Broughton Island huts and the characters who make a Port Stephens icon

Photographer  Jonathan Carroll captures the people and the spirit of Broughton Island.
Photographer Jonathan Carroll captures the people and the spirit of Broughton Island.

Marg Moore sits on a bed in a sparsely furnished hut. Above her on the wall hang two clocks and a barometer. One of the clocks has stopped.

But that is one reason why Moore travels from Sydney to Broughton Island a few times every year. For on this dramatic lump of land that pierces the Tasman Sea north-east of Port Stephens, you can feel as though time doesn’t matter.

“You can lead a very simple life here,” says Moore, who is visiting the island for 10 days.

The connections to contemporary civilisation are tenuous on Broughton Island. The hut Moore occupies is named Broughton Hall, and it is one of eight strewn along the head of Esmeralda Cove, like debris carried in on the tide.

Mobile phone reception is sporadic, Broughton Hall’s toilet and shower are outside, solar batteries provide the power, and television doesn’t exist in the hut.

“People ask, ‘What do you do all day? Watch the seagulls?’,” Moore had chuckled a little earlier, as she strolled along Providence Beach on the island’s north shore. 

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But in this moment, as she gazes out the hut’s front window, Moore is silently answering that question. She is absorbing the view. The water in the cove has been polished by the afternoon sun into something opalescent. Over to the left is the island’s highest point, Pinkatop Head, while straight ahead, beyond the cove’s calming influence, the sea is still heaving from a fierce southerly earlier in the week.

Marg Moore in the hut that four generations of her family have used. Picture: Scott Bevan

Marg Moore in the hut that four generations of her family have used. Picture: Scott Bevan

The views alone are an indication of why those in the huts have tenaciously held onto them for many years, through generations. Marg’s parents came here, her siblings come here, her children and grandchildren come here.  

“We’re just privileged,” muses Moore. “But it’s not privileged in an elitist sense, it’s just luck; we’re lucky.”

Yet on this island where time can mean nothing, those with the holiday huts wondered for years whether they were living on borrowed time, and they were worried their luck was about to run out.

The string of huts at the head of Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The string of huts at the head of Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Broughton Island has always demanded effort to reach it.

But the island’s promise of bountiful fishing around its fringes, the natural beauty of its terrain, and the reassurance of protective coves and sandy beaches on which to land has enticed many to put in that effort.    

For many generations, the Worimi people paddled over from the mainland, which, at its closest point, is about two and a half kilometres across the water.

From the late 1800s, Italian and Chinese fishermen camped on the island. In the early years of the 20th Century, fishermen put down roots in the sand. On the island’s north side, a group of Greek fishermen established a settlement, which came to be known as Little Salonika, while along the south-eastern shores, in Esmeralda Cove, British-Australians built shacks.

Yet it seems science beat the fishermen to building near the beach. About 1906, a team of biologists searching for a way to kill off Australia’s ballooning rabbit problem was conducting experiments on the island, and a laboratory and living quarters were built on a site overlooking Esmeralda Cove.

The experiments didn’t work and the scientists left, but the rabbits didn’t. They flourished on the island, creating a century-long environmental problem until they were eradicated in 2009.

Apart from fishermen, the sea has carried to Broughton Island a range of characters, from sailors seeking shelter and shipwreck survivors to property developers with dreams of creating a tourist resort, and even an alleged Soviet spy.

And like the sea itself, the characters on the island were constantly shifting. While a few hardy souls lived on the island, the huts became rough holiday accommodation. 

Broughton Island was a place of escape, of seclusion, of rest and recreation, where there were plenty of fish and very few rules. And for those reasons, the island has also been a place of tall tales and true.    

Author and long-time visitor to Broughton Island, John "Stinker" Clarke, in the water at Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Author and long-time visitor to Broughton Island, John "Stinker" Clarke, in the water at Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

“Everything around here reeks with history,” declares John “Stinker” Clarke.

A keen angler and Port Stephens Examiner fishing columnist for more than 30 years, Clarke has been beguiled by Broughton Island ever since he first visited in late 1979. And he has shared that fascination, writing a book titled Broughton Islanders.

When we catch up on the island, “Stinker” is holidaying with his family.

“I haven’t been here since 2001, and it hasn’t really changed,” says Jodie Clarke, “Stinker’s” daughter. Her nine-year-old son, Archie, has just been feeding fish to a couple of stingrays in the shallows and declares, “the animals are so friendly”.

REFRESHING: Author and long-time island visitor John "Stinker" Clarke is given an impromptu shower after a swim. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

REFRESHING: Author and long-time island visitor John "Stinker" Clarke is given an impromptu shower after a swim. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Yet the holiday community on Broughton Island has changed through the years. For one thing, “Stinker” says, the island hasn’t always been so family-friendly.

As Clarke’s book vividly details, there was a time when it wasn’t history that reeked around the huts. The buildings were rough and ready, and apparently so was the atmosphere. The odours of fish, rotting bait, rubbish and grog were pervasive.

Broughton Island, “Stinker” says, was “wild” and “blokey”.

“That was the mentality of this place; drink until you drop. If you saw a woman step ashore, you’d think, ‘Here’s trouble’.”

Yet the community gradually changed, and the huts were cleaned up, if not furnished with modern conveniences, when women and children began stepping ashore with the men for island holidays.

Marg Moore was first taken to the island as a four-year-old in 1963 by her father, Doctor Gerry Sertori.

The huts at the head of Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Scott Bevan

The huts at the head of Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Scott Bevan

When the young doctor arrived in Nelson Bay in 1960, he was taken on the 19-kilometre boat ride to Broughton and fell in love with the place, and not just because of the fishing.

“Dad loved getting away to here, because he could get away from the phone,” recalls Marg.

“He loved the detachment, and it’s something I love.”

Not that Dr Sertori could leave the medical work behind.

“Whenever he was here, there’d be a string of patients, people getting cut on the rocks and needing stitches,” she says.

The hut that became the Sertori family’s bolthole was given to them by a fisherman.

“He was walking away - ‘Here, you have it’,” says Marg Moore. “It’s not something we acquired, it’s not about being rich, it’s just rolled over.”

"Broughton Islander" Marg Moore. Picture: Scott Bevan

"Broughton Islander" Marg Moore. Picture: Scott Bevan

Yet the ground shifted for the “islanders” after Broughton Island was gazetted as part of Myall Lakes National Park in 1972. In effect, they became private property owners on public land. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service wanted the huts gone, and, in 1984, the plan was to remove them.

But the hut owners and users fought back. To them, it was about more than buildings; it was about preserving a tradition, protecting the island and providing a shelter for mariners. They formed into a group, which eventually became the Broughton Island Conservation Society Incorporated.

“They took their opposition to the politicians,” says Jeff Pettifer, the current president of the Broughton Island Conservation Society Incorporated. “They managed to convince them that they provided a significant and essential service to the island.”

Jeff Pettifer has been coming to Broughton Island for about half a century, since he was a teenager. His father, Noel, had bought a hut from Wally Clayton, the alleged Soviet spy who was caught up in the Petrov affair in the 1950s. 

Jeff and his loved ones still use the hut, which is called Esmeralda, although it has been updated and modified. It even has a flushing toilet inside: “Women, they love a flushing toilet.” 

 Broughton Island Conservation Society Inc President Jeff Pettifer outside the hut his father bought. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Broughton Island Conservation Society Inc President Jeff Pettifer outside the hut his father bought. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Jeff’s father also remains close to the island.

“My Dad’s ashes are out there,” says Jeff, pointing beyond the cove to a bombora.

Noel Pettifer was part of the fight for the Esmeralda Cove settlement. He wasn’t alone then, and his memory isn’t alone now. Attached to the side of one hut are a few memorial plaques for islanders who have died. The plaques praise those departed men for being part of “the struggle” to retain the huts.

After about 10 years of struggle, the huts’ owners reached an agreement with National Parks in 1994. The buildings could remain, and the owners could keep using them for casual recreational use. Not that they were called hut owners anymore. They were members of the Broughton Island Conservation Society Incorporated (BICSI), which owns the huts and has a licence with National Parks for the use of the sites. 

The BICSI members pay about $1500 a quarter for each hut. That money is used by BICSI for maintaining the island’s essentials, including the sewerage system, and by the National Parks and Wildlife Service to help fund management programs, such as weed eradication.  

National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Susanne Callaghan on Pinkatop Head, the highest point on Broughton Island. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Susanne Callaghan on Pinkatop Head, the highest point on Broughton Island. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Susanne Callaghan is the NPWS ranger who takes care of Broughton Island.

She acknowledges the battle over the huts meant the service and the “islanders” were at loggerheads for many years. But the relationship has improved, and is still improving, as everyone learns how to balance conservation and recreation on the 114-hectare island.

“Currently, it’s fantastic,” Callaghan says of the relationship. “We’re all together in the national park, and we’ve got to learn to live together.

What’s more, the NPWS has become part of the community in a physical sense; the service’s hut was erected just a few years ago at the northern end of the trail of the seven older shacks.

“I think that community feel is there; for instance, helping each other unload boats,” Callaghan says.

“The huts themselves, they do add character to the place - and so do the characters within them. I’m always hearing stories about Broughton I didn’t know, and there’s always someone to have a yarn and laugh with.”

"Broughton Islander" Steve Brown with his grandson, Beau.

"Broughton Islander" Steve Brown with his grandson, Beau.

Sitting out the front of Esmeralda is Steve Brown, who is a farmer near Tweed Heads. His father and Jeff Pettifer’s dad were best mates. So they shared this hut. And their families still do. The 61-year-old is holidaying in Esmeralda with his wife, Jane, their son, Scott, and grandsons, Beau and Vinny.

“This is like a farming community,” says Steve Brown. “You certainly look out for the other hut people.”

Marg Moore, with a beer in hand, joins us. She and Steve list the huts around the cove, starting from the south: Gull’s Way, Marlin Hut (because it has a marlin sculpture attached to the the front of it), Nevo’s, Westybrook (a combination of West Wallsend and Muswellbrook), Esmeralda, Broughton Hall, Snapper Tracker, and the National Parks hut.

Marlin hut and its neighbours along Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Marlin hut and its neighbours along Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

For those who know a BICSI member, it is possible to receive the keys to what feels like the kingdom, at least for a week or two. But advertising the huts as holiday accommodation is not allowed.  

“You can’t have random people in a hut,” explains Marg. “You have to be very responsible tenants. You have to be careful and respect the rules.” 

Fishing mates Jeff Nevin, Larry Timmins, Steve Nevin and Mick Edwards outside the Snapper Tracker hut. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Fishing mates Jeff Nevin, Larry Timmins, Steve Nevin and Mick Edwards outside the Snapper Tracker hut. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Staying in Snapper Tracker before Christmas are four blokes who are friends of the hut’s occupant. They sit near a water tank, poetically called the “Tank of Knowledge”, while enjoying a beer and a yarn.

“There’s a lot of big fish caught around that tank, I can tell you,” smiles Jeff Nevin, from East Branxton.

Jeff says he and his son, Steve, have been coming out here each year for the best part of two decades. Steve adds that he celebrated his 21st on the island: “We were stranded. Four-metre seas. So a lot of tequilas.”

Island visitor Steve Nevin outside a hut. Picture: Scott Bevan

Island visitor Steve Nevin outside a hut. Picture: Scott Bevan

They come for the fishing.

“And the relaxation,” says their mate, Mick Edwards, from Greta.

“Without women,” nods Jeff, his comment perhaps reflecting that the old days haven’t entirely disappeared.

“You don’t get nagged out here,” offers his son.

“It’s a privilege we’re allowed to come here,” says Jeff Nevin. “We look at ourselves as being very privileged. You’ve got to look after the place.”

The "Tank of Knowledge" outside one of the huts. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The "Tank of Knowledge" outside one of the huts. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Looking after Broughton Island is becoming more complex. For it’s not just the hut users and the National Parks rangers who are on the island. Scientists, volunteers and researchers stay in the National Parks building, and campers pitch tents on specially built platforms overlooking Little Poverty Beach, the next cove around from the huts. 

The number of camping visitors is growing, from 844 in 2016 to 1040 last year. But Susanne Callaghan adds that a maximum of 30 campers are allowed on the island at one time, to minimise environmental damage.

Among those camping on a recent weekend were three sea kayakers, who had paddled from Jimmy’s Beach at Hawks Nest, pressing against a headwind and riding the swell for five hours.

“By the time we arrived, it was a big relief - ‘We’re here!’,” says Dee Ratcliffe, one of the paddlers.

Sea kayakers paddling into Esmeralda Cove to camp on Broughton Island.

Sea kayakers paddling into Esmeralda Cove to camp on Broughton Island.

The Sydney-based kayaker says being able to paddle to an offshore island and camp on it makes Broughton an extraordinary destination for anyone.

“It’s within reach of that massive population base; driving up from Sydney that morning, and to be on that beach by 5 o’clock,” she says. “I just find it really special.”  

There are also the day trippers who arrive on commercial vessels for a few hours in paradise - or the nearest thing to it. Susanne Callaghan emphasises there are controls on the commercial operators, including visitor numbers. 

Then there are those who make the journey in their own boats and, as Callaghan concedes, “we’ve really got no control over the private day use [of the island]”.

So Broughton Island is becoming more prominent on the tourist map, and with increased popularity comes new pressures. 

Passengers arrive and leave the island by boat. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Passengers arrive and leave the island by boat. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Jeff Pettifer says sometimes older visitors disembark from the tourist boats, look at the rough terrain and don’t move off the beach. A few can’t even get as far as the public toilets a couple of hundred metres away, so the “islanders” allow the visitors to use their toilets.

Marg Moore recounts the time a group of seasick visitors lurched off a commercial vessel, grabbed doonas and blankets off her washing line, and curled up in front of her hut.  

But she doesn’t see the day trippers as an intrusion.  

“I think you could say we all co-exist very nicely,” Marg Moore says.

Yet these are all signs that the tyranny, and the security, of remoteness is shrinking for Broughton Island. 

“We’re becoming more and more less remote,” says Jeff Pettifer. “Then the weather turns, and we’re remote again.”

When Mother Nature gets angry, the various communities are pushed together on the island. Occasionally, campers come knocking on the huts’ doors, seeking shelter. Just the week before, Stephen and Jane Brown say, three campers slept in Broughton Hall after their tent was flattened in a storm.

The hut users also maintain an emergency radio, they tow stricken boaties into the cove, and sailors know they can find a haven on the island, if the seas turn wild.

NPWS ranger Susanne Callaghan talks with hut user Marg Moore. Picture: Scott Bevan

NPWS ranger Susanne Callaghan talks with hut user Marg Moore. Picture: Scott Bevan

Susanne Callaghan says the presence of the huts and their users has benefited both the island, in helping keep an eye on the place, and mariners. 

“Everyone knows Broughton Island is a welcoming place,” she says.

Yet while they have a rich tradition and believe they continue to play a vital role in protecting the island and those who visit it, some of the hut users can’t help but wonder about the future, as their life on Broughton depends on a licence.

“We just live year by year, obey all the rules, and be optimistic,” says Marg Moore.  

Jeff Pettifer. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Jeff Pettifer. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Jeff Pettifer says the current licence should run until 2024, and he expects the hut users’ relationship with National Parks will continue beyond then.

“What we’ve tried to do is make sure we’re an asset to the national park,” he says. “It’s a community on the island, and as far as I’m concerned, National Parks are part of that community.”    

Susanne Callaghan says the challenge to protect the island’s natural beauty while making it accessible to visitors is ever growing, but she knows that to all who journey to Broughton view it as a gem: “There’s not many places like it.”

Children rowing on the waters of Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Children rowing on the waters of Esmeralda Cove. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

As for those who identify themselves as Broughton Islanders, they may not always be physically there, but the feel of the place is always with them.

“You’re able to watch the sea,” explains Jeff Pettifer of his unceasing love of Broughton Island.

“You can get back to nature out there, and the community is self supporting. 

“And, yes, it’s still an escape.”