsequently two underground mines were
established at Grassy which today is little more
than a company mining town dominated by the
mining giant, Peko Wallsend.
Soldier settlements were established on the
island after both the world wars thus giving the
island's population an important boost. In 1911
there were only 766 people on the island. A
total of 50 soldier settler farms were
established after World War I, Although the
soldiers were each given 60 ha and £625, most
were unable to survive the Depression in the
The soldier settlement after World War II was
more carefully conceived. The CSIRO advised
settlers on soil enrichment programs, a total of
161 farms were developed right across the island
at Egg Lagoon, Reekara, Yarra Creek, Pegarah and
near Mount Stanley. With the settlers came an
infrastructure of roads and small settlements
which did much to improve the island's
In the 1970s rutile and zircon were mined on
the island's east coast beaches.
Things to see:
Reid Rocks Nature Reserve
The establishment of reserves on the island,
notably Reid Rocks Nature Reserve, has led to
the reestablishment of much of the native fauna.
The island has, once again, become a breeding
ground for seals and sea elephants and this, in
turn, has attracted small numbers of nature
loving tourists to the area.
Today the island can be reached by air or the
roll-on, roll-off cargo vessel which runs from
Stanley to Melbourne via the island. The main
tourist appeal of the island is its loneliness
and isolation. It is ideal for people eager to
explore lonely beaches and walk around rugged
coastline. The waters around the island offer
good fishing and the beaches offer unique
challenges for experienced surfers.
Visitors to the island should get a copy of
the free brochure Let's talk about King Island
which provides details about the tiny townships
and locates petrol and takeaway shops on the