Mackerel Islands - 1986

We were driving around the North-West of Western Australia in the spring of 1985, and stopped at the turn-off to Onslow to discuss whether or not we should tackle the dirt road and drive into the town (nearly 100 kilometres off the highway). As we sat making our decision we notice a sign in the layby. It advertised the services of a... All this was one man - Ian Blair! That made up our minds, and we turned off the highway and headed for Onslow.

We did get to meet Ian, who lived up to his sign, being a big man with a finger in every pie in town, and a wealth of stories to go with it. We went over to his home one evening, and there found out about the Mackerel Islands, a group of ten islands about 21 kilometres offshore. Two of the islands are set up for visitors; Thevanard had five cottages and a caretaker, and Direction had a single cottage which you had to yourself, alone. We would have loved to go immediately, but the huts are booked well in advance, so on our return to Perth we booked a week on Thevanard for the next year.

Thevanard is a small sand and limestone island about six kilometres long and less than a kilometre wide, low and scrubby and surrounded by reefs with coral. The launch (owned and skippered by Ian Blair, of course) leaves from Onslow and drops you off on the beach, where Dot and Bernie (the caretakers - they were still there in 1997) wait to get you settled in. The price for the week is all-inclusive, all food supplied but you cook it yourself.

Our hut was the old Post Office from Onslow, taken to the island and reconstructed by the prisoners from Onslow jail as part of their work detail. It was just a wooden shack, with six single beds in two rooms. The shower and toilet were at the back in a separate outhouse. We settled down in the main room, with two of the beds, a table, chairs, stove, sink and a refrigerator as furniture.

We spent the first day just looking around the small encampment. Apart from the five huts, spread moderate distances apart, there was the caretaker's house and a freezer shed, used to store much of the food used by the visitors and to freese the fish caught around the island before taking it back to the mainland. There was also a small airstrip.

When we arrived Dot suggested that we should all get together for a barbeque that night with her and Bernie, each group bringing a salad or something as a communal offering. This proved a great way to meet everybody, and we had the additional excitement of witnessing the first night aircraft landing ever on the island, as the leasees were flying in to go fishing. The airstrip had no lights, so we drove the only vehicles out to provide headlights, and lit flares to mark the strip. One of the leasees was already on the island and had a radio to talk the plane in, since they had to miss the windmill and the aerial, both sited near the strip.

This is not an island for anyone seeking nightlife and excitement. It is ideal for people who want some quiet, peaceful, lazy time to themselves, or for dedicated fishermen. We took a stack of books and were glad we had. Each hut has a dinghy with an outboard motor, and the fuel tank is on the beach - you help yourself. Dot does a tour around the huts each day to stock up the food and find out what you want to eat from the freezer store. If you go out fishing before she arrives, you leave a note.

We spent a lot of time out in the boat - there is a tiny sand spit about two kilometres off the island, out in the middle of nowhere, where the sea is shallow and we could fish by dropping the line over the side and just watch the fishes decide whether or not to take the bait. We were fishing with very primative tackle - just hand lines on wooden floats and no gloves to prevent being cut on the line, so it was very debatable whether we really wanted one of the more spectacular big fish to get interested in the bait at all!

We had rehearsed a senario to take place if a big fish struck: throw the entire line and float overboard! Eventually it had to happen - I hooked a golden trevally, a true fighting fish. True to the rehearsal, I tossed the line away, and we raised anchor, started the motor and set out to track the float around the ocean. Eventually we managed to catch up with the line and hooked it in with a gaff. We had a balloon on a clip swivel ready, attached that to the line, and threw it back into the ocean - now we could just follow the balloon around until the fish got tired. After about 20 minutes we recaptured our line and brought in the biggest fish I'd ever caught.

There were lots of dolphins around the island, and we were often accompanied by one or two as we putted along. Heading back from the sand spit one day we noticed something a bit strange just off to our left - there it was again - a rough movement in the water. It was a whale, rising to the surface and blowing! We motored across - I was a bit afraid it might overturn our minute dinghy but Geoff was very keen to get close - and were able to get fairly close to where it was surfacing.

Geoff and I weren't alone in our hut; we had a friendly bungarra (also called a racehorse goanna - they run very fast) come in for a visit. We mentioned it to Dot, who suggested we feed it an egg. OK - its not the height of sophisticated entertainment - but you can get get a great deal of amusement watching a determined lizard trying to get into an egg! It knew what to do, but its jaws weren't big enough, so the goanna and the egg raced round and round the floor while we cracked up laughing on the beds. Eventually we took pity on it and broke the egg into a saucer, so the poor animal could get a feed.

The island has a long, low coral reef at one end, exposed at low tide. It isn't the best place for skin diving, although it could be OK for scuba divers. We spend a half a day wandering along the reef one day exploring the rock pools, but didn't dive there. The swimming is fine off the beach in front of the huts, but there are sharks in the water (they caught a big one while we were there), so you should be a bit careful not to swim alone.

Thevanard was a good choice for us. It offered a little socialising, lots of time to fish, read walk and have time to yourself, and it is totally non-touristy!

Note: these days (1997) I believe there is oil drilling on the other side of the island, so that there is a small community of workers and a lot more coming and going than when we visited!

Postscript: Sadly, we noted Ian's obituary in the Sunday paper (died 23/10/98). Ian died at the age of 69, and had been in Onslow since 1959. The obituary noted that in addition to being the local policeman, Ian had served the roles of marriage celebrant, justice of the peace, funeral director, company agent, and newspaper correspondent. After retiring from the Police Force he was a boat charter operator, professional fisherman, shell collector, marine dealer, Aboriginal Legal Service officer and a major force in the local museum. He was a victim of mesothelioma, a common result of having worked at Wittenoom, the asbestos mining town.

Ian and his family will have long forgotten us - we were just another pair of tourists who called in and got chatting to him, and whom he included in his life for a few days. We certainly haven't forgotten him, and will forever associate Onslow and the Mackerel Islands with Ian Blair.

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