Michael Veitch (1962 – ), the author of this interesting account of the usually overlooked rather than ‘forgotten’ islands of Bass Strait is one of those moderately well known people who have been off and on our screens for years – since the D-Generation of 1985 in his case. I’ve put his photo at the bottom of the post if you want to jog your memory. He writes that he is often half-recognized and that the most puzzling, he says existential, question he is asked is ‘Didn’t you use to be [semi-famous comedian]?’ Strangely, if I met Veitch in a bar that is exactly what I would ask too – an inarticulate compound of “you look familiar” and “aren’t you so-and-so?”.
The book is framed around a story told to him by a friend of his father’s, of the disappearance of a lighthouse keeper’s assistant while fishing off the rocks on Deal Island and the subsequent sighting of the tentacles of a ‘giant squid’. Veitch retells this story often, honing it as he does, interested in whether it may be true, and eventually forms the intention of making his way to the Bass Strait islands, and Deal Island in particular to see for himself.
Veitch of course is a polished performer, making his living by speaking, as a broadcaster and by touring one man shows, and this book, while written in ordinary English, too shows signs of having been ‘polished’. The story telling is slick, the narrative around the ‘giant squid’ story is maintained and tension is built as he makes two or three unsuccessful attempts to reach Deal Island before finally succeeding. And even then he only gets down to the rocks at the last minute.
Bass Strait (map), the narrow waterway between Victoria and Tasmania is notoriously treacherous, funnelling the westward currents of the Southern Ocean into a narrow, shallow channel and out into the Tasman Sea. Only 7,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, this was land and the many Bass Strait islands a mountain range. The islands are mostly uninhabited, only King Is in the west, with its substantial (Japanese-owned) dairying industry having a reasonable population (1,566). Flinders Is at the eastern end of the Strait is larger, but is mountainous and supports fewer people.
Flinders Is is well known as the last refuge of the Tasmanian Aborigines, collected there after they were almost wiped out by the Black Wars (1820-32). Veitch talks a number of times about the end of the Aborigines and about Truganini (1812-1876) as the last Aborigine, both of which I think are disputed by present day Indigenous Tasmanians.
The book begins as a memoir of childhood summers spent at the holiday home of family friends, during which the ‘giant squid’ story is told, but soon transitions into first a history of Bass and Flinders’ ‘discovery’ and naming of the islands, then to shipwrecks and finally into travelogue. He begins with a visit to Stanley, a fishing port at the western end of Tasmania’s north coast, protected by The Nut, a great granite rock which he climbs and suffers for for days after.
He visits nearby islands, Hunter or Three Hummocks, I forget now, with a long-time former resident. Goes back to his home in Melbourne. Consults a marine biologist, who tells him that a creature from the ocean deeps like the giant squid would explode in the shallow waters of Bass Strait. Visits Flinders and King Islands (separately). Joins a sailing trip from Victoria’s Westernport Bay to Deal Island which fails to reach its destination and turns back to the Prom for repairs. Veitch is furiously seasick all the way, and put ashore at the Prom to rest up strangely finds a hut in the bush full of beer-drinking men who take him in.
He attempts unsuccessfully to join official parties making the journey to Deal Is by boat from Flinders Is, before finally receiving a phone call at home in Melbourne saying that there is a boat with a place for him amongst a party of lighthouse enthusiasts and he at last sets foot on the island.
Of course we are in the hands of someone who tells stories for a living, so first we must make the steep climb to the lighthouse, noting the side track to the beach of the ‘squid story’ on the way. Then lighthouse ascended and admired, we head for the track … no, the party are going to investigate the wreckage of a WWII “bomber” which Veitch, the author of a number of books about WWII flying, recognizes as a light Airspeed Oxford lost, as it turns out, on a training flight from the airforce base at Sale in Eastern Victoria in 1944.
At last, with warnings about the dangers of missing his ride out ringing in his ears, he makes his way down the disused track to a rocky beach, it doesn’t fit the story, we digress to the story of a another shipwreck whose remains can be seen, but then a few steps, he looks to the left, and there surely is the rock slab from which the lighthouse keeper’s assistant was lost.
Michael Veitch, The Forgotten Islands, Penguin, 2011. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2016, read by the author.
see also: my review of Robert Drewe’s The Savage Crows (here)