Islands and islanders hold a special place in the imagination of many people. Lighthouses, shipwrecks, hardy fishermen, secluded beaches, wildlife, and good food are common on the Bass Strait Islands. Kangaroo Island is no different, it has them all and to a very refined degree.
It also has an aboriginal past but, unlike wine, sheep, cheese, brown and bread, it does nothing to announce the fact. On the contrary, it hides from that story.
The devastating Kangaroo Island fires of 2019-20 destroyed buildings and burned souls. The island will take a long time to revive physically and psychologically. So much tourist infrastructure was destroyed that the island’s economy took a massive hit. Recovery will be slow and painful.
It’s easy to celebrate and promote the island’s good food, idyllic beaches and wildlife, but it will take a while for tourists to return. Don’t be deterred from visiting the island, it truly is an exceptional part of the country and a few years ago it produced one of the most alluring tourism advertising campaigns ever seen. It deserves the return of visitors.
And hopefully, this is also an opportunity to expand the tourist attraction through the untold story of your Aboriginal history.
Foreign tourists regularly list Aboriginal culture in the top three on their wish list for Australian experiences. They have seldom granted it. Here’s an opportunity for the entrepreneurs and detectives of history, but wait a minute, shouldn’t Aborigines provide that opportunity? Australia likes to step in and fail, we try to bridge the gap and fail, but what is really needed is respect for culture and the determination of governments and the public that Aboriginals will pass on this story.
This is a way for the island to respect the past and benefit from the future – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal together. I invite you to explore this past with me now, which first takes us to Australia’s seal industry and its largest island, Tasmania.
The stamping industry of colonial Australia is a perfect example of why Western industrial capitalism is tearing the world apart. Unsustainable exploitation, without regard for the environment. Loot for profit, go ahead and leave the damage in your wake. Abuse of Mother Earth.
And abuse of anyone who gets in the way. In this case, aborigines. Aboriginal women.
Tasmanian Aborigines had a division of labor according to which women were largely responsible for gathering resources from the sea. Aboriginal tradition required that this extraction be carried out under spiritual rules because the economy could not be separated from the spiritual life.
Most sealers thought it reasonable to buy a woman for these purposes, and although the practice was scoffed at by the church and government, it was an important element in the success of the colony.
Sealants used to leave women on isolated islands when they were pregnant or could no longer work. Quite a few were left on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia.
Today Kangaroo Island does not seem to remember this story. You will search in vain in tourist information to refer to Aboriginal women. If you ask about Aboriginal history in the media where you might expect to find such information, you may get a belligerent look, like me. Fortunately, an art store was more forthcoming and gave me the phone number of an Aboriginal family who gave me a more complete story.
Australia’s bellicose resistance to the nation’s history is an unedifying reflection of our national character, but Rebe Taylor’s brilliant story on Kangaroo Island, Unearthed: The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island, is the exception. Find a copy to read before visiting the island.
Taylor reflected on the absence of Aboriginal history in the island’s museums and, visiting them a couple of years after the book was released, I discovered that it was no different. History is fascinating and full of fascinating stories, but not enough for some Australians, who seem to find the presence of Aboriginal people a threat to their ideas of legitimacy and identity.
It’s a shame because embracing the true history of the country, despite the pain it must cause, is the only way to find an Australian identity. The country does not have to constantly genuflect in the face of such pain, but it must acknowledge it if an intelligent discussion about our nationality is to take place. It is certainly within our ability to understand the past as we celebrate and look to our future.
Here you will spend a wonderful vacation on the island. To erase the bitter taste of the reception given to my request for information on Aboriginal history, I dove in search of abalone on the remote and beautiful beach of Snelling. Kangaroo Island is beautiful and it is common to have an entire beach all to yourself. This is an experience our crowded world longs for.
As you stroll through the sand, reflect on Australian generosity. Accepting a more authentic national history doesn’t mean giving up our beach culture. There will be moments of unease on both sides but the conversation between us may deepen and mature. Australia is capable of this transition. National identity is not discarded, but is enriched, built on substance and facts.
Rent a bicycle or car and enjoy the island at your leisure. If you hear a judgmental and uninformed conversation about Aboriginal nature while cruising on the ferry, write it down as an Australian tourist experience as well, but one that we hope will soon be replaced by informed discussions of the distinction of Aboriginal place names and entry. they provide a more real and complete Australian story.
Things to see and do
The oyster farm shop
Sample some delicious wild browns or native oysters and abalone at this working oyster farm that also sells sustainable seafood from all over the island.
Cliffords Honey Farm
Kangaroo Island is a bee sanctuary and home to a population of Ligurian bees (introduced from Italy). You can buy honey and various related products here, but the real reason to visit is honey ice cream.
Join a guided tour and walk along a beach full of sleeping sea lions. Self-guided tours to a boardwalk and observation deck are also available, but you won’t get as close to the wildlife.
Flinders Chase National Park
You will still see the scars from the 2019-20 wildfires, but the highlights of this vast park include the seal colony at Admirals Arch, the Cape du Couedic lighthouse, and the highly photographed Remarkable Rocks.
To learn more about the fascinating Aboriginal history of Kangaroo Island, read Rebe Taylor’s Unearthed: The Tasmanian Aborigines of Kangaroo Island, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2002.
• This is an edited excerpt from Loving country by Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou, available now from Hardie Grant
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism