Welcoming locals, a relaxed atmosphere and nature-based tourism have the potential to reverse population decline on Flinders Island.
Story and photos Denis O'Byrne
Seen from the summit of Walkers Hill, Flinders Island is like a three-dimensional map dominated by high granite hills that rise steeply from the emerald waters of Bass Strait. Southwards, the knobbly summit of Strzelecki Peak is a magnet for bushwalkers and rock climbers, while the lowlands to the east and west are geometric patchworks of farmland. The tiny cluster of buildings to the south-west is Whitemark, the island’s largest settlement and its administrative centre.
“This is by far the best place from which to get an overall picture of the island,” Lindsay Luddington informs members of her tour group, who are on a one-day familiarisation tour prior to hiring a vehicle in Whitemark and doing their own thing. Lindsay points to a tall, rugged island off the east coast. “That’s Babel Island, home to three million pairs of mutton-birds during the summer breeding season,” she says. “Matthew Flinders gave it that name because he was so impressed by the noise of the birds.”
Originally from England, Lindsay had her first experience of Australia in the late 1960s when she worked as a jillaroo on one of Lord Vestey’s Top End properties. She has been a resident of Flinders Island for the past 33 years and, together with husband James, owns and operates Flinders Island Adventures. It is the largest tour operation on the island, with dive and fishing charters, four-wheel-drive tours, wildlife-watching trips, island cruises and guided walks among the offerings. A 223-hectare cattle-grazing property keeps the couple busy between tours.
As with many mainland rural communities, employment opportunities here are fast disappearing, and the Luddingtons aren’t the first people who have watched their offspring leave the island to seek jobs elsewhere. “If we want to remain viable as a community we have to find some way of reversing the drift to the mainland,” Lindsay says emphatically. “These days, agriculture provides only limited work. I firmly believe that ecotourism is the only avenue open to us for turning things around.”
There are certainly plenty of ecotourism opportunities on Flinders Island. As well as the often dramatic landscapes and seascapes that are a key element of any holiday here, another attraction is the native wildlife. Foxes and rabbits are absent, so a nocturnal walk with a powerful torch around a large patch of bushland can reveal a number of small to medium-sized mammal species, several of which are either extinct or no longer common on the Australian mainland. Around 200 species of birds have been recorded including eight of Tasmania’s 11 endemics. Mutton-birds (also known as short-tailed shearwaters) fly in from their Arctic feeding grounds in September and depart the following April.
The mutton-bird rookery at Port Davies, at the southern end of Marshall Bay, has an observation platform that allows easy viewing of the return of thousands of parent birds bringing food to their waiting chicks. This takes place at dusk and is an unforgettable experience. Port Davies has the only rookery on Flinders Island itself – the rest are on outlying islands and can be visited on a boat cruise.
Also of interest are the flocks of Cape Barren geese to be seen feeding year-round on the island’s cultivated pastures. Once hunted almost to extinction, these large, grey birds have recovered to the point where they, along with the island’s two species of wallabies, are regarded as serious economic pests.
“Up to a point, most farmers don’t mind sharing their grass with geese and wallabies,” says Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service manager Wayne Dick. “The problem is that lack of predation combined with abundant food has resulted in these animals undergoing population explosions.” Wayne adds that wallaby numbers are kept in check by farm-based game management plans, while goose numbers are controlled through strictly managed, research-based culling.
Walking is a popular activity, whether it is a strenuous hill climb or a gentle stroll along a pristine beach. There are plenty of good walks available, many featuring beautiful coastal scenery – Marshall Bay in the north-west and Trousers Point in the south-west near Strzelecki Peak are two fine examples. For most enthusiasts, it is the formidable bulk of the latter, which has a summit 756 metres high, that is the island’s piece de resistance. “The route to the top is steep and rough in parts, but if you’re fit you should be able to do the return walk within four hours,” Wayne says. “The view from the top is superb on a clear day. Unfortunately, it’s quite common to start off in sunny conditions only to find that, by the time you reach the summit, you can’t see anything but cloud.”
With all this and much more on offer, Lindsay says that, considering the large number of visitors Kangaroo Island attracts annually, it’s not unrealistic for Flinders Island to aim for 20,000 in the long-term. “We both have nature-based tourist industries, although, of course, theirs is so much larger,” says Lindsay, who is a former president and current vice-president of the Flinders Island Tourism Association. “Kangaroo Island is also easier to get to but, in terms of scenery, we beat them hands down.”
However, not everyone shares her enthusiasm for attracting more tourists. While it’s generally recognised that tourism offers the only real hope for significant economic growth, many islanders are concerned that burgeoning visitor numbers may spoil their unique way of life. Whitemark is a place where locals smile and nod to strangers in the street, and where supermarket checkout operators really mean it when they invite customers to “have a nice day”. They don’t want that to change at any price.
“Currently we only get about 1200 visitors annually, and we should be able to double that using present infrastructure without threatening our lifestyle,” says Lois Ireland, the tourism association’s current president. She is a born-and-bred islander whose children have also left to find work elsewhere. Lois and husband Guy own and manage self-contained tourist accommodation in Whitemark. “Most of our guests are from the big city,” she says. “They generally turn up looking harassed and strung out but, after a couple of days at island pace, they’ve usually begun to slow down.”
The first step towards attracting more visitors is to lift the island’s profile. While some locals bemoan the fact that they lack a big name icon to hang their hat on, comments in visitor books indicate that the genuinely friendly people and relaxed island atmosphere are major highlights. Perhaps those qualities could be their icon.
This story excerpt is from Issue #52
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007