A riot of islands

John BorthwickThe West Australian
Kangaroo Island.
Camera IconKangaroo Island. Credit: John Borthwick/Supplied

“Anyone will tell you it’s a prisoners’ island...” goes the classic Icehouse hit Great Southern Land. Many of us now know that restless, twitchy feeling that old convicts called “rock fever”. If you’re desperate to hop off our continent-sized rock, to travel “overseas”, try one of these escape routes — no passport required.

Restoration Island, Queensland

Australia’s coast is a riot of islandswith varying degrees of fame, infamy or accessibility. Tiny Restoration Island, for instance, 800km north of Cairns is rarely visited by anyone but sailors. The first European mariner to do so was a furious William Bligh who arrived by row boat in 1789, having lost his ship Bounty to the mutinous Fletcher Christian. Fast forward 143 years and a handsome young nobody named Errol Flynn, fascinated by the Bounty story, landed at “Resto” aboard the schooner Sirocco. Art imitated life and within a year Flynn found himself in 1933 cast as Fletcher Christian in his first film, In the Wake of the Bounty. In 2003 another cinematic swashbuckler dropped into Resto, this one on his honeymoon cruise, Russell “Master and Commander” Crowe.

Norfolk Island, Kingston ruins.
Camera IconNorfolk Island, Kingston ruins. Credit: John Borthwick/Supplied

Norfolk Island, South Pacific

"The only skyscrapers here are our famous pine trees,” say the Norfolk locals. This beautiful 3455ha island, an Australian External Territory that sits roughly midway between Byron Bay and the northern tip of New Zealand, is the perfect escape hatch for a week or more of low-key ease. Think coral reefs, fishing, snorkelling, hiking, horse riding and good eating, along with the extensive, UNESCO-listed ruins of the early Kingston penal settlement. Try Norfolk’s golf course, the only one in the world with World Heritage protection, which faces the 1804 Government House, probably Australia’s oldest working public building.

Lord Howe Island.
Camera IconLord Howe Island. Credit: John Borthwick/Supplied

Lord Howe Island, NSW

This World Heritage-listed wonder 600km off the New South Wales north coast is home to the planet’s most southerly coral reefs. You can pursue here the simpler things in travel like fishing, diving, surfing, bushwalking, bird-watching and taking tea at three. Lord Howe’s photogenic twin peaks, Gower and Ligdbird snare clouds in their Bora Bora-like volcanic crowns, with 875–metre Mt Gower also offering a challenging vertical hike. Snorkel at Ned's Beach, cycle anywhere and bring a book. With more banyan trees than buildings or cars, Lord Howe is home to only 300 permanent residents and hosts just 400 visitors at a time. No casino, no bling malls. Bring two books.

Gabo Island, Victoria

Gabo sits like a traffic island just off the Victoria-NSW border at Mallacoota and rarely rates a mention until each January when the Sydney to Hobart yacht fleet comes charging past. Sighting Gabo’s pink granite, 1862 lighthouse (at 55 metres, Australia's second tallest) the boats hang a hard right into the gales of Bass Strait. The 154ha island sits just 500 metres off the mainland but, curiously, has its own airstrip — for those who don’t like sea voyages? Gabo is home to the world's second-largest colony of Little Penguins and from May to November the east coast “whale highway” passes close by, with plenty of sightings. There’s boutique accommodation in the Lighthouse Keepers quarters.

Kangaroo Island. "Three tenor" seals.
Camera IconKangaroo Island. "Three tenor" seals. Credit: John Borthwick/Supplied

Kangaroo Island, South Australia

The country’s third largest Island (after Tasmania and Melville) suffered extensively during the 2019-20 bushfires, the worst in its recorded history. Now recovering, this superb 4400sq km realm of black cockatoos, koalas, kangaroos and seals remains hugely worth visiting. Where its grasslands roll down to the sea they meet almost turquoise waters on half-moon beaches that are excellent for hiking, swimming or just a doing nothing. Or head to Seal Bay’s colony of Australian sea lions where a brilliant boardwalk overlooks the dunes. From here you can watch as these effortless masters of the ocean lumber awkwardly onto dry land to collapse among their pals and pups.

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