King Island, Australia
I am sitting on the steps from a terrace leading down a grassy slope towards the white sand of Yellow Rock beach, mere metres away. The pale turquoise blue of the cloudless sky is glorious but no match even for the deep blue and light sapphire hues of the sea beneath it.
Earlier this morning a wallaby mooched pass the same spot where I am sitting, leaning forward on its short forepaws to nibble the grass, allowing the joey in her poach to grab a few blades at the same time, before doing a gentle hop forwards on her powerful hind legs.
In just a week I feel I have stepped back in time to a place where community life is still a vital part of living, and where the wild is still on almost equal footing with the cultivated.
King Island is a tiny island off the coast of Australia. It is a short 35 minute flight from Melbourne, the nearest city on the island, yet it feels like a different place entirely.
Arriving at a friend’s house, my first sight was a colony of honeybees that had taken up residence on one of the posts on her terrace! Concerned for her eight month old baby, it was decided a new home must be found. Rather than look for ways to banish them, she called on local beekeeper and producer of King Island Raw Honey, Dick Stansfield, who popped in the next morning to guide the bees into a temporary hive box and resituate them. If all goes well, my friends will have their own source of honey in a few months. Before departing, Dick also left us a bucket of his own honey.
This first experience of King Island left me with two impressions: One, nothing is wasted – from the wind or solar generated electricity and bottled gas to compostable or recyclable waste, every potential resource is precious when it is limited as it is here on the island. Two, the generosity of spirit on King Island knows no bounds.
Listening to my hosts it seems like their ability to settle into their new life on King Island has been made possible and indeed pleasurable by the friendliness and warmth of its locals. From friendly gifts of just caught fish, rock lobster and abalone, to much needed deliveries of firewood, gas, advice and general well wishing, King Island’s residents seem more concerned about the wellbeing of the community than of the individual self. It was surprising and truly inspiring to experience. It is no longer surprising to me that they wish to make a new life there, offering retreats for bird watchers (the pristine landscape is a haven for vast varieties of bird species), food lovers, and generally disenchanted modern day dwellers.
In my short week’s stay, I met Paul and Cynthia Daniel, who supply most of the island with delicious biodynamic grown fruits and vegetables, Caroline Kininmonth, artist-in-residence, who built the Boathouse, a restaurant with everything, including outstanding harbour views, cutlery, tableware and beautiful surroundings, except the food (BYO please!), and Andrew and Diane Blake, also artists, whose son took me diving. Each person I met made an effort with me that I have yet to encounter elsewhere.
Paul took me on a tour of his vegetable and fruit fields, teaching me how to grow tomatoes, pick carrots and beetroots and abide by a biodynamic philosophy in order to grow produce that is unrivalled in taste and health benefits. Together we picked bucket after bucket of carrots, slender as lady’s fingers and sweet as sugar, crisp lettuces, purple beetroots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Afterwards I was taken out on a boat and shown how to catch rock lobsters with our bare hands and spear sweep fish. All our efforts were brought to together that evening when everyone gathered to enjoy a dinner celebrating the best of land and sea, gathered that day. It also happened to be Thanksgiving, albeit an American tradition but still a fitting coincidence.
The next day the boys went fishing, while the girls marvelled at a wonderful home and garden another friend has created from, in her own words, “just sand and the house where it stands”. Looking over a verdant grass lawn, planted avocado, peach, fig, nectarine, lemon and lime trees, raised vegetable beds and a tomato conservatory, it is hard to believe she is only in her early 30’s and has lived there for just a few years. Inside her home, repurposed and redecorated furnishings would put any store touting ‘shabby chic’ decor to shame.
The boys returned with a truly magnificent cod which we roasted immediately - the freshest fish I have ever eaten.
The highlight of my weeklong trip, besides the beautiful hikes and astonishing scenery, has to be going to collect abalone. Clad in a hooded wetsuit and shoes to ward off the chill of the Bass Strait sea, I was taught how to look for green lip, black lip and tiger lip abalone in rocky shallows off the island. King Island is a major exporter of abalone, mostly to eager Chinese buyers. In Hong Kong restaurants a single abalone can cost upwards of USD100, but here these delicacies are free and plentiful. All you need is a little local knowledge, a sharp knife and an understanding of sustainable harvesting regulations.
Back home Diane showed me how to slice raw abalone into paper thin slivers and dress them with lemon juice, soy sauce and wasabi. We tenderised thicker slices with a mallet and lightly fried them lightly coated in breadcrumbs. Both were unforgettably delicious.
After dinner we took the ‘ute’ (Australian for pickup truck) out to see the local wildlife. Wallabies grazed in the scrub and ring-eyed possums waddled past, swinging their hips to some mysterious wild rhythm.
Back in London, my visit to King Island left me wishing for a simpler way of living, for a return to a time where neighbours trusted and helped each other. I do not think it is something that can be reintroduced to the Big Smoke like a kind of endangered species, so perhaps the only solution is to go back to the island, as soon as possible.