18/06/2008 - 22:00

Enigmatic Abrolhos largely off limits

18/06/2008 - 22:00

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When you see the fishermen's shacks and what appear to be their shanty towns from the air above the Abrolhos Islands, it's hard to believe that they lie in the heart of a heavily protected nature reserve.

Enigmatic Abrolhos largely off limits

When you see the fishermen's shacks and what appear to be their shanty towns from the air above the Abrolhos Islands, it's hard to believe that they lie in the heart of a heavily protected nature reserve.

As a tourist, it's almost as tough a place to visit as you could ask for.

In effect, despite the large number of islands - about 200 - that comprise the sweeping archipelago, there is nowhere to stay for a visitor who doesn't know a fisherman or own a boat.

It is one of those bizarre incongruities that exist through tradition, development and change, that an estimated 800 people live in these islands for four months of the year during the crayfish season, yet almost everyone else must stay off the land after dark.

There are churches, schools, shops, a post office and even an area used as a football field by the 'locals', those who inhabit the islands using diesel generators for power and their roofs to catch rainwater.

The only annual residents are those servicing a few scattered pearl farms.

For a tourist wanting a taste of the islands, and who doesn't have a mate with a crayboat - or the reputed hotel-grade deckhand quarters that exist on at least one island - there are other options.

Day trips via the air or longer stays on charter boats that visit the region for diving, fishing or surfing tours can be taken from Geraldton, the big regional port city that is enjoying something of a mining led revival.

Geraldton-Greenough Regional Tourism Association chair Wendy Man is one who believes tourism amenities in the islands should be upgraded.

However, Mrs Mann said the area was environmentally sensitive and that camping on the islands wouldn't be a good idea.

The Geraldton businesswoman also notes that the isolation creates risks for visitors.

But she would like to see amenities such as toilets and shaded areas upgraded so that day trips via her Geraldton Air Charter business could better serve the public.

"A lot of people come from Perth with their boats," Mrs Mann said.

"You can do that so long as you sleep on your boat."

She also recognises the potential for the area if a tourist resort of some kind could be built on one of the islands.

A resort has been allowed by the Western Australian government but the tender winner, Barry Humfrey, believes the site is not viable and wants to move it. Mr Humfrey flew journalists, including this journalist, over the islands two weeks ago to point out his preference for a larger island in the group, Wallabi, which has an airstrip.

The Geraldton land developer said that setbacks and other environmental constraints made his plans for a resort on Long Island difficult.

Combined with rising costs, that is no longer viable. In contrast, he said, Wallabi offered fewer constraints and was easier to service, potentially halving the cost of the development, on which he has spent about $3 million to get approval.

The matter is currently before the state's Office of the Appeals Convenor, with a decision expected by the end of the month.

What is probably most surprising about this is that no-one has built something on the islands earlier, given their long-time popularity with WA residents into water sports.

Apart from marine activities and industry, the islands have some of the oddest historical curios.

From the air, a remnant of construction is pointed out as the oldest European structure in Australia.

For the ghoulish tourist, there are also the infamous atrocities of Batavia.

Any visitor to the renamed Western Australian Maritime Museum Shipwreck Galleries in Cliff Street, Fremantle, will know of terrible deeds done by survivors of the Batavia wreck who mutinied and slaughtered their shipmates and passengers.

Flying over the scene certainly provides some idea of the bleak nature of the islands, which would have seemed an eternity away from civilisation back in the 17th century.

Wallabi Island feels a bit like Rottnest, with the low-rise limestone geography surrounded by reefs just offshore.

There is no doubt the Abrolhos is a WA treasure. Once a guano producing area, it is also breeding ground for much of the state's valuable lobster and is fast becoming pearling region.

It is clearly environmentally valuable and sensitive, but it is also widespread and already well used to human encroachment.

But it is surprising to find this treasure locked so securely away, when tourism has been seen as the saviour of equally sensitive areas elsewhere in the state.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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