An Island Fit for a King

22 Jan 2021

By Benny Teo

As it stands, Australia already offers some of the best vacation experiences one can uncover in the world – a congenial climate, beautiful sights, great food and of course, golf – all littered across this giant continent.

Sited near there, between the state of Victoria and Tasmania’s north-west coast is a place called King Island and that is where our adventure begins.

Surrounded by rugged coastline, King Island was discovered by John Reed back in 1799 while hunting seals around the area. When more sealers arrived here to ply their trade, it was deemed necessary to build a lighthouse to warn incoming seamen on the dangers of the coast’s jagged edges.

Although the impressive 48-metre (157 ft) granite tower, Australia’s tallest lighthouse, was finished and the light first lit on 1 November 1861, the Cape Wickham Lighthouse was only officially opened in November 2011 at a community celebration of the light’s 150th anniversary.

Today, there are no passenger ferries to the island and the only way to get here is to fly by small aircraft, either from Tasmania (Burnie – Wynyard or Launceston) or mainland Australia (Melbourne) with three airlines flying from Melbourne each day.

From Melbourne airport, it is a short 10-minute shuttle ride to the smaller Essendon airport, where the flight takes 30-40 minutes and before you know it, you are looking down on a golfing island paradise.

A favourite for Victorians and other mainland Australians for a quick getaway, King Island is known for its fresh seafood, good produce and some of the cleanest air in the world. Food is king here, and the island’s annual Long Table Festival puts the island’s fresh produce front and centre.

King Island has a population of approximately 1,500 permanent residents, of whom 700 reside in the township of Currie situated on the west coast, which is a mere five-minute drive from the airport. There are two other villages, Naracoopa on the east coast and Grassy to the south east.

The island forms part of the official land divide between the Great Australian Bight and Bass Strait, off the north-western tip of Tasmania and about halfway to the mainland state of Victoria. The southernmost point is Stokes Point and the northernmost point is Cape Wickham, where you will find a golf course named Cape Wickham Links.

Repeatedly voted as Australia’s number one rated public access course ever since it was built in 2016, Cape Wickham Links might just be the most coveted ticket in world golf right now.

Immediately on playing Cape Wickham, you are in esteemed and rarefied air. Just getting to King Island is an accomplishment in itself and you leave with a feeling that you might have just partaken in golf’s ultimate indulgence.

There is a sense of discovery on arrival at Cape Wickham that is unlike any feeling in golf; there are few other courses in the world that are only accessible by boat or small chartered aircraft.

Like many great golf courses, Cape Wickham has a splendid entrance. A long and winding dirt road that is completely the opposite of Augusta National’s Magnolia Lane, with not a tree or bush taller than Gary Player.

The landscape is rugged and would have been a fitting assignment for Charles Darwin. The island is replete with its own unique species of flora and fauna and the only thing that is familiar is the perfectly manicured agronomy of that aforementioned golf course, pure and unadulterated in its natural beauty.

Known for its unpredictable weather, King Island is in the middle of Bass Strait, a stretch of sea that could be referred to as Australia’s Bermuda Triangle. So treacherous is the sea that the local pub has all its 16 rooms named after ships that sank on its rocky shorelines over the past century.

On the 40-minute drive north to the golf course, you might not pass a single car, but you best keep your eyes open for fear of hitting a wallaby that might be hopping across the road to greener pastures. This is an adventure you will be telling your peers for years.

King Island has a name and reputation all to itself. Local residents quietly go about their slow-paced life, farming the land and seas, furthering their long-garnered and respected status in food production; most notably cheese and beef from the well-fed cattle that often wander the rugged coastline chewing on mineral-rich sea kelp that laces their blood and flesh with that secret King Island elixir. The beef later fetches top dollar in gourmet restaurants around the world.

Crayfish caught off its coast are loaded onto a small light aircraft bound for the mainland port of Melbourne only to then be exported to lucrative international markets in Asia – and so it has been on King Island for decades; a humble farming community with their own island paradise, until a couple of Melbourne-based golfers stumbled upon an incredible piece of golfing land in 2011.

With its dramatic seaside location and premium untouched land, the comparisons to the iconic courses like Cypress Point and Turnberry have been swift and forthcoming.

The land was first discovered by golf architect Ross Perrett and golf contractor Andrew Purchase in 2011, while on assignment to build a house on the west coast of King Island, south of Cape Wickham.

Both are keen golfers and were working in golf development industry internationally and Perrett has a keen eye for beautiful land and has designed dozens of courses alongside one of the finest links golfers of all time, five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson.

Once the land was sighted and secured, the potential of a world-class golf course attracted several investors and course designers started jockeying for position to see who would get the prized reward to put their name to this divine piece of land.

After much consultation with the government to enable the course to lease the crown land on the coast, the land was re-zoned and the development proceeded under the guidance of American course designer Mike DeVries, landowner Duncan Andrews and golf author Darius Oliver.

A marvel of golfing architecture with views akin to Pebble Beach and a layout on par with Augusta National, its quality is derivative of its superior geographical location, with due respect to the designers.

Perched on the northern tip of the island, the land hosts the iconic Cape Wickham Lighthouse, the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest lighthouse. As mentioned before, it was built in 1861 and the particular reason behind it was a response to the sinking of the Cataraqui ship 16 years earlier that claimed 400 lives.

Today, the tall, 48-metre-high spectacle makes a formidable entrance as you approach Cape Wickham Links.

Cape Wickham is a wild and rugged experience with nature seeping through your pores and excitement pulsing down your veins. Wild wallabies proliferate the island during the day and accompanied by a chorus of small coastal birds.

The rich and vibrant coastal flowers are sturdy and succulent, knowingly storing water for impending dry times. The turquoise water calm in the bay, while over the headland, the wind gnashes and wild waves break and crash on a coastal environment that you just know, has not seen many human eyes, until now.

Vulnerable, salty, rugged and windswept one day, lush, opulent, still and serene the next, King Island is exposed to some of the most far fetching wind patterns in the world colloquially known as ‘the roaring forties’.

Cape Wickham has 16 luxury cabins on site and waking up to a sunrise over Victoria Cove, with the whole day ahead for unlimited golf is heaven in itself. If the budget does not permit staying onsite, then the local pub in Currie is the best of the accommodation on the island with nice food and friendly staff.

King Island is a foodie’s paradise, and the island’s fresh produce and seafood are certainly world class. Grassy, Currie, and Naracoopa have many eateries serving up these local specialties.

While there, try restaurants like The Boomerang By The Sea, Café Brewer and the island’s only fine-dining establishment, Wild Harvest, which raises their own hogs so their pork dishes are especially delightful.

For cheese lovers, The King Island Dairy cheese shop is a must-visit. Award-winning cheeses can be sampled including blue cheese, white cheese, hard cheese, washed-rind cheese and ash cheese.

When finally, the time came to play, the golf course was in immaculate condition. Cape Wickham wows one right off the bat and it will be hard to find a more visually pleasing opening hole in golf. Like a classical piece of music that opens with a robusto before easing into a nice rhythm to only later reveal a completely new and brilliant turn of melody with an opus finale, this golf course is akin to a masterpiece.

The greens all ran at the same speed, which is an important factor that is often overlooked in golf. From the tee markers to the flagsticks, to even the rakes, this is a high-quality facility. The course offers a lot of risk-and-reward challenges, mostly dependent on the direction of its blustery winds.

Truth be told, if one was to write about this course on a day with perfect weather, you would think that angels themselves had come down from heaven and caddied for you through the garden of Eden. To write about it on a windy day and with rain, would be the complete opposite.

Like most people who play the course, it strikes you that it is more about three loops of six holes, rather than two of nine. In fact, you return to the clubhouse after the 13th and like a good meal, the best bit is left for the last bite.

Somehow, they managed to make the closing three holes even better than the first 15. You literally are hitting a driver over the beach of Victoria Cove on the Par 4, 18th and the sand is that much in play that the owners added two staircases in order for golfers to safely walk down and attempt recoveries from the shoreline. What a joyful experience and a wonderful crescendo to Cape Wickham links.

The sense of joy was something very important to the project’s financier, Duncan Andrews, who opined, “My primary ambition was for DeVries and Oliver to create a course where the focus was on joy or pleasure for all levels of golfer. My personal desire was for everyone to walk off the course just bubbling with pleasure from the experience. This was essential to justify the inherent risk in building a course in such a remote location.”

Golf is now the chief tourist attraction for this tiny island and visitors not only get to play the number one ranked public access course in Cape Wickham, but also the fourth-ranked course in Ocean Dunes. Both courses opened in 2016.

That is an incredible feat for these two courses to burst onto the golfing radar with such success, as Australia has nearly 1,800 golf courses with several in ‘Top 100 in the World’ rankings.

King Island is an unforgettable golfing experience, one that will make you the envy of all your golfing friends. Be sure to say hello to the residents and if you get time, go play the ‘other’ 9-hole golf course, King Island Golf & Bowling Club, for this is where golf began on the island and is a completely humbling experience.

The golf is seasonal and the course is closed in the windy months of July and August, and reopens on the first day of spring in September. And remember this, the old golfing adage of ‘keeping your head down’ does not apply here. Keep your eyes open and soak in the wonder that is Cape Wickham and return to tell the tale.