Feature by Jessica ZoitiAn island untouched

Scratch below the surface and Western Australia’s largest island will surprise with endangered wildlife, adventure and 400 years of European history.

Published May 2016

Long before Captain James Cook discovered Australia’s east coast in 1770, Dutch Explorer Dirk Hartog stumbled across an island, half way up Western Australia’s bulging belly.

He wasn’t there intentionally. Navigating his vessel, the Eendracht, around the cape of South Africa, the Dutch merchant sailed east across the Indian Ocean then overshot his turnoff north to the East Indies (now known as Indonesia) instead, accidentally stumbling upon Australia’s western-most landmass.

Hartog didn’t hang around long. Unimpressed by the barren sprawl of scrubland, treacherous cliffs and raging ocean, he nailed a simple pewter plaque to an oak post on the island’s northern tip – now known as Cape Inscription ­– before hastily returning to the more desirable trade route through Asia. What he didn’t realise, back on October 25, 1616, was the landing was actually the earliest known evidence of a European on Australian soil. 

Sailing aboard the catamaran MV Great Escape it isn’t lost on me that my journey from Perth to Dirk Hartog Island is vastly different to the Dutch explorers’. Plying unchartered and treacherous waters, Hartog’s was a gruelling voyage void of showers or electricity while mine is an ultra-luxurious cruise. As we pull up alongside the bulging landmass, I’m sprawled lazily on the catamaran’s wide, white bow, refreshed from a good night’s sleep between crisp cotton sheets.

Salty Wings, Dirk Hartog Island

My first impression is worlds apart from Hartog’s too. While he found the vastness startling, I’m struck by the island’s untouched rugged beauty. Steaming north through the channel that separates the island from the mainland there’s nothing but crumbling cliff faces, blinding white beaches and turquoise lagoons. It seems as though my travel companions and I could very well be the first people to make landfall here and that, to me, is thrilling.

But we’re far from it. Those in the know have been heading here for decades for fishing charters, four-wheel-driving and eco adventures. Today, Dirk Hartog Island is a World Heritage site and part of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area. The surrounding ocean is abundant with marine life – dive in and you’ll swim alongside manta and sting rays, turtles, reef sharks, dolphins, whales, and possibly even the shy and elusive dugong.

We moor in Turtle Bay, one of the world’s most important loggerhead turtle breeding grounds. Itching to explore, I file onto the dinghy that weaves through oyster stacks to the base of Cape Inscription then climb to the lighthouse at the top of the cliffs. Although seemingly barren, this landscape is anything but – it’s a melting pot of natural diversity including 250 native plant species, 81 species of birds, and almost 30 reptile species, many of which are on the brink of extinction.

Like me, many visitors come by boat, or load four-wheel-drives and camping gear onto a barge that traverses between the mainland and the island as required. Guests who stay at the rustic eco lodge, located just footsteps from the ocean on the protected east coast, can join guided four-wheel-drive tours uncovering secret locations across the island, or a guided walk tour along the wild west coast.

Alternatively, there’s the self-contained limestone villa that’s perfect for small groups of friends or family. It too is a stone’s throw from the ocean and guests here typically arrive in their own boat, or explore the island’s four-wheel-drive tracks at their leisure. But the accommodation de-jour for four-wheel-drivers are the campsites that are dotted across the island’s 80km length.

As I wait on the powder-fine sand for the dinghy to ferry me back to the catamaran it’s not lost on me; the juxtaposition between the island’s rugged natural beauty and the sleek, luxury lines of the boat. She only visits the island once a year on her 11-day West Coast Adventure tour and 12 months seems a long time between drinks. As we pull out of the bay at dusk, Dirk Hartog shrinking into the horizon, I vow to return sooner.