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King Island, TAS

Island in Bass Strait famous for its high quality, boutique dairy produce

It is extraordinary to contemplate - mainly because Australians think of King Island as being a windswept rock in the Bass Strait - that this remarkable and beautiful island is at the same latitude as the idyllic Mediterranean holiday resort of Corfu in Greece. We need to rethink King Island. Already it has an extraordinary reputation for its dairy products. King Island butters, cheeses and creams (particularly clotted cream) can be found in chic suburban delicatessens in Sydney and Melbourne; they are stocked by boutique providores; and they have become a by-word for dairy quality in the best restaurants.

King Island lies between Victoria and Tasmania, has over 145 km of coastline, an estimated 57 offshore wrecks (a legacy of sailing vessels trying to traverse the narrow strait between the mainland and Tasmania) and is a largely untouched wonderland of fascinating walks, seabirds and wildlife. The island is 58 km long and 21 km wide and has a total area of 126,000 ha. It was once richly forested but since the arrival of Europeans it has been cleared for farming.


King Island is located approximately 80 km north-west of Tasmania and about 90 km south-east of Cape Otway on the Victorian coast.


Origin of Name

King Island was named after Governor Philip Gidley King in 1801 by Captain John Black, the commander of the Harbinger. Black also named the New Year Isles.


Things to See and Do

King Island Dairy
No visit to the island is complete without some serious tasting of King Island cream, cheese and dairy products. It is impossible not to love the islanders enthusiasm for their products. On the King Island Dairy website (http://www.kingislanddairy.com.au) there is this eulogy to the island and its cheeses: "Guarding the stormy western entrance to Bass Strait is a lonely, rugged island. Situated at 144ᵒ longitude and 40ᵒ latitude, this isolated place is cut off from the rest of the world by jagged reefs, raging seas and howling Roaring Forties winds. With mineral rich soils, cool annual temperatures, abundant rainfall and a consistent salt spray thanks to the constant westerly winds, the environment contributes to quality milk production which helps us create some of the finest cheeses on earth. Welcome to King Island." The King Island Diary can be visited and the cheeses sampled.

Calcified Forest
Located on Seal Rocks Road (head south from Currie on the South Road (B25) and turn west) is the unusual Calcified Forest, an ancient forest which is probably around 7,000 years old. It is a forest of shattered trunks which has been covered by sand and subsequently exposed when the lime-laden sand, which had covered and preserved the stumps, was exposed. The result leaves the impression that stone trees are rising from the sand dunes. There is a short, 630 metre walk from the parking lot which takes around 30 minutes return. Check http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/?base=1377 for more details. Seal Rocks Nature Reserve, of which the Calcified Forest is part, is also known for Bennett wallabies, echidnas and a rich variety of birdlife.

Seal Rocks Nature Reserve
The most impressive feature in the Nature Reserve is the Calcified Forest but equally this quiet, windswept promontory is known for its beaches and its impressive cliffs. It is a place to enjoy the wildness of Bass Strait and the peacefulness of the rugged coastline.

Cape Wickham Lighthouse
The history of King Island is, tragically, the history of shipwrecks. The passage between the mainland and the island was too small; the ships went off course and more than 50 vessels hit the island's rocky shores with huge loss of life. The narrow passage between Cape Otway and Cape Wickham was known as 'the eye of the needle'. It was only 84 km wide and was the first land sighted by ships which had sailed from South Africa.

The Cape Wickham lighthouse was opened in 1861. The light itself is elevated 85 metres above sea level (it is 48 metres tall) and can be seen from 24 nautical miles away. It was automated in 1918. Granite was quarried nearby and the stones were hauled to the top of the hill on a horse-driven tramway. While constructing the lighthouse skeletons, thought to be some of the 225 people (mostly convict women and children) from the Neva which had been wrecked on the coast in 1835, were found in the area.

The excellent Lighthouses of Australia Inc site (check out http://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/TAS/Cape%20Wickham/Cape%20Wickham.htm) points out the scale of the shipwrecks in the area noting: "Suddenly from an ocean of thousand of kilometres ship's captains had to find a gap 84 kilometres wide! This lead to tragedies on both capes and the need for these lights. It was Australia's largest maritime disaster, the wrecking of the Cataraqui with losses of 402 lives in 1845, that eventually lead to the establishment of Cape Wickham. An earlier loss of the Neva with 225 lives, mainly convict women and children, in 1835 had brought no reaction from authorities.

"Even after the establishment of the light there were still wrecks as some ship's masters mistook the light for Cape Otway. One such ship was the Netherby, wrecked near the current Currie Lighthouse in 1866, amazingly without loss of life. This was followed by the Lock Leven in 1871, and the Anna in 1873, and lead to the establishment of the Currie Lighthouse. At these times the Cape Wickham Lighthouse became a refuge to the survivors and a final resting place to the victims. Near the lighthouse are the unmarked graves of many of the Neva's victims and the marked graves of some later mariners, including the master of the clipper Loch Leven, that attest to these tragedies."

The lighthouse is located at the northern tip of the island 44 km from from Currie. Expect the journey to take around 50 minutes.

King Island Historical Museum
Located in Lighthouse Street, Currie, the King Island Historical Museum records the island's history through displays featuring shipwrecks, mining, sealing, lighthouses, agriculture and telecommunications. It is open from September – June from 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm daily. For more information tel: (03) 6462 1512.

King Island Kelp Industries
Located at 89 Netherby Road, Currie, King Island Kelp Industries started operation in 1974 and was shipping kelp to Scotland that same year. It dries and mills stormcast Bull Kelp (Durvillea Pototorum). Since 1976 over 80,000 tonnes have been exported to ISP Alginates. What are alginates? As the Kelp Industries website explains: "Alginates occur naturally in most species of brown seaweed. A chemical extraction process is used to produce purified salts of Alginic Acid, most often Sodium Alginate. ISP makes about 300 different alginate products and sells worldwide for thousands of different applications. In one form or another, it is very likely that you eat, drink, wear or in some manner enjoy the benefits of our King Island Bull Kelp everyday." The factory is open to visitors from 8.00 am to 4.00 pm Monday to Friday, tel: (03) 6462 1340. Visitors can inspect the Kelp Information Room at the factory or view the harvesters at work along the foreshore near Currie. Check out http://www.kelpind.com.au/ for more details.

Soldier Settler Trail
The island was part of the soldier settler programs after both World War I and World War II. The idea was to reward returned soldiers with packets of land and hope that they could become successful farmers. It did not always work. A total of 50 soldier settler farms were established after World War I. Although the soldiers were each given 60 ha and £625, few were able to survive the Depression in the 1930s.

A more thoughtful program was introduced after World War II with the CSIRO advising settlers on soil enrichment programs. This was a more expansive program with 161 farms developed across the island at Egg Lagoon, Reekara, Yarra Creek, Pegarah and near Mount Stanley. The soldier settler programs led to improved roads and improved facilities. There are a number of interpretative signs dealing with King Island’s Soldier Settler history scattered around the island. It is worth learning about this unusual aspect of Australian history.


Other Attractions in the Area

Walks Around King Island
Currie Heritage Harbourside Walk
A pleasant 3.3 km, 45 minute walk around Currie which passes the wharf and traverses the rocky shoreline near the Currie Lighthouse. Watch the kelp harvesters, visit the King Island Museum and enjoy the fresh local produce. Check http://www.kingisland.tas.gov.au/page.aspx?u=288 for the map and details.

Penny's Lagoon Loop Walk
This 1.6 km walk around Penny's Lagoon takes around 30 minutes. At the right time of the day it is possible to see wallabies. Penny's Lagoon is a perched lake (it sits on top of sand dunes) and is noted for its impressive birdlife. Check out http://www.kingisland.tas.gov.au/page.aspx?u=299 for more details.

Shannon Shipwreck Walk
This walk from the carpark at the end of Yellow Rock Road passes through a stand of coastal ti-trees and moves down onto the beach where it is possible to see the partially buried wreck of the Shannon. Expect to walk along the beach and, if it has been raining, to cross the stream which empties into the ocean. Check out http://www.kingisland.tas.gov.au/page.aspx?u=294 for more details and an excellent map.

Cape Wickham to Victoria Cove Walk
Located at Cape Wickham this is two short walks. One to the lighthouse which offers great views up and down the coast and one (2 km return taking about 40 minutes) to Victoria Cove where, as early as 1858, a cable to the mainland was laid establishing communication between the island and the rest of Australia. It was short-lived lasting only until 1862. Check out http://www.kingisland.tas.gov.au/page.aspx?u=295#e368 for more details.

South West Trails
These trails are located 70 km (a full day trip) north from Currie at the Seal Rocks State Reserve. The trails include the Calcified Forest Walk, Copperhead Cliffs Walk  and the Cataraqui Shipwreck Memorial. Check out http://www.kingisland.tas.gov.au/page.aspx?u=296 which includes maps.

East Trails
This is a day-long walk around Naracoopa which passes the Sea Elephant estuary. Expect to see the orange-bellied parrot, the RAMSAR wetlands and, if you continue east, dramatic views along the coast. For information about the Naracoopa Jetty to Fraser Bluff trail check out http://www.kingisland.tas.gov.au/page.aspx?u=296 which includes a useful map.

South East Trail
Expect to take at least two hours to walk this 7 km trail from Grassy Township to Sandblow Point - for more information check out http://www.kingisland.tas.gov.au/page.aspx?u=297.

King Island Maritime Trail - Shipwrecks & Safe Havens
King Island has a history of shipping disasters. The King Island Maritime Trail was established in 2001 and has interpretative signage near the sites of many of the significant wrecks around the island's shores. Visitors can follow the trail around the island, learn more about the history of migration to Australia, what happened to the descendants of those who survived and some of the stories of the shipwrecks. Trail brochures are available at the airport and the Visitor Information in Currie. The trail includes the shipwreck sites of the Loch Leven, Cataraqui, Shannon, Netherby, Blencathra, British Admiral, Neva and Carnarvon Bay; the ship safe havens at Grassy Harbour, Currie Harbour and Sea Elephant Bay; and the lighthouses at Currie and Cape Wickham.



* There is evidence - the discovery of coastal middens - that Aborigines lived on King Island in prehistoric times. One midden has been dated at about 6,600 BCE.

* King Island did not have Aboriginal inhabitants when Europeans arrived in the late 1790s.

* The first Europeans on the island were sealers. They were often accompanied by Aboriginal women who they used to capture the seals. By 1800 the island's population of seals and sea elephants had disappeared.

* The island was first sighted by a Captain Campbell in 1797 although sealers had been there for at least five years.

* In 1799 Captain Reid sailed the Martha along the coast at the southern end of the island and named Reid's Rocks.

* In 1801 Captain John Black, the commander of the Harbinger, named the New Year Isles and Harbinger Rocks. He also named the largest island after Governor King.

* In January 1802 John Murray, captain of the Lady Nelson, surveyed the coastline from Seal Rocks to New Year Isles. Later that year a surveyor, Charles Grimes, walked across the island.

* In 1802 Lieutenant Robbins was sent to formally take British possession of the island. This claim for possession was done while the French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, was moored offshore. Robbins raised the Union Jack upside down. It is claimed that Baudin said the flag looked as though "it was hanging out to dry". It is claimed that before departing Baudin noted that he had "no intention of annexing a country already inhabited by savages".

* In 1825 King Island, as part of Van Diemen's Land, was declared a separate state.

* In 1826-1827 G.W. Barnard surveyed the island.

* The first leases on the island were taken up in the 1830s. Most of the settlers did not prosper. Conditions were harsh and lonely. They slowly established the island's agricultural base of beef and dairy cattle and sheep for both wool and fattened lambs.

* In 1835 the Neva, carrying mostly convicts and children, was wrecked off Cape Wickham with the loss of 225 people.

* In 1836 Captain Malcolm Laing Smith took out a lease on the whole of the island.

* In 1838 the Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed, explored the west coast of the island. Cape Wickham was named after the ship's captain.

* The wreck of the Cataraqui in 1845 resulted in the loss of 402 lives. It was the worst maritime disaster in Australian history. Nearly half the dead were children under the age of 16.

* In an attempt to prevent shipwrecks no fewer than five lighthouses were built around the island's coastline.

* In 1854 the Brahmin was wrecked off the island.

* The lighthouse at Cape Wickham began operating in 1861.

* In 1866 the Netherby was wrecked off the coast.

* In 1871 the Loch Leven was wrecked.

* In 1874 the British Admiral was wrecked.

* In 1875 the Blencathra was wrecked off the coast.

* In 1880 the Currie lighthouse began operation.

* The island's population expanded dramatically after Surveyor John Brown carried out an extensive survey in 1887.

* By 1892 the island had its first official postmaster.

* In 1896 the island's first store opened.

* In 1900 Currie was surveyed as a possible future townsite.

* In 1904 scheeite which is Australia's chief source of tungsten was discovered on the island.

* In 1911 the population reached 766.

* By 1917 scheeite was being mined with both open-cut method and underground mines being established at Grassy. The operation was closed down in the 1920s because the price of tungsten dropped.

* By 1920 soldier settlements had been established on the island with total of 50 soldier settler farms. Although the soldiers were given 60 ha and £625 they were unable to survive the Depression in the 1930s.

* In 1946 the second soldier settlement of the island was opened with 200 farms and 20,000 hectares.

* In 1947 the island's scheeite mines were taken over by Peko Wallsend.

* In 1955 the island had over 10,000 dairy cattle.

* In the 1970s rutile and zircon were mined on the island's east coast beaches.

* In 1974 kelp harvesting and processing is established as an industry on the island.

* In 1990 the island's sheeite mines closed down.


Visitor Information

King Island Tourism, 5 George Street, Currie, tel: 1800 645 014, (03) 6462 1355. Open Monday - Thursday, 10.30 am - 5.00 pm, Friday 10.30 am - 7.00 pm, Saturday 10.00 am - noon.


Useful Websites

The island's official website is http://www.kingisland.org.au/ and it has useful information about accommodation, eating and ways to access the island.

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