From December 2008 to March 2009, Janet Cohen and Glenn Brewer spent three months as volunteer caretakers on remote Deal Island in Bass Strait. Janet works for National Parks and Wildlife Service managing Sea Acres Rainforest Centre in Port Macquarie and her partner Glenn is a Bush Regenerator with Mid Coast Landcare.
> Tell us about Deal Island …
Deal Island, part of the Kent Group National Park, is Tasmania’s newest and most remote park, located in eastern Bass Strait mid way between the northern tip of Flinders Island and the southern tip of Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria.
Established in 2002, the Kent Group National Park is an archipelago of five main islands, including Deal, Erith and Dover and islets such as Judgement Rocks. Deal, at about 1,400 hectares, is the largest island in the group.
Deal Island has a fascinating history. It contains several sites of Aboriginal occupation. The Great Cave on Erith Island, 1 km away across Murray Pass, was excavated by Rhys Jones in 1978. Evidence was found of occupation between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, leading to the conclusion that human habitation on the island group had not long survived the isolation imposed by the sea level rise following the last ice age.
The light station and building group on Deal Island were constructed around 1846-47 and are listed in the Register of the National Estate as one of Australia’s oldest groups of light station buildings. The light was decommissioned in 1992, and the last light keepers and their families left the island. From 2001 the volunteer caretaker program, managed by Parks Tasmania, has maintained a presence to protect Deal’s natural and cultural heritage.
> Why did you volunteer to be caretakers on Deal Island?
We both love being in remote, wild places and have done extended walking trips in Tasmania’s south west and Tarkine wilderness areas.
The Deal Island volunteer program was a rare opportunity to spend three months on an uninhabited island in the middle of Bass Strait, taking time out for ourselves in a really special place and at the same time as learning about the island’s environment and history while contributing to the ongoing conservation effort there.
> What did being a caretaker involve?
Talk about multi-tasking! As well as running systems essential for daily life, we recorded weather conditions, sent daily rainfall reports to the Bureau of Meteorology, took part in marine radio safety schedules, relayed coastal waters forecasts and communicated with recreational vessels.
With 300 visitors over summer, we gave information about Deal’s history, environment and walks and looked out for their safety.
We maintained buildings such as the museum, formerly the original superintendent’s residence and repaired damage to buildings from the roaring 40s winds. We regularly took the small 4WD truck up the steep road to check the condition of the light station 300 metres above sea level and about 2km from the caretaker’s cottage.
A big part of our stay was treating and mapping new infestations of weeds such as Sea Spurge – a serious threat to Tasmania’s coastal ecology.
> What were the highlights of the experience?
One of the best things was simply living in a place where nature is dominant. In Bass Strait, weather drives the whole system, so being aware of and responding to whatever the weather was doing was an enlivening constant.
Spending almost every day outdoors amongst the island’s spectacular landscape … the 1,000 ft high granite cliffs of South Bluff, boulder strewn Squally Cove … the rusting bow and winch gear of the 1921 wreck of the Karitane exposed at low tide, the single massive granite tor and one tree sentinel on a slope overlooking the steep track to Winter Cove, the gentle curve of white, sandy beach at Garden Cove nested between granite headlands, the aqua blue waters of East Cove.
The daily territorial antics of two resident pairs of Cape Barren Geese, the serenade of the Fairy Penguin rookery at night, the ‘kitchen window’ views of Erith and Dover Islands across the notoriously dangerous Murray Pass. Spending time together in an environment we both appreciated. Not having to go shopping for anything!
The place was memorable, and so were the people. Visitors arrived in yachts, historic wooden boats, tall ships, fishing trawlers, sea kayaks and helicopters, bringing great company and occasionally chocolate, fish, grapes and Victorian newspapers.
In our last week, five Victorian sea kayakers on a three week adventure from Tasmania to Victoria were weatherbound by 55 knot winds and up to 6 metre seas. They ‘moved in’, staying in the visitors’ cottage, and we had a great 5 days with them … working with them on weeding and maintenance projects and visiting our new next door neighbours!
> What were some of the challenges you faced?
Caretakers have to plan to be totally self-sufficient and self-reliant for 3 months. Packing was a challenge. We spent 2 weeks in Tasmania packing all our supplies into waxed, sealed cartons which had to fit onto a single pallet for transport to Flinders Island and then for the five hour trip from Flinders to Deal on the open deck of Strait Lady, a small fishing vessel.
Growing vegetables for ourselves and the following caretakers was rewarding and challenging – trying to prevent plants from being shredded by up to gale force winds, despite an enclosed garden.
Our most challenging day began at 7am with a marine radio call from a ketch, moored at one of Deal’s most inaccessible coves, advising us that a crew member had experienced seizures and was ‘on the deck’. We helped transfer the man from the vessel to the caretakers’ cottage and maintained communications with police rescue operations until four hours later, when the rescue team, including paramedic, left Deal by helicopter on their 2.5 hour flight to Hobart. We were later advised that he had made a full recovery.
> What have you brought back from the experience?
Greater knowledge of and respect for Bass Strait, its natural environment, history and people. Remote from the hyperactive mainstream, the experience reinforced the value of a down-to-earth way of living. Deal Island has also inspired me to take up other opportunities to be challenged and changed by other remote environments.
> How can people find out more about the caretaker program?
The program is managed by Parks Tasmania. At the end of our stay, volunteer caretaker places were filled until 2011. At the time of preparing this article, we were shocked to hear that the Tasmanian government has abolished the State Government department which included Parks Tasmania.
> Thank you Janet.