More than just a resort landing strip, Lady Elliot’s environmental charm is a blessing to be saved
"I first saw Lady Elliot Island in 1979, when I came over by boat with some friends from my profession in motorcycle racing,” Gash said. “I had never seen such a beautiful place…”
As stewards of the unique coral cay that's Lady Elliot Island. Peter and Julie Gash take this responsibility very seriously, based on their environmental principles.
“We consider ourselves blessed in having this island,” Gash said. “Our major emphasis is on caring for Lady Elliot's unique environment. I see this island in a way as a gift to the people of Australia and the world as an educational resource of what wrongs can be put right.”
Lady Elliot Island, where Seair lands its Caravans several times a day, is a 100-acre coral cay on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Situated just within the southern boundary of the designated World Heritage area of the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot has a unique history that dates back to 1816, when Captain Thomas Stewart, sailing the 353 ton "Lady Elliot" (it had been built in Bengal and named after the wife of Hugh Elliot, the colonial governor of India). sighted and named the island.
A coral cay stripped of virtually all vegetation
In the late 1800s, the island was surface-mined for its guano, which is an accumulation bird droppings over centuries of time. The guano was exported from Australia as fertilizer. By 1873, when a lighthouse and a lighthouse keeper's cottage were built, the island was stripped bare. The lighthouse, built using a timber-framed substructure and cast iron external cladding, continued to operate until it was automated in 1980. The original lighthouse, now a landmark within the Great Barrier Reef, still stands on the west shore of the island.
The Great Barrier Reef off northeast Australia's Gold Coast is the largest coral reef system in the world. Altogether there are more than 2,900 individual reefs in the system, including 300 coral cays. Of these few hundred coral cays, there are only three islands with resorts on them, and only one of the three resort islands - Lady Elliot - has a landing strip for aircraft. The landing strip, which was bulldozed across the island in 1969, is barely 1800 feet long - well within the takeoff and landing capabilities of the Cessna Caravan.
Even as late as the 1970s, photos show the island resembling a moonscape, devoid of hardly any vegetation. Some 30 years later. The Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service and the former resort manager planted about 50 pisonia trees on the western side of the runway as part of the continuing re-growth strategy. The pisonia trees, which naturally spread when fallen branches literally take root, are now making good progress and are the preferred nesting sites of the White-Capped Noddy. Thousands of the birds fly to the island each year from October to March to mate and rear their young in precarious nests strung out along the branches of the towering trees.
“We plan to gradually phase out the introduced species of flora such as lantana and weeds," Gash said. “But over the years, they have done a good job of bringing back this degraded landscape. which was denuded during the guano-mining period. In a simple way. they protected it and bound it together. But now is the time to replace the introduced species with flora that belonged in the original landscape: including the pisonia tree, pandanus palm. octopus bush, natural ground cover and the tournefortia tree.”
As these trees die naturally and break down, mulch is produced to assist in covering the coral base of the island. With the resort lease now covering the whole island, Peter sees the limited future growth of guest accommodations progressing in complete harmony with the renewed environment.
The island was a favourite of Steve Irwin
Before his tragic death in handling a stingray last year, well-known "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, a wildlife expert and television personality, was a regular visitor to Lady Elliot Island.
"This actually was one of Steve's favourite places: Gash said. "We'd fly Steve and his crew to the island, and we'd hardly unload the airplane before they'd be off surfing. About the only time Steve would spend at the resort was to sleep and to eat; the rest of the time he'd be out with his surfboard."
While the environmental renewal of Lady Elliot Island continues, Gash and his staff keep busy with the day-to-day challenges of running a mostly self-sufficient resort on an island some 40 miles out to sea.
"There is a 150-bed resort with around 30 staff on duty at anyone time and the logistics are all our responsibility compared with a similar sized complex on the mainland: Gash said. "We generate our own power, desalinate the seawater for drinking purposes and ablutions, maintain a sewage treatment plant and recycle most of our rubbish."
But Lady Elliot Island is more than just running a business, it's still another of Gash's passions - environmental education.
“We can take an educational initiative here and teach visitors about what the reef is, how every person can make an impact on such issues as climate change. and still enjoy a holiday.” Gash said. “It's a triple win situation. We are winning because we are running a business with an environmental and good old recreational focus, the guests are winning because they are coming to a beautiful location and the environment is winning because we are getting the message out to look after the environment.”