Wednesday, 28 November 2012

King Island, Tasmania

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 my friend’s house, our 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, Clare decided a new home must be found, but 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, Clare and her husband will have their own source of honey in a few months. Before departing, he left a bucket of his own honey in the house.

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 Tim and Clare 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 Tim and Clare 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 Will took us diving. From our first meeting each made an effort with me that I have never seen 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 loads of carrots as slender as lady’s fingers and as sweet as sugar, alongside bouncy lettuces, juicy beetroots and earthy sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Later Will and Tim took me out on a boat and showed me how to catch rock lobsters with their bare hands and spear sweep fish. All these efforts were brought to together that evening when both families joined us to enjoy a dinner that celebrated the best of land and sea gathered that day. To me it did not feel coincidental at all that it also happened to be Thanksgiving, an American tradition but so appropriate for the occasion.

The next day Tim went fishing with his friend Ben, while Clare and I marvelled at the home that his wife Sharelle, has created from, literally in her own words, “just sand and the house where it stands”. Looking over her verdant grass lawn, recently planted avocado, peach, fig, nectarine, lemon and lime trees, alongside her raised vegetable beds and tomato plant conservatory, it is hard to believe she is just in her early 30’s and has lived there for only a few years. Inside the house, her repurposed, redecorated furnishings would put any store selling ‘shabby chic’ furniture to shame. Tim returned with a truly magnificent cod, which we roasted that evening and I tasted the freshest fish of my life so far.

The highlight of my week, alongside the beautiful hikes and astonishing scenery, had to be a trip with Tim to find fresh abalone for dinner. Clad in a wetsuit, hood and shoes to ward off the chill of the Bass Strait, Tim taught me how to look for green lip, black lip and tiger lip abalone in the sandy shallows just off the rocks of the island. King Island is a major exporter of abalone to eager Chinese customers, and the island is not short of supply. In a restaurant a single fresh abalone may cost upwards of USD100, but, with the right knowledge and awareness of sustainable harvesting, the delicacies are there for the taking.

Back home Diane showed me how to slice the abalone into paper thin slivers and dress them with lemon juice, soy sauce and wasabi. Meanwhile Tim tenderised thicker slices with a mallet and lightly fried them in breadcrumbs. Both were unforgettably delicious.

That night after dinner we took the ‘ute’ (Australian for pickup truck) out to watch wallabys grazing in the scrub, and follow ring eyed possums as they waddled past, swinging their hips to some mysterious wild rhythm.

King Island has left a mark that leaves me wishing for more, for a simpler way of living, and for a return to a time where neighbouring people trusted and helped each other. I don’t think it is something that can be re-introduced to the Big Smoke like some kind of endangered species, so perhaps the only solution is to go back to the island, as soon as possible.

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