Explore Flinders Island
The term “hidden gems” is bandied about a lot in Travel, describing little-known sights that are worth putting effort into finding. When it comes to Flinders Island, the island itself is an unknown treasure; a haven of mountains and beaches in Bass Strait, between Victoria and Tasmania, which few Australians have experienced.
Within its coastlines are many secrets, too: the gems that should make many bucket lists … but we’ll get to that. On this occasion, I’m on a quest to uncover the literal “hidden gems” concealed on Flinders Island, as I get stuck into digging for gemstones.
The shops are closed on Sundays and, while that might be frustrating at home with limited time in which to get things done, here it’s a permission to stop.
Fossicking is an interesting pastime: it’s gritty and dirty with no guarantees of any returns. It’s also a little addictive, because that next dig could produce the best gem you’ve ever laid eyes on. In moderation, however, it’s the best excuse an adult can find for playing in the dirt.
Killiecrankie Bay, on the island’s northwest, is the hiding place of the famous Killiecrankie Diamond. Although the stone is actually a clear topaz, it’s named for a striking resemblance to the world’s most dazzling gem — and it’s only once I’m on the island, driving north, that I begin to see my chances of uncovering any dwindle. “I’ve never actually found one,” my passenger, also known as my guide, confesses. Oh dear.
The reasons behind this potential anti-climax can all be explained by taking a few steps back.
Flinders Island time
There’s a little sign hanging from my rental car’s rear vision mirror. It reads, “Slow down … you’re on island time now.” While they’re talking about slowness for the sake of the island’s animals — you have to keep your wits about you as kangaroos and wombats appear in your headlights every few moments — it’s also the perfect reminder to settle your own sense of time when you arrive from the mainland.
Welcome to Australia’s most relaxed destination, where it’s a shock to find yourself in what feels like a time gone by.
The first surprise I receive is while driving to my accommodation, noticing that everyone driving past me (not many people, to be fair) waves. I begin to wave back uncertainly and self-consciously, and it takes me a couple of days to develop my own waving style. Some drivers give a lazy lift of one finger as an acknowledgement, while others wholeheartedly raise their hand from the wheel, and I find a two-finger return wave satisfies both their expectation of manners and my own desire to be the perfect guest.
Reminders of the past continue when I discover that nothing moves fast on Flinders Island. The shops are closed on Sundays and, while that might be frustrating at Home with limited time in which to get things done, here it’s a permission to stop. It’s stepping back into a simpler time when days stretched blankly ahead and you could choose exactly what you wanted to do with that expanse of time.
Giant ochre boulders dominate the perfect beaches, so reminiscent of those in southern Victoria and northern Tasmania that it’s easy to imagine all three islands joined in ancient times.
So, what was it you used to enjoy doing when you had whole days at a time free? I wasn’t expecting to receive a culture shock while still in my own country, but this shock comes from within myself. It’s a realisation that I need to be “bored” sometimes, to just be, and to figure out what it is that I’d choose to fill that space with. When was the last time you felt that freedom?
It’s all part of being immersed in a beautiful landscape that time forgot. Giant ochre boulders dominate the perfect beaches, so reminiscent of those in southern Victoria and northern Tasmania that it’s easy to imagine all three islands joined in ancient times. It makes people feel as though they have all the time in the world.
The best of these red-rock beaches can be seen on the walk to Castle Rock, an hour each way along the west coast and known among locals as the most beautiful sight on the island. They say here that if you see someone else on the beach, you should go and find a quieter spot, so it’s lucky that bumping into others is unlikely — and this only adds to the feeling that this stretch of coast might just be Tasmania’s quiet way of showing the world how beaches should be done. White sand, sapphire-blue water and the ultimate giant granite boulder provide the trifecta of a perfect landscape.
Usually a fast walker, I expect this short trail to take no time at all, but I’m wrong. To rush here goes against every instinct, so I amble along with plenty of stops to bask in this place. It’s the only way to experience Flinders Island. Peace is what they do best here; however, it certainly wasn’t always that way.
A long, grim history
Flinders Islanders are more than honest: they’re straight down the line, and a look at their evolution explains why this is.
Everything you see has been fought for, from attention by their home state of Tasmania to gaining electricity in 1980, so there’s little wonder to the utter determination and fierce protectiveness locals have towards their homeland.
There are two places to begin understanding the history of Flinders Island: the Furneaux Museum, which tells the story in collections of various time periods, and the Wybalenna Aboriginal settlement.
If Flinders Island is like stepping back in time, then Wybalenna is like jumping into the pages of a history book. While Tasmania’s gory convict history is well known, its Aboriginal history is not. Indeed, several generations were taught that Tasmanian Aborigines never even existed, as though that part of Australian history — and present — simply didn’t involve them.
Wybalenna provides a confronting truth. Tasmanian Aborigines were, in fact, removed from their homeland to be placed in what some refer to as a camp for their safety, away from the Black War, and what others call captivity. Whichever side of the story you choose to believe (both are represented here and at the museum), the facts are undeniable: they died in vast numbers at Wybalenna from the diseases brought in by Europeans and from mistreatment.
A hidden gem of a location, within a hidden gem of an island, to find hidden gems? My luck might be turning around.
Visiting Wybalenna settlement is, quite frankly, uncomfortable. But sometimes discomfort is important in order to learn and empathise.
In the Furneaux Museum, I spend some time flicking through old documents that have been carefully curated by volunteers, marvelling at the importance placed on keeping as many memories as possible.
It’s here that I meet a local who perfectly illustrates a lack of rush. “How did you come to live here?” I ask, and he laughs. “How long have you got?” I assure him that I’m feeling like all the time in the world is at my feet, and he tells me the long tale of how he landed here. In short, it goes something like this:
“We came here on holiday and were playing beach cricket with the kids. We met a man who was renovating his house and he kept telling us to come and look at it, so eventually we went to his place. We were blown away by the view: it was so beautiful looking out over the water that I told him to give me a call if he ever decided to sell his house. Thirteen years later, he rang.”
Memories are long on Flinders Island, particularly in remembering the feeling you get when you’re looking out over the depths of Bass Strait, those infamous Roaring Forties winds clearing the cobwebs from your mind. Time doesn’t mean much at all here.
It’s this skewed version of time that explains where my gemstone fossicking adventure — or was it to be a misadventure? — fell off track. With an experienced guide arranged, who’d talked up the very good odds of finding a sparkler, all was well — until he decided time could wait. I’m on the island for a week, however, and although it’s like being a kid again when a week feels like a long space in life, this is my only chance to dig for those diamonds.
A volunteer steps up to the task and, while I’m grateful for his help, his lack of experience (“I’ve never actually found one”) doesn’t fill me with confidence.
Fossicking for diamonds
Not only has my new guide, Greg, never found a gemstone before, despite much time dedicated to the prospect, he also drops a second bombshell as we drive towards Killiecrankie. “We’ve missed low tide,” he says, “so we can’t fossick at Killiecrankie Bay itself.” (Note to self: take matters into my own hands next time.) “What’s the plan?” I ask. “I’ll show you a spot no other visitors know about,” is the reply. A hidden gem of a location, within a hidden gem of an island, to find hidden gems? My luck might be turning around.
He directs me to the old tin mine where, I’m told, rumour has it there are plenty of “diamonds” because old-time miners ignored them for the money that was in tin. It’s a drive down a long dirt road and a blue ribbon tied to a post that indicates the track to this secret fossicking spot.
We push our way through a narrow, bushy track, at the end of which Greg points me to the creek, hands me a shovel and a rusty sieve and says, “Go for your life.”
We push our way through a narrow bushy track, at the end of which Greg points me to the creek, hands me a shovel and a rusty sieve and says, “Go for your life.” I request some tips. “Well, you’re searching for something that looks like glass. Good luck,” he chuckles with perhaps a hint of sarcasm.
I dig into the dirt and stones on the creek’s edge, chuck it into the sieve and kneel down to wash it and begin my search. “Hey, Greg,” I call over to where my companion is digging. “Did you say it’ll look like glass?” He nods. “Like this?” I ask, holding up a clear gem measuring half a centimetre in length and a few millimetres in width. It’s the size of both the stone and my grin that has him dropping his shovel with a loud clang and striding over to me, and his jaw drops. To his credit, he appears genuinely pleased for me despite his own lack of findings.
“Beginner’s luck,” I declare as, over the next hour, I dig up two more glasslike stones, each time feeling excited to be the first person to have ever unearthed these particular gems.
The remainder of my time on Flinders Island is a continuation of the aimless wandering, cool beach sunsets and unhurried chats that have become daily rituals during my time here. It has only been a week, but this place has crept under my skin with its irresistible peacefulness. It’s like a retreat for the soul.
It’s where walks become discoveries, locals deliver unexpected candidness, time becomes irrelevant and misadventures turn into the luckiest of adventures. And it occurs to me that maybe the disregard for time and plans on Flinders Island is really just a mask for letting things work out for the best.
Experience Flinders Island
Flinders Island is in Bass Strait, between Victoria and Tasmania. Sharp Airlines flies from Melbourne (Essendon airport) and Launceston to Whitemark, Flinders Island. Look out for regular specials to make the trip more affordable, particularly in the off-peak winter months.
For those on low budgets, Flinders Island Cabin Park is great; mid-range options include Elvstan Cottages in Whitemark itself or Sawyers Bay Shacks on the west coast; and, if you’re splurging, check out West End Beach House.
With no public transport on this island that’s 75km long and 40km wide, the only way to get around is to hire a car. Rental cars are cheap from Flinders Island Cabin Park & Car Hire.
What to do
Check out the history at the Furneaux Museum and Wybalenna Aboriginal settlement, walk to Castle Rock or do a half-day hike in the Strzelecki Ranges, or try for your own beginner’s luck fossicking at Killiecrankie Bay. Most importantly, take the opportunity to just chill out on Flinders Island.