In 1797, the merchant ship Sydney Cove set sail for Port Jackson as the settlement in NSW was established.
The ship was loaded with a cargo more precious than gold for the colonists, as they waited for 7000 gallons of premium rum to be delivered from Calcutta.
Coming through the savage seas of the Roaring Forties, the ship was ripped apart by the winds in the uncharted waters off Tasmania. The Sydney Cove eventually ran aground on the beaches of Preservation Island.
After seeing the intentions of his thirsty crew, Captain Guy Hamilton relocated the cargo to a hiding spot that is now known only as Rum Island. The liquor was eventually recovered and taken to the colony but more than 2000 gallons (7570 litres) of rum remain unaccounted for to this day.
Preservation and Rum are just two of the 80 islands of the Furneaux Group that once formed a land bridge between Tasmania and the Victorian coastline. The largest of the Furneaux islands is Flinders, a rugged expanse that is shaped like a shattered knuckle bone, broken off from the fist of mainland Tasmania.
Arriving on Flinders Island to search for more than the missing rum, I am met by wind-ravaged fields of tussocks and sheep, gnarled she-oaks concealing red-furred wallabies and granite peaks that wouldn’t look out of place in central Europe.
Discarding the romantic notion of exploring the island with a compass and a treasure map, I am given a vintage Ford Laser and a satchel of tourist brochures that will guide me across the island’s 1333 square kilometres.
From the airstrip looking out towards Parry’s Bay, I head north across the chalky gravel roads with born-and-bred local Gerard Walker. Our first stop is the curiously named Egg Beach.
As we stomp past grass trees and colourful rock orchids to the shore, Gerard tells me this area was the first place to see white settlement south of Sydney and was named after Tobias Furneaux, of the ship Adventure.
As if to reinforce the seafaring history of the islands, we look across the beach, past the oval boulders to the horizon and see a mysterious galley bobbing offshore in the haze, as if it were the ghost of one of the 65 shipwrecks littered around the islands.
As we continue along the unpaved roads of the coast, past granite-veined islands offshore, I ask Gerard about the famed mutton birding on the islands. I’m told that when the stranded Sydney Cove survivors discovered the millions of short-tailed shearwater birds nesting near their campsites, they eventually began hunting them out of necessity.
Today, rather than running around with rifles, mutton bird hunters scan the tussocky hills for burrows. They then reach their arms in and scoop the holes for chicks. Gerard tells me it isn’t uncommon for a birder to remove his hand from the hole with a snake coiled around his arm instead of a bird, though.
Known for their meaty taste, mutton birds are a fascinating migratory species.
Each year, scores of these pigeon-like birds set off from the Furneaux Group on a journey of more than 30,000 kilometres.
The Furneaux mutton birds have been tracked through New Zealand, Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, Alaska and San Francisco before returning home to their nests around Flinders Island.
During the hunting season, locals say the sky is black with birds, and islands such as Babel and Big Dog are now home to mutton bird rookeries that don’t waste a morsel of their catch.
The mutton birds are not just hunted as a source of food, their feathers are used to stuff pillows and their omega-rich stomach oil for arthritis cream and sunscreen.
As we continue towards the northern tip in the setting sun, Gerard tells me of another of Flinders Island’s trademarks. In the creeks and coves around the island, locals have discovered a form of ultra-hard topaz.
The Killiecrankie diamond is a semi-precious stone and a unique souvenir that can be found, polished and set in the gem store in town.
Wanting to fossick for my own treasure, we grab Gerard’s sieves and get on our hands and knees in a forgotten trickle leading to Killiecrankie Bay. Skimming out the dirt, we slosh through the rocks and mud until we uncover a thimbleful of gleaming bounty.
With my diamonds safely stashed away, I bunk down at a deserted beach house on Killiecrankie Bay that night. As the waves boil against the rocks outside, I read of the fate of the Sydney Cove at the turn of the 18th century.
Of the wreck’s survivors, 17 men set out for Port Jackson in a long boat. After rowing to Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria, they trekked through the Australian scrub for weeks, with three sailors eventually making it back to Sydney.
Beginning my own, less arduous journey back to relative civilisation the next morning, I dodge gobbling turkeys, wombats lumbering through the bush and pale-yellow echidnas on the way to Wybalenna, where 135 Aborigines were relocated in 1834 from the mainland.
They were moved in an effort to make them “civilised and Christianised” along with the white settlers but the Aboriginal population did not assimilate well and within 13 years of their dumping on Flinders, only 47 remained.
These few were taken to Oyster Cove in Tasmania and now only the shell of the chapel and the graveyard remain at Wybalenna, which is seen by the National Trust as one of the most important historical sites in Australia.
Continuing on to Flinders’ main settlement, Whitemark, I’m treated like a regular within an hour. Everyone seems to know me by my first name and I’m greeted by the signature two-finger wave by every passing car along the main street.
I don’t realise just how small this place is until I flick through the Flinders phone book, or the “Furneaux Find It”. Many people are listed only by their first name or by a curious pseudonym such as “the Phantom”, which doesn’t seem to be confusing for anyone in need of a number.
There are about 850 people on Flinders Island and the locals I meet are immediately open and hospitable to outsiders.
They do have a slight reserve, however, one that is guarding their way of life, I discover. They have survived off mutton birding and farming for generations, with modernisation and climate change affecting their livelihood irrevocably.
Many have mixed feelings about the emergence of tourism and the likelihood of it being one of the only real options for the continuation of their relaxed and isolated existence.
Thelma Shaik, who owns a small gem shop underneath the Whitemark pub, has returned to Flinders after 20 years away and hopes one day to see “100, 000 people walking the streets of town and visiting the businesses”.
I can’t quite see that many arriving soon (there are about 7000 visitors a year at the moment) but there is no shortage of attractions to entice travellers across Bass Strait.
As I continue through the island the next day, past the wild beaches of Palana, I walk to the extreme edges of Stanley Point in the north-east. Tracking through the clumps of sour-smelling seaweed on the sand, I see a solitary surfer in the driving rain, paddling out into the waves that are flanked by boulders marked with salmon-coloured minerals.
Moving into the centre of the island, I come to Walker’s Lookout (named after Gerard’s grandfather); the grassy vertebrae of Flinders that gives unsurpassed views of the Strzelecki Mountain Range and the uninhabited islands that speckle the water all the way to Tasmania.
As the afternoon winds lick across the peaks and threaten rain, I can see the beautiful Franklin Sound to the south and Mount Chappell Island, which is said to have the largest tiger snakes in the world slithering through its undergrowth.
In need of a stiff drink to ward off the chill, I head to the bar of the Interstate Hotel on my last night on Flinders Island. With mutton birds out of season, I tuck into a plate of the local speciality, marinated wallaby.
During my meal, I look across at the locals sitting at the bar on a Friday night. Propped up near the dartboard I see a group of ruddy-cheeked men celebrating the end of the working week with round after round of drinks.
I’m not game to ask them but I think these blokes might just know the whereabouts of that secret stash on Rum Island.
* The writer was a guest of Tourism Tasmania and the Flinders Island Tourist Association.
Flinders Island And Eastern Bass Strait by Jean Edgecombe is a good place to get some background on the area. Focusonflinders.com.au also has interesting information on the islands.