M for Maria Island

AtoZ2019M-to find a gaol

in one of the loveliest spots

formed by the hand of nature

in one of her loneliest solitudes

creates a revulsion of feeling

I cannot describe…

William Smith O’Brien

A day trip to Maria Island on a glorious sunny day is a far cry from the various incarnations of this beautiful but blighted island. As my diary shows, we were happy and excited to visit on February 18, 2010.

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After arriving at Triabunna on Tasmania’s east coast, we walked around the waterfront to the Information Bureau to check on departure times for the Maria Island ferry.  It leaves at 9.30 tomorrow and we think we will take our bikes.  It will be $50 each plus $10 for the bikes.  We will have to take morning tea, lunch, fruit, water, bikes, helmets and suncream…

Another wonderful day.  The weather was perfect for our trip to Maria Island.  We rode the bikes to the jetty and paid for our tickets. Once on the island, our first stop was the commissariat store which is an attractive brick building containing information about the island.  It is one of the few remaining buildings from Maria Island’s first period of European occupation.



Fifty convicts arrived with their military escorts.  They were light offenders, many of whom had already completed service on farms.  It was easy to escape as the mainland was only four kilometres away.  Discipline was considered lax but trades and skills were taught in an effort to reform the prisoners.  The closure in 1832 was a result of the success of the more productive and disciplined settlement at Macquarie Harbour.


The Maria Island settlement of Darlington became a Convict Probation Station and most convicts were employed in agricultural tasks. However, in 1847, Darlington was cleared of all convicts to receive 369 prisoners, directly from England, under a new development in the convict system known as Task Work. Early in November 1849, the Irish political prisoner, William Smith O’Brien (convicted of High Treason) was sent to the island. A friendship developed between the Assistant Superintendent-in-Charge, Samuel Lapham, his daughter and O’Brien resulting in scandal, especially when O’Brien made an unsuccessful attempt to escape to the United States in an American whaler.


On 17 April 1884, an Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi arrived with a vision to develop the island.  By October 1886 thousands of vines and hundreds of mulberry plants were thriving. The Maria Island Company was floated in 1887 to add agriculture, cement, timber and fishery to the enterprises already undertaken. Signor Bernacchi was resident Managing Director, and Darlington was renamed San Diego. The bustling township of over 250 people had a school, shops, butcher, baker, blacksmith, shoemaker, post office, etc. Then, in 1892 the company went into liquidation and Bernacchi departed for London.


Bernacchi didn’t give up.  After WWI he was back, forming a small company which resulted in a Cement Works opening in 1924.  He died a year later believing his pioneering dreams were realised.  However, the Great Depression put an end to the enterprise in 1930.

Properties were gradually acquired so that in 1971 the island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary and in 1972 it became a National Park. 

Back to the diary.

Armed with maps of cycling tracks we decided to head off to French’s Farm and hopefully further on to McRae’s Isthmus and Ocean Beach which was supposed to rival Freycinet’s Wineglass Bay.  The first stop was Darlington Township.  It is a mixture of convict buildings and a number of additions by Bernacchi including the Coffee Palace, the front of which is open to tourists.  What we would have given for a coffee!  Unfortunately, there is no food or drink on the island except water.

Coffee Palace (I wish!)

We only rode far as the turnoff to Return Point as the road became sandy and difficult to negotiate.  We probably only had about three kilometres to go to French’s Farm.  When the track was not sandy or uphill it was very rocky. 

IMG_6675I didn’t fall off but it was close a few times.  On the way back we stopped for lunch overlooking Four Mile Beach.  At the Painted Cliffs we left the bikes and walked along the edge of the sandstone exposing layers of gold, bronze and cream. The patterns are caused by groundwater percolating through the sandstone and leaving traces of iron oxide. Weathering in honeycomb patterns and undercutting by the action of the sea have created a photographer’s paradise.


On the way back we called into the Darlington township again, this time to read about William Smith O’Brien, a political prisoner from Ireland who lived in one of the cottages in the convict settlement for two years.  It appears he was quite an honourable character, trying to right the wrongs of the political and social mess that was Ireland.


Back at the Store we ate our apples and considered the next walk/ride.  This was to the Fossil Cliffs.  We left the backpacks in the store and just took our cameras and bikes.  John had brought a heavy bike lock which we didn’t use and cursed it all day.


The fossil cliffs are made of shell and coral fossils which are 290 million years old.  The cliff exposure is recognised as one of the best examples of lower Permian strata in the world.  Bernacchi used them as a source of material for his cement works which operated until 1930.  From the quarry on the edge of the ocean, we had a good view of Mt Bishop and Clerk and saw kangaroos and Cape Barren Geese.  We could see Schouten Island to the North and beyond that, Freycinet Peninsula.

Returning to the store, we collapsed exhausted on the comfy lounges.  I thought I would just lie there and never get up.


L for Lark Quarry

AtoZ2019LThe year was 2007.  We were at a friend’s 70th birthday party and I was deep in conversation with a rather eccentric economics lecturer from the University of Wollongong.

“There are two great natural wonders of the world in Australia,” he announced.  “One is the Great Barrier Reef and the other is Lark Quarry.”

We all know of the Great Barrier Reef but I had never heard of Lark Quarry. He told me that 95 million years ago it was part of a great river plain with a rainfall of over a metre a year.  The surrounding forest was lush and green.  The day of the event, herds of small two-legged dinosaurs came to drink at a lake.  There were carnivorous coelurosaurs about the size of chickens and larger plant-eating ornithopods. A huge meat-eating theropod, smaller than a Tyrannosaurus, was stalking the smaller dinosaurs and then suddenly charged.  The stampeding herd left a mass of footprints as they ran to escape.

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My first thoughts were, “how come the footprints are still there?”  Sun, wind and rain would normally destroy them.  However, the footprints were made in half-dried mud and then it began to rain so that the lake rose, covering the tracks with sandy sediments.  Subsequent floods buried the prints below sand and mud.  Over millions of years, the sediment layers were compressed to form rock.

A local station manager discovered the Dinosaur Trackways in the 1960s  He thought they were fossilised bird tracks.  However, what he was looking at was the world’s only recorded evidence of a dinosaur stampede.

The day after the party we were heading off with our A-van to Queensland and the Northern Territory with the intention of visiting Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, Darwin and now, of course,  Lark Quarry.

On night two of our journey, we set up in a caravan park, meeting up with a friend who taught at the local high school in a small country town.  It was almost school holidays and she brought along a few other members of staff to the club where we had dinner.  They were feeling cheerful at the thought of the two-week break where they would all return to Sydney for a taste of “civilisation”.

That night was windy and the noise from the palm trees deafened our ears as we went to sleep.  I woke in the early morning, feeling excited that we would be crossing the border into Queensland.  John stepped out of the van and called out anxiously, (polite version) “Where’s the car?”

To cut a long, sad story short, it had been stolen.  After being taken on a joy ride it was stripped and totally burnt out.  We caught a ride with the holidaying teachers to a bigger town where we hired a car and drove home.  The van arrived on a truck a week later.

So it was not until 2017, ten years later, that we finally reached Lark Quarry.  With a different car and a different van we set up camp in Winton and drove the 110 kilometres (65 km unsealed) to the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument.  For 95 million years the fossils were sealed underground but exposure to sun, rain, people and wildlife was taking its toll.  A building was constructed to stabilise the temperature and humidity and to keep water, animals and humans off the fragile Trackways.


Did it live up to expectations?  Well, it depends on what one was expecting.  I looked at those footprints, large and small,  and tried to imagine the scene 95 million years ago.  Just getting my head around the timeframe was impossible.  That it was there in front of us, recorded for eternity, made our time on earth seem monumentally insignificant.


K for Kununurra

AtoZ2019KK brings to mind such a list of wonderful places: Kakadu, Katherine, Kings Canyon, Kata Tjuta, Kimberley, Kangaroo Island, Kununurra. It is hard to choose just one.  I will settle on Kununurra.  Strictly speaking, it is part of the Kimberley but so are some of the other places I am going to write about further down the track. Like most Australians, I knew Kununurra was somewhere near Lake Argyle, a massive dam constructed to capture the tropical summer rains and irrigate the crops in the dry winters.  I also knew that various crops had been tried and failed.  Sugar cane, cotton and tropical fruits and vegetables succumbed to pests or could not survive the huge distances required to reach a market.

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On our trip around Australia, Kununurra was a totally new experience for us.  Firstly, we had never taken the caravan to Western Australia.  Secondly, I was eager to find out whether the Ord River Scheme had been a success.  Imagine my surprise when I found the most successful crop to date was – Indian Sandalwood!

There are two sandalwood plantations in Kununurra.  My knowledge of sandalwood is limited to a glory box made for my grandmother by her father.  It must have been an old tree to make such a large box because they take many years to grow and are now quite rare.  I didn’t realise the parasitic trees are prized for their aromatic wood and essential oil used in perfumes, cosmetics and medicines.

Sandalwood Plantation TFS Corporation

A kilogram of Indian sandalwood oil now sells for about $3,000, or about five times as much as silver, and prices are rising by at least 20 to 25 per cent a year.  The greatest demand is in China and the traditional source of India is unable to keep up with demand.  The trees take 12 to 15 years to mature and in Kununurra have now reached the stage where they can be harvested.


Before reaching Kununurra we stayed at Lake Argyle Caravan Park.  It was there that we cruised the lake which is 1,000 square kilometres in size and holds up to 10,000 gigalitres.  I made a list of the “big five” in the lake. Fish (catfish and cobbler), freshies (freshwater crocodiles), the agile wallaby, the orb-weaving spider and the jabiru (a bird).  We landed on an island covered in spiders and I assure you we beat a hasty retreat to eat lunch on the boat.  Our guide told us amusing stories of being bitten by a freshie.  They don’t normally bite but she was swinging it by its tail.  The wound got infected and it took a while to recover.  She didn’t recommend that we follow her example.

Back to Kununurra.  The Hidden Valley Caravan Park is surrounded by red cliffs. At sunset they were glowing as of they were on fire.  We climbed Knobby’s Lookout and looked out over the town.  A memorial to three young women, none older than 20, stopped us in our tracks.  They and the pilot had died on a helicopter flight to the Bungle Bungles.  That was where we were going but in an aeroplane, not a helicopter.


However, before we risked life and limb flying to the Bungles, we drove the 105 kilometres to Wyndham.  Established in 1886 it was a port on the way to a short-lived Gold Rush.  Then it serviced the beef industry and from 1919 the meat works exported beef to Britain.  That closed in 1985.  It was also part of the Overland Telegraph and played a part in WW1. In the 1930s it was the Australian landing point for aviators seeking to establish new solo flying records between England and Australia. In 1935 the Royal Flying Doctor Service (remember John Flynn?) was established in Wyndham.

Crocodile at Wyndham

Today, Wyndham has a population of just 900 people and operates as a working port, servicing the cattle export industry, the mining and tourism industries and the Ord River Project.

Which brings us to mining.  Pink diamonds! Before the discovery of the Argyle diamond, pink diamonds were a scarce resource, emerging only occasionally from a few mines in the world. The subsequent discovery of a volcanic pipe near Lake Argyle has since changed the world of coloured diamonds. Today, this mine is the source of about 90% of the pink diamonds sold worldwide. However, the rarest of all diamonds is set to become even rarer still as this treasured source is limited! It is estimated that by the year 2020 the mine will yield no more.

A selection of Argyle pink diamonds

The day we flew over the Bungle Bungles we saw the diamond mine below us.  The massive Lake Argyle stretched in all directions. 

Lake Argyle

The beehive-shaped towers of the Bungles finally appeared.  They are made up of sandstone and conglomerate rock deposited 375 to 350 million years ago.  The weathering effects of wind and rain have resulted in an awe-inspiring landscape covering 450 square kilometres.

Bungle Bungles

The unusual orange and dark grey banding on the conical rock formations is caused by differences in the layers of sandstone. The darker bands are on the layers of rock which hold more moisture and are a dark algal growth. The orange coloured layers are stained with iron and manganese mineral deposits contained within the sandstone.

Back at the camp, we explored our own Mini Bungles.  Known as Mirimar National Park the rock formations are similar to the Bungles but on a much smaller scale.

Mirimar National Park

After an exciting week in Kununurra, we left our caravan at the Hidden Valley and drove onto the Gibb River Road with a tent and sleeping bags ready to explore the Kimberley.  More of that later in Z for Zebedee.

J for Jerilderie

AtoZ2019JJerilderie seems to be one of those towns you pass through on the way to somewhere else.  It is 674 kilometres from Sydney, 328 km from Melbourne and 735 km from Adelaide.  We have passed through with our caravan many times on the way to or from South Australia.  Sometimes we have stopped for fuel or to eat lunch in our van.  Rarely have we taken the time to look at the town because we are always on the way to somewhere else or in a hurry to get home.

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Jerilderie is probably an approximation of the Jeithi Aboriginal word ‘Djirrildhuray’ which is thought to mean ‘with reeds’ or ‘reedy place’ and probably referred to the banks of Billabong Creek. The first squatters brought their cattle and settled along the creek in the 1840s. From there the town slowly grew, with a few stores, an inn, a post office, school and most importantly for this story, the Bank of New South Wales.

Ned Kelly Australian News and Information Bureau, CanberraNational Archives of Austrailia

The gang – comprising Ned and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne – arrived in Jerilderie with £1,000 on their heads. They had killed three policemen and successfully robbed a bank. The date was on Saturday 8 February 1879.

During the evening, after dining at the Woolshed Inn, the gang went to the local police station. Ned yelled out that there had been a murder at the inn. The two officers on duty, Sergeant Devine and Constable Richards, rushed out and were grabbed by the gang and locked up in their own cells.



The robbery took place on the Monday. Around 10.00 am Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne rode to the Royal Hotel. At one end of the building, the Bank of New South Wales had its premises. There were about 30 people in the building and they were all herded at gunpoint into the hotel.  Kelly managed to steal £2,140. He also burned records of the mortgages and planned to return the deeds to the locals.

It was while holding up the bank that Kelly passed the famous “Jerilderie Letter” to the teller. It explains his actions and recounts his deep hatred for the Victorian police. It can be read in its entirety at http://www.nma.gov.au/interactives/jerilderie/home.html.  Its most famous quote is:

And are all my brothers and sisters, and my mother, not to be pitied also, who have no alternative but to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat necked wombat headed, big-bellied, magpie legged, narrow hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords, known as ‘officers of justice’ or ‘Victorian Police’?

Post and Telegraph Station        aussietowns.com

Samuel Gill, who owned the local printery and newspaper office, managed to escape and headed off to raise the alarm. Steve Hart rode to the post and telegraph office where he tried to cut the wires preventing the robbery being reported outside the town. Kelly and Hart headed south into the bush. The reward for the capture of the two Kellys, Byrne and Hart was raised to £2000 per individual. £8,000 for all four.

Jerilderie Courthouse   aussietowns.com

Many of the buildings which existed in 1879 are still standing.  You can still see the Royal Mail Hotel where the Bank of NSW used to occupy one end.  The Jerilderie Courthouse stands opposite the police station where Kelly locked up the two policemen. The tiny Post and Telegraph Station is still there where Hart tried to sever the wires.  The Blacksmith Shop, where the gang had their horses shod, charging it to the police department, is still much as it was 140 years ago.

Blacksmith Shop   aussietowns.com

What of Ned Kelly and his gang?  They all came to a violent end, which is to be expected, and Ned himself was hanged on 11th November 1880.  He was considered a “Robin Hood” character by many and a cold-blooded murderer by others.  An Australian cultural icon, he has inspired the artistic world in every imaginable way.  Next time I pass through Jerilderie I am going to stop a while and recall that fateful weekend in 1879.

I for Illawarra

AtoZ2019IThe Illawarra is where the Lotus lives when she’s not travelling.  She is perched at the top of a steep back yard with access from the street behind.  When it’s time to go travelling she comes down to the front driveway and is packed ready for a life on the road.


The name is given to the region south of Sydney and north of the Shoalhaven, the three main cities being Wollongong, Shellharbour and the town of Kiama. The word Illawarra is derived from the Aboriginal Tharawal word Allowrie. The word is variously translated as “pleasant place near the sea” or “high place near the sea”.


It is a very pleasant place, consisting of a coastal plain, narrow in the north and wider in the south, bounded by the Tasman Sea on the east and the mountainous Illawarra escarpment to the west. In the middle of the region is Lake Illawarra, a shallow lake formed when sediment built up at the entrance to a bay.

Gymea lilies and a view of Wollongong

The traditional industries were coal, steel and farming but in recent times these have become less important with education and health care being the biggest two employers.

When I arrived in the city of Wollongong 50 years ago it was not by choice but because my scholarship to Wagga Wagga Teacher’s College did not meet with my mother’s approval.  She felt she would never see me so she marched into the Department of Education in Sydney and demanded I be moved closer to home and surprisingly they agreed.  Every Friday I was able to catch the little rail motor up the mountain to Moss Vale where my mother would be waiting.  Fate (or the Teachers College) can be blamed for my second-year practice teaching placement when I met my husband. Fate again intervened when my first teaching appointment was in a Wollongong suburb.  It seems I was meant to live here.

University of Wollongong

The university has changed considerably in 50 years.  It went from a provincial feeder college to the University of NSW with 300 students to an international university with over 30,000 students spread over nine domestic and four international campuses.  It originally served the region’s steel industry with Engineering, Science and Metallurgy Faculties.  Some Arts and Commerce were squeezed in somewhere. On the other side of a hockey field was the Teachers College with state of the art gymnasium, library, music auditorium and lecture block.  When I arrived it was already overcrowded so we were bussed to the local Technical College for some of our lectures.  Two years after our arrival we were out in the world teaching children full time.  The pay was lousy but the bond system meant we were guaranteed a job on graduation.  The Teachers’ College has now been absorbed into the university and is no longer detectable in the mass of construction.

For those who live nearby the parking issue is a popular bone of contention but to me, the assets outweigh the inconvenience.  Not everyone can walk to a heated outdoor swimming pool which operates summer and winter or has access to a fully equipped gymnasium.

Wollongong Botanic Gardens

On the other side of the university is the Wollongong Botanic Garden.  It was just getting started when I arrived and I recall being underwhelmed by its lack of maturity but it has transformed into a peaceful and colourful oasis over the past 50 years.

Wedding at Gleniffer Brae

In 1939 the Hoskin’s family home ‘Gleniffer Brae Manor’ was built and still sits on a hill overlooking the Gardens.  Now owned by Wollongong Council and housing the Conservatorium of Music it has also been used as a reception centre and hopefully will be again.  It was a perfect venue for my daughter’s wedding in 2007.


The Illawarra is famed for its Sea Cliff Bridge which leaves the cliffs and winds out over rock platforms to the edge of the sea.  Built to avoid rock falls it is part of a picturesque coastal road once lined with miner’s cottages and now the setting for far grander homes. 

Hang glider and the Seacliff Bridge

Thirty three beaches (with twenty one patrolled) give the locals plenty of choice. For those who would rather avoid the waves, there are the ocean pools, many cut out of the rock by local miners over 100 years ago.  As I child I recall holidaying at Coalcliff where my grandmother had a shack on the hillside above the beach.  It remains my ideal beach, with a rock platform at one end, lots of rocks to clamber on at the other, a lagoon fed by a small rock strewn creek, a crashing surf and an ocean pool.

Our closest beach is North Wollongong where coffee shops and cafes abound.  The Continental Baths is a far cry from Coal Cliff’s rock pool but is still fed by the briny water 0f the sea. 

Belmore Basin on Australia Day, 2005

The Blue Mile draws you along its path until you reach Flagstaff Hill where you can view the two lighthouses.  Wollongong is the only point on the eastern coast of Australia which has two lighthouses.  The Breakwater Lighthouse was built in 1871 and has been inactive since 1974.  The Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse is active.  Restoration work on the former has made it operable once again so that it is used on special occasions.

It takes 40 minutes to walk to the beach from home or about 15 minutes to ride a bike.  There is also a free shuttle bus which travels in a circular direction passing key points such as the University, the Innovation Campus, North Beach, the main shopping centre and Wollongong Hospital.

The two lighthouses

The Illawarra once had a reputation for pollution from its steelworks and associated industries.  One of the biggest emitters of acid and related gases was the ER&S Copper Smelter.  Built in 1909 and predating Hoskin’s steelworks by 19 years, it endeavoured to reduce pollution by constructing the 198 metre Stack in 1965.  The plan was to limit ground-level sulphur dioxide concentrations to acceptable levels.  Public outcry gradually increased and in 2000 the government spent five million dollars moving the Port Kembla School to a safer location.  It was the beginning of the end for the copper smelter due to an ongoing dogged campaign by local residents.


Six years after it closed in 2008  the stack was demolished using explosives.  We were among the thousands of people who waited patiently for the Stack to fall on February 20 2014.   From Flagstaff Hill to Port Kembla people watched, some rejoicing and some nostalgic for former times.

The closure resulted in the loss of around 290 manufacturing jobs.  To put this in context, the Port Kembla steelworks employed around 29,000 during its peak in the 1970s with that number now pared back to around 6,000.  With public sentiment strongly supporting Australian made steel the future of the steelworks is looking reasonably secure.  The spectacular collapse of a local sports stadium during construction, made from imported steel, caused a sudden realisation that Australia must retain its few remaining steel mills.

Further south of Port Kembla is the Shellharbour Marina.  Or almost.  The concept began in the 1980s and yet now in 2019 there is still no water in the marina.  That is not to say it won’t happen. 

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Not long to go now – THE WATERFRONT, Shellcove

A huge housing development with the promise of a boat harbour with 300 wet berths and associated harbourside development and facilities has been very successful.  As the final Waterfront Development takes place, the houses on medium sized blocks give way to townhouses and finally home units.  Over the hill is a glorious beach renowned by surfers called The Farm and behind that is a large State Park called Killalea.  From here you can see the pretty town of Kiama, with its Blowhole and row of historic terrace houses once built for quarry workers but now housing cafes and shops.

Sailing on Lake Illawarra


I have just scraped the surface of the Illawarra so if you are visiting Sydney remember we are only 90 kilometres away.  Just one last photo of the Wollongong Breakwater on a particularly wild day.


H for Horizontal Waterfall

AtoZ2019HThe idea of a Horizontal Waterfall sounds preposterous so of course, we had to see it for ourselves.  We were camped in Derby for a week and investigated the best way to get to what David Attenborough calls “Australia’s most unusual natural wonder.”  It is 110 km north of Derby but can only be accessed by air or sea.  We opted for a seaplane flight and an overnight stay on a houseboat.


The waterfalls are formed by intense tidal currents hurtling through two narrow coastal gorges. Massive tidal movements create a waterfall effect as water banks up against one side of the narrow cliff passage, to be repeated again on the turning tide.

The twin gaps are part of the McLarty Ranges, which have two ridges running parallel approximately 300 metres apart. The first gap is about 20 metres wide and the second, most spectacular gap is about 10 metres wide. The tides in this area have a 10-metre variation which occurs over six and a half hours from low tide to high tide and vice versa. 

At 2.15pm  a courtesy bus picked us up from the caravan park and took us to the airport where we boarded a 14 seat turboprop jet seaplane.

  The scenery below changed from mud flats to crystal clear water and then we saw it.  The two narrow gorges with foaming white water rushing through.  After landing beside a long houseboat we watched sharks being fed from the deck while some brave souls sat in a cage to get as close as possible to the experience of being eaten.

Finally, we were off in a 900hp boat to experience the sensation of riding on a waterfall (horizontally).  Maybe it wasn’t quite as amazing or scary as I had imagined but it was still lots of fun.  We then cruised through bays and creeks marvelling at colourful rock strata and observing a helicopter land on the roof of a boat.

It was BYO drinks but they had been chilling in an esky so we sat on the deck watching the sunset across the shining water.  Barramundi was served for dinner and after watching the stars in the night sky and chatting to fellow guests we retired to a small but comfortable cabin.  Next morning we watched the sunrise as some took off on helicopter flights.  We boarded the boat for yet another trip through the Horizontal Falls as the water was flowing in the opposite direction.


The seaplane trip back was spectacular as we flew over the Buccaneer Archipelago and King Sound.  Finally, the grey water of Derby appeared along with its enormous circular jetty.  We were back on dry land ready to turn south on our circumnavigation of Australia.

G for Geraldton

AtoZ2019GYou might think you have already been here on your A to Z journey.  There is so much more to Geraldton than the Abrolhos Islands so  I had to give it its own post.

The evening of our arrival we were drawn to an impressive monument at the top of Mount Scott.  It was the memorial to the HMAS Sydney, sunk in 1941 with the loss of all 645 on board.

The story is surrounded by conspiracy theories and wild conjecture as the loss of every man on board is a mystery.  Books have been written about what may have happened but the facts are that HMAS Sydney was on patrol duty in Australian waters when it observed an unidentified ship.  As it moved to intercept,  the ship identified itself as Straat Malakka, a Dutch merchant.  Suspicious, because it had refused to reply with the secret call sign, the Sydney moved closer.  It was then that the Kormoran, a German auxiliary cruiser, “decamoflaged” and opened fire.


The Sydney was mortally wounded and disappeared in a south-southeasterly direction, sinking almost vertically, her bow torn off.

The Kormoran had also received crippling wounds and the ship was abandoned by the German sailors. 318 out of 399 from the Kormoran survived and were later interred in prisoner-of-war camps in Victoria until 1947.

The wrecks were not found until 2008, although many attempts had been made.  An American shipwreck hunter David Mearns entered into a partnership with not-for-profit company HMAS Sydney Search.  With considerable government grants, they succeeded where others had failed, finding the Kormoran first and later the Sydney.

The first, temporary memorial was installed prior to 19 November 1998 and was used in a remembrance ceremony in that year. During the playing of the Last Post, a large flock of seagulls flew over the participants and headed out to sea in formation.


This inspired part of the permanent memorial.  It has four parts, a stele in the shape of the ship’s prow, a granite wall listing the ship’s company, a bronze statue of a woman looking out to sea and waiting in vain for the cruiser to come home and a dome (of souls) onto which 645 stainless steel seagulls were welded.  The memorial was almost complete by 2001 but it took another 10 years to complete the stele.  A pool of remembrance has also been added showing the position of the wreck on a map.

Before we headed south, we visited the Museum of Geraldton, overlooking the Indian Ocean.  In the Shipwrecks Gallery, we found remains from the ships Batavia, Gilt Dragon, Zuytdorp, and Zeewijk.

As well as the famous Batavia mutiny, there were lesser known tales such as the inspiring saga of the Zeewijk survivors and the unknown fate of other European shipwrecked souls stranded on Western Australian shores.

Like the survivors of the Batavia, it was decided by the Captain of the Zeewijk that a rescue group of eleven of the fittest men and First Mate Pieter Langeweg would take a longboat to Batavia to get help.  They were never heard of again.  Those left behind on Gun Island, on the edge of the Abrolhos, had enough water and food to survive until they built the first European ship ever made in Australia, the Sloepie, 20 metres by 6 metres.  Of the original 208, 82 made it to Batavia.


The gallery features artefacts, clay pipes, silver coins, cannons and the original stone portico which was used as ballast in the ship and was destined to be used in a building in the city of Batavia. 

Replica of the longboat of the Batavia

From the windows, we could see a full-sized replica of the small long boat used by the group consisting of Captain Jacobsz, Francisco Pelsaert, senior officers, a few crew members, and some passengers.  They left the wreck site in a nine metres (30 ft) longboat, in search of drinking water. After an unsuccessful search for water on the mainland, they abandoned the other survivors and headed north in a danger-fraught voyage to the city of Batavia, now known as Jakarta. Pelsaert was able to return and rescue the survivots as well as punishing the perpetrators.

Something I find fascinating is that after the trials and executions, Wouter Loos and a cabin boy, Jan Pelgrom de By, considered only minor offenders, were marooned on mainland Australia, never to be heard of again.  Many theories abound, including that they were taken in by the Aboriginal people, that they had children and that their descendents still live in Australia today.