Dirk Hartog Island is a remote piece of wilderness most Australians have never heard of – and only a few have been there.
An accidental discovery
More than four centuries ago, this island off Australia’s remote west coast was accidentally discovered by a wayward Dutch mariner.
In 1616, Dirk Hartog was on his way to the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, when he miscalculated a turn and made landfall in the natural harbour of what’s now called Turtle Bay, opposite a beach where 3,000 loggerhead turtles nest each year. His observation of Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land – led world maps to be re-drawn. It wasn’t until more than 150 years later that Captain James Cook claimed Australia’s eastern side for Britain. (Credit: Fleur Bainger)
An unexpected island home
Today Dirk Hartog Island is inhabited by one resourceful family – the Wardles – who operate the sole barge transporting visitors to their remote, rugged crust of land. Neither Kieran nor Tory Wardle (pictured here with her parents) planned to live on this lone finger of land halfway up the vast West Australian coastline. Kieran came in 1993 to cover for a sick stock hand on what was his grandfather’s sheep station. Tory later arrived from Melbourne to work as a cook on the property. She never returned to finish her chef’s apprenticeship: the teenagers fell in love, building their home from limestone ferried across on the barge and bringing three children into the world.
Little comes easily on Western Australia’s largest island. Solar panels generate power, a windmill pumps water from a bore 7km away and meat supplies arrive once a month on the barge, though fresh fruit and vegetables come weekly and fish is caught just metres from the kitchen. (Credit: Fleur Bainger)
A fresh perspective on isolation
Kieran and Tory have turned the old shearer’s quarters into a six-room eco lodge that faces an extraordinarily bountiful ocean of migrating whales, grazing dugongs and rare sea turtles. And today, they have a new, sturdier barge. The Hartog Explorer is used to bring four-wheel drive vehicles and trailers across the gap from Steep Point, Australia’s westernmost point, to Dirk Hartog Island. Most exploring is done by self-drive and anyone not staying at the eco lodge must bring everything from camping equipment to water, food and fuel. The drive from Western Australia’s capital city, Perth, to Steep Point takes around 14 hours, yet 80% of the Wardle’s guests are return visitors.
“People ask if it’s isolated up here,” Tory said. “I think it’s more isolated in Perth: we’re surrounded by 20 guests each day.” (Credit: Fleur Bainger)
The strange story of the pink lakes
Hartog wasn’t the only sailor to anchor in the harbour. Fellow Dutchman, Willem de Vlamingh replaced an inscribed pewter plate left by Hartog with his own, as testimony of both visits. British explorer William Dampier visited during his botanical collection of Australian plants, which is today held in London’s Royal Society Picture Library. Louis François Marie Aleno de Saint Aloüarn, the Frenchman who claimed the country for France in 1772, also dropped in. In 1818, fellow Frenchman Louis de Freycinet was leading a scientific expedition around the world when his crew stopped to procure Vlamingh’s plate.
The island’s spectacular pink lakes are named Rose Lakes, both for their colour and for de Freycinet’s wife, Rose, who was a stowaway on his ship. Finding the idea of separation unbearable, the 23-year-old disguised herself as a man until the port of Gibraltar, when they were safely on their global journey. (Credit: Fleur Bainger)
Return to 1616
Life on Dirk Hartog Island is very different to what it would have been 400 years ago when the Dutch explorer arrived. Of the 13 mammals and marsupials that were once found on the isle, only three survive today. All that’s left of the others – such as the boodie, mulgara and desert mouse – are fossilized remains.
But that’s about to change. A massive ecological restoration project called Return to 1616 has seen tens of thousands of introduced animals – including predatory cats and sheep and goats who graze and trample on the island’s vegetation – removed from the fragile landscape. From August 2017, the island is being turned into an ark for rare and endangered animals, with native species reintroduced instead. It’s the one of Australia’s most ambitious wildlife rehabilitation efforts, and a monumental step for the World Heritage-listed region of Shark Bay, where the island lies. (Credit: Fleur Bainger)
Winding back the clock
The small, furry creatures that will soon again bounce and scurry over the low, shrubby terrain include the banded hare-wallaby (pictured), western barred bandicoot, Shark Bay mouse and chuditch. There’s also the woylie, which looks like a small wallaby; and the dibbler, a carnivorous possum-like marsupial that’s the size of a human hand. Some of the species are extinct on mainland Australia and have been translocated from two uninhabited islands nearby.
In time, it’s hoped they will regenerate into significant numbers, just as the island’s delicate vegetation has already started to reform. Since the removal of farm animals and the eradication of feral species began, these habitats have shown noticeable signs of returning Dirk Hartog Island to the untouched wilderness it once was. (Credit: Linda Reinhold/Parks and Wildlife)
A challenging but worthy job
To be involved in the island programme, eradicating ferals and starting reintroductions, it’s one of the pinnacles of my (20-year) career,” said Shane Heriot, project operations officer with Western Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service. “It’s also one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had.”
Heriot has coordinated the removal of goats and cats from the island, a massive task involving pheromone lures, mouse sound effects, radio tracking collars and automated infra-red cameras. A 1.8m-high cat-proof fence, erected in 2014, stretches 13km between the island’s eastern and western cliffs, essentially splitting the landmass in two. Successful eradication of feral species was achieved in early 2017. (Credit: Fleur Bainger)
A shift away from farming
Sheep have also disappeared from the isle. At the population’s peak in the 1920s, 26,000 sheep roamed the land. Over time, the numbers fell and in 2007, most of the remaining sheep were barged off the island in preparation for its designation as a national park, two years later. Now, empty yards, barren watering troughs and the repurposed shearing shed serve as visible signposts to recent history.
For Kieran and Tory Wardle, it has meant a shift away from farming to eco-tourism.
“At the moment, people come to Shark Bay and Monkey Mia for the dolphins, but in the future they’ll come to see these rare and endangered animals being bred on Dirk Hartog Island,” Kieran said. “A ranger said to me, ‘The biggest problem you’ll have, is you’ll have them hopping about on your front lawn’.” (Credit: Fleur Bainger)
Spectacular marine life
While much of the current focus is on Dirk Hartog Island’s terrestrial flora and fauna, its marine life is just as extraordinary. Thousands of whales breach from the ocean on their annual migration; threatened sea turtles dart and manta rays wing into the blues. One of the world’s largest populations of dugongs graze on the mass of seagrasses.
In keeping with the Shark Bay region’s name, there are at least 28 species of shark, yet locals jest that they’re too well fed to bother with people – there are some 320 fish species below the waterline.
Looking out across the Indian Ocean is a mesmerising and meditational pastime: waves crashing, wind blowing and birds chirping are the only sounds, and it’s tempting to think that this is how Dirk Hartog would’ve experienced it four centuries ago. While human interference has scarred the land, the Return to 1616 project is slowly mending the damage, and in time, this modern-day ark just might return to the wilderness the Dutchman saw