King Island's crown jewel Martha Lavinia. Photo: Respondek


A little bit of local knowledge goes a long way on King Island

There are these three kids. They’re fanging across the tide flat at Porky’s Beach in an old red farm buggy. Eldest is three weeks off his Ls so he knows how to drive – fast as possible. Co-pilot relays the speedo count in a shrill crescendo. Engine buzzing like a caffeinated bee, sun baking down, tall blue skies. Round the boulder, over a slurp of bull kelp, final straight ahead. Accelerator to the floor. Fifty-five! Everyone leaning forward. Fifty-six! Sudden divot and 3mm of the cleanest air in the world. Fifty-seven!

“I’m never living in a city,” declares my eldest, winding it back and skwarking a lazy arc to a stop in front of the little right. We’re all feeling it. King Island has much to offer but at this point in human history it’s also a good line in mind-relief and soul shine. It feels wild and free. As if it orbits the world’s problems. You can surf by yourself. Dance naked in your gumboots. Not wear a helmet. Collect armfuls of fresh seafood. Drink-drive across empty paddocks. Start a bonfire you can see from Adelaide. Buy an old beach shack, paint it orange, and decorate it with whatever washes up on the beach. No-one’s stopping you.

Bonfire delights on King Island. Photo: Kirk Owers.

We’ve been on the island for half a day and it’s on. We’ve had our first surf and are kicking back, soaking up the unexpected Indian summer. We’re off the west coast of Tassie in the eye of the Roaring Forties and yet it’s a windless 26 degrees. The mums look rejuvenated, sea-scrubbed and vital. The groms are all action. Sand surfing the dunes or doing hot laps in the quadie. Before long someone’s towing behind the buggy, skimming across the fluctuating shallows at leg-breaking speeds. Dads beam with pride. This was what life was like for those of us who survived the 70s.

We cashed in our Bali flights for the KI trip. Flying again felt like a real novelty. Everyone masked up like bandits and if you’re in the front row on a Sharp Airlines flight you’re virtually sitting in the pilot’s lap. On arrival, as long as you’re not accidentally smuggling apples, you get a friendly welcome which lasts the entire holiday. Drive anywhere and everyone waves – even if you’re a pedestrian. And don’t worry about locking up your house or car at any stage. Crime is a mainland thing.

Barrel hunting is part of the fun on King Island. Dion Agius by John Respondek.

There’s plenty of surf on King Island if you know where (and when) to look. But it’s not an easy place to get down. Throughout the week I was constantly discovering waves that turned out to be rock-infested or have tidal issues or weren’t waves at all. Because it’s an island you find yourself asking dumb questions: Which way’s the wind blowing? What coast are we on? Where’d the sun go? Whose land is this? How come everyone’s smiling and waving?

Luckily, we had a friend connection with local surfer and beef farmer, Thor, a fourth generation King Islander, family man and local councillor. Thor learnt to surf on an 8’6” hand-me-down. His family property stretches across the northwest and his house overlooks an attractive empty beach, which glows like golden syrup every evening as the sun dips into Bass Straight. The God of Thunder took time off celestial warfare (aka: fencing) to show us round the place and stoked our excitement with a promising Martha’s forecast.

Martha Lavinia is the wave everyone wants to surf on KI. Kelly Slater and Eddie Vedder scored it back in the day and since then it’s been swell-striked by every tube-hungry pro on the planet. Gets good at Easter. John Florence and Steph Gilmore among the more recent visitors. Some say it’s one of the best beachies in Australia. To get us extra psyched we watch a locally produced film, Insane in the A-frame, which highlights some of the best Martha’s performances over the last 20 years. There’s been more than a few. Ando, Rasta and Noa Deane have been the most impressive, according to Thor.

Easter Monday rocks around and a big clean swell angles in from the right direction and refracts perfectly to produce Martha’s famous A-frames. It’s only three-foot when we bowl up, but most sets are gushing. We race out there and quickly get schooled. I start my session with a retro nose dive to forward flip. Then I perform an exciting lip launch. Eventually I learn. You want to be snug against the backdoor, locked and loaded, but also cool and collected like a heavily armed Gerry Lopez entering a room full of known combatants.

Even equipped with this discovery, I still don’t make many sets. Gaining entry to the barrel is easier than making it out past the quickly slamming exit. The locals go better, but unless you’re a tube magician with ninja reflexes, prepare to get snotted. Watching a novice gingerly paddle out at Martha’s is like watching an undersized kid climb into a rollercoaster with no seatbelts. Guaranteed excitement awaits.

Martha’s packs a punch and it’s busy on this day too. Thirty eager contenders roam up and down the beach hoping to be at ‘the spot’ when ‘the spot’ turns up. On a pumping sunny Easter Monday this would be expected at most world-famous waves but here on KI it’s a near record crowd. There’s said to be only 10 core surfers on the island and when two of them collide and Lance hobbles up the beach fountaining blood from a sliced artery, and a few mates cart him off to Curry hospital at 150 clicks an hour, the local surfing contingent drops by 30 per cent.

I’m so taken with King Island I try to weasel out of writing about it. I‘d hate to come back here one day and see a surf camp in the dunes at Martha’s. Or find all the farmers have locked their gates because too many dumbos have left them open. Or that the National Parks have blocked access, most of the crays have been eaten, and no one waves at strangers any more. But none of these things appear likely to happen any time soon. The island pride itself on its sustainability record, including its niche tourism focus. Golf is the biggest drawcard since the island added two of Australia’s best courses.

Clawed delicacies on King Island. Photo: Kirk Owers.

On our last day – another cloudless beamer – we follow Thor down a bunch of farm tracks to yet another pristine deserted beach. It’s tiny when we arrive but when we paddle out it spikes to three-foot and gets a nice simmer on. We have a great time hooting each other’s rides and sharing yarns. My youngest gets his first ever barrel. My eldest returns from the dive of his life with a huge bag of crays and abs. Again, because he was taken to the best spots with some super cool locals.

That night we eat crayfish popcorn with abalone sides after a blue cheese starter plate while packing our bags. The weather is due to crack up the day we leave. Howling winds. Huge swell. Snow in Tasmania. It’s time to go but it’s going to be hard to rejoin the real world.

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