The Houtman Abrolhos Islands – Western Australia

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

I’m working on Australia’s Islands, a book to be published by the National Library of Australia in late 2019. My island explorations recently took me to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, about 60km offshore from Geraldton, which in turn is 400km north of Perth. There are more than 100 low-lying islands and they’re clearly a danger for any passing ships including most famously the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia in 1629.

◄ Morning Reef, where the Batavia wrecked

▲ The shipwreck led to a horrific tale of madness, mutiny and murder before the final survivors were rescued months later. The Batavia’s wreckage, in only five metres of water, lay undiscovered for almost 350 years but today you can see a substantial hunk of the ship’s hull in the Shipwreck Museum in Fremantle, the port for Western Australia’s capital city Perth. Along with what looks like the stone entrance gate for a European castle, which is indeed what it is. The gateway was being carried by the Batavia as ballast and should have found its way to the city of Batavia, today that’s Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. In fact the Fremantle stone portico is a reproduction, the original, along with many other Batavia relics, is on display at the Geraldton Museum. And a big thank you to Leigh O’Brien, the museum manager who arranged for me to visit the museum after hours, and to Susan McColl who showed me around.

▲ Post Office Island in the Pelsaert Group

You can day trip to the island by air from Geraldton Airport, flying directly west to the southernmost islands in the Pelsaert Group including Post Office Island.

▲ From there we flew south along the long curving beach of Pelsaert Island then turning west to fly along the edge of Half Moon Reef.

▲ Wreck of the Windsor from 1908

Almost 100 years after the wreck of the Batavia another Batavia-bound Dutch East Indiaman, the Zeewijk, ran into this reef in 1727. There have been more wrecks on islands over the years including the Windsor which also ran on to Half Moon Reef, today its round boiler and other scattered wreckage is still visible atop the reef.

We continued north to the central Easter Group, flying over Rat island and nearby Little Rat Island, before we reached the Wallabi Group where the Batavia was wrecked and where the subsequent drama played out.

▲ On West Wallabi Island I spotted the walls of Wiebbe Hayes’ Fort. A Dutch soldier he was almost the only shipwreck survivor to survive with his reputation unscathed. He defended this little fort against onslaughts from the mutineers and today it’s the oldest European structure in all of Australia.

◄ The recently erected statue of Batavia hero Wiebbe Hayes close to the waterfront in Geraldton. There’s also a reproduction of his island fort beside the statue.

▲ Our little Cessna 172 circled over West Wallabi Island and we came into land on East Wallabi.

◄ From the airstrip we walked along the shell scattered beach at Turtle Bay.

▲ Turtle Bay

The warm southward-flowing Leeuwin Current means the Abrolhos Islands have the southernmost coral reef in the Indian Ocean. I always reckon it’s a good coral reef if I spot some anemone fish and sure enough, snorkeling over the reef off the beach here I saw a number of those colourful fish.

◄ We saw other wildlife including plenty of lizards, the small Tammar wallabies which four centuries ago were a very useful food source for the Batavia survivors, and this solid-looking osprey nest. Ospreys, a large fish-catching bird of prey, build to last. Their nests have often been used by mariners as navigation markers.

▲ Finally we flew back to Geraldton, climbing over Pigeon Island as we departed East Wallabi. The Houtman Abrolhos Islands are a major source for catching rock lobsters and these fishermen’s shacks and their piers dot many of the islands. Rock lobsters are a multi-million dollar industry with 95% of the catch going straight to China.

Want to find a little more about the islands the post shipwreck madness of 1627 and the modern rock lobster business? Then check this Western Australia Museum website about Beacon Island, the island in the Wallabi Group where the story took place and where the ringleaders of the mutiny were gruesomely executed.