A visit to the Abrolhos Islands has been on my bucket list for a long time and now I’ve finally done it. On a picture-perfect day we flew out of Geraldton airport on a small plane, headed for the Abrolhos archipelago, 55 to 60 km off the coast.
I’ve seen the maps and other people’s pictures but seeing the place for yourself is very different. The islands are spread over a long distance, organised in four groups. We flew over the Pelsaert Group and the Easter Group before heading for the Wallabi group, which is where the VOC ship Batavia was wrecked in 1629. That was my focus; how well had I depicted the setting in my book To Die a Dry Death, and what effect would this place have on me.
To start with, we flew over West Wallabi, where the soldiers under their inspirational leader Wiebbe Hayes, defended themselves against Jeronimus Cornelisz’s thugs. There, I took a picture of the ‘fort’. Fort is the wrong word, I think. They probably built a shelter to protect them from the everlasting wind. Our visit took place on a rare day when the wind didn’t blow.
Then we landed on East Wallabi. If anything, I think I underestimated the term ‘High Island’. Certainly East and West Wallabi are much higher than anything else out there – but most of the islands are pancake flat, little more than reefs left exposed above the sea. The High Islands are low sandhills built on a limestone platform. That said, they’re positively spacious in comparison to Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard), the Long Island and Traitor’s Island. Wildlife is abundant. We saw lizards everywhere, a number of the resident wallabies, sea birds, dolphins cruising the reefs, every variety of fish. Because of the Leeuwin current, the water is warmer out there, so coral gardens grow in the shallow water.
The plants on the islands are another story. All the growth is stunted, with most bushes not much more than knee high. A few plants grow a little higher but shade would have been hard to find. I stood on the highest point of East Wallabi and looked across the sea to the line of bright sand which was the Long Island and the smaller low island which was Batavia’s Graveyard. Yes, I’m sure Wiebbe would have posted lookouts here when he learned of Cornelisz’s reign of terror.
We flew over Batavia’s Graveyard on the way back and also saw Traitor’s Island, where the survivors were first landed from the shipwrecked Batavia. It was from here that the ship’s longboat, loaded with all the senior officers, set sail for the city of Batavia (now known as Jakarta), leaving the rest of the survivors to fend for themselves. The fishing shacks on the islands are now empty and the plan is to remove them so that this island where so many horrendous events took place, can be properly excavated and its ghosts left in respectful peace.
After nearly 400 years, the hole the Batavia gouged in the reef is still visible. The Dutch ships Batavia and Zeewijk are just two of a large number of ships wrecked on these treacherous islands. On a normal day, when the white caps would cover the ocean, it’s easy to imagine mariners in peril of running onto these reefs. At night – well, it’s hardly surprising.
And me? What did this trip do for me? It was sobering. It was so easy to imagine people from another world landing here, maybe grateful to be alive but faced with the enormous problem of survival in a harsh, uncaring land. Complicate that with a psychopath and you have a horror story that no novelist could have dreamed up in a nightmare. Yet it’s also a story of great courage, ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit. Seeing what those people faced all those years ago simply highlights those qualities.
If you’d like to know more about the wreck of the Batavia, check out my history page.