The Old Man and The Sea

Alf Stackhouse has lived and worked among the remote and beautiful islands of Bass Strait for most of his 86 years. His 50ft ketch  is the last of the Bass Strait traders, a sailing tradition that dates from the earliest days of colonial Tasmania. Bruce Stannard caught up with him in Launceston.

They breed ’em tough in Tassie and they don’t come much tougher than Alf Stackhouse. Alf has spent pretty much his entire life farming cattle and sheep out on the windswept islands of Bass Strait.
It’s been a pioneering existence whose hardships most of us can scarcely even contemplate much less endure these days. And yet it’s an environment in which Alf and his younger brother, Brian, have not only thrived, but prospered.
Alf still runs a thousand merinos on Badger Island just west of Flinders and continues to bring his sheep and his wool clip off by boat in exactly the same way that it’s been done among the islands for the best part of two centuries.
The 50ft ketch, Alcheringa II, last of the traditional Bass Strait sail traders.His handsome 50ft ketch, Alcheringa II, is now the last of the traditional Bass Strait sail traders, a line that stretches all the way back to the 1830s. When Alf eventually calls it quits, the Tasmanian tradition of trading under sail will almost certainly end with him. But for the time being at least, Alf is alive and well. I had the privilege of listening to his remarkable story.
Although Alf’s father was the well-educated son of a Church of England clergyman, he was drawn to a life outdoors. He left school in Launceston at 15 and spent some years working on the farms that were only just becoming established on the Bass Strait islands.
He joined the AIF at 24, fought in France and was invalided out with pleuro-pneumonia contracted in the frozen, waterlogged trenches of the Western Front. He was recovering in England when the war ended in 1918. He came home to Tasmania and applied for a soldier-settler block on Flinders Island, the largest of the Furneaux Group, where as a teenager he had enjoyed work on various farms.
“Father saw Flinders as a Land of Milk and Honey,” Alf said, “a place full of promise.”
He was allocated a square mile near Lughrata on Marshall Bay, a west coast location that bears the full brunt of the relentless Roaring Forties that make Bass Strait one of the most feared stretches of water in the world. Far from being a biblical land of milk and honey, the property turned out to be 640 acres of rough ti-tree scrub, boobyalla and native willow. It was called Yirriluka, a lilting Aboriginal term that means ‘gum trees by the sea.’
“He came there with nothing more than an axe, a mattock and a saw,” Alf said. “He had no one to help him; nothing but his bare hands and his few tools. In those days the land was cleared by ringbarking the blue-gums and burning the undergrowth in the summer months. The dead gums stood for ages until they fell over. There were no bulldozers.
On the beach at Badger Island stands an old cray cauf, once used to hold live crayfish.“Of course, many of the soldier-settlers failed. After all they’d been through in the war, clearing the bush was just too much for them. Father managed to survive. He built his own home and there he and my mother raised three kids on the smell of an oily rag.”
Alf was born in 1925 and was followed 18 months later by his brother, Brian and five years on by their sister, Cecily. Alf recalls a carefree, barefoot childhood on Flinders.
“We walked everywhere,” he said, “and thought nothing of it. Later we had a pony in a spring cart and then a horse and jinker. We were home-schooled by mother with the assistance of correspondence courses from Hobart.
“I’m afraid I became a pain in the neck for poor mum and she sent me to boarding school in Hobart for four years to ‘straighten me out’. I copped a walloping every now and again which soon taught me the wisdom of not being naughty.”
After Alf and his brother left school, their father made them an offer that today sounds a bit like a blunt ultimatum.
“Dad said: ‘If you fellas help me you can live here. We’ll feed you and clothe you, but you’ll work whenever I want you to work. Any spare time is your own.’”
The Stackhouse boys immediately set about accumulating capital. They snared kangaroos and wallabies and sold their skins for 1/6d a pound.
“It wasn’t much,” Alf says, “but the skin-money added up and whenever a hide buyer came over from Melbourne we were pleasantly surprised by our earnings.”
AlfAlf’s mother bought a tractor with money she inherited from England. He leased the tractor from her and started a business as a farming contractor. From a very early age Alf displayed an extraordinary mechanical aptitude. He had the bushman’s knack of being able to fix anything with “a bit of ingenuity and a length of Number Eight fencing wire”.
He started the Emita Garage, taught himself welding and went into the earth-moving, farm machinery repair and maintenance business. When their father died, the Stackhouse boys managed the farm in partnership with their mother and when she died they took over the lease and quickly expanded.
“We were energetic young bucks,” Alf says with masterful understatement. “We were always looking for opportunities to expand. We bought several adjoining properties and others we liked as they became available. We had just invested heavily in a dairy on Flinders when Badger Island (south west of Flinders) came on the market.
An ancient single-cylinder Southern Cross diesel powers the windlass on Alcheringa’s foredeck.“George Blyth, a friend of the family advised us to buy the lease on Badger. He was a philanthropic sort of a bloke who liked to help people who he thought deserved a bit of a push along,” Alf said. “There was never any written agreement between us, no contract with lawyers looking over our shoulders. We met him in his kitchen and we came to an agreement. He lent us £2,000, which was a lot of money in those days.
“We shook hands and that was that. We went along to the rental auction and successfully bid £400 a year for the whole 2,700 acre island. That was 1952, just at the time when the price of wool suddenly jumped up to a pound a pound. That gave us a heap of money that we hadn’t seen the likes of ever before.
“We were able to repay our loans very quickly and we never looked back from that moment on.”
By 1955, Alf and his brother were running cattle and sheep on some 2,000 acres of land around Leghrata. Badger Island was clear of debt by 1955 and over the next 10 years they acquired a further 3,000 acres on the northern end of Flinders. They also leased Erith Island in the Kent Group and Hogan Island 23 miles further north. Brian Stackhouse still holds the lease on Hogan.
Alf Stackhouse hosts a crayfish lunch aboard Alcheringa. Gary Kerr, crayfisherman, author and film-maker (left) with Alf’s friends Doug and Jane Patterson.With so many far-flung island properties to manage, I wondered how the Stackhouse brothers took care of them all.
“The islands needed only occasional visits,” Alf said. “On Erith and Hogan we ran cattle which needed only one visit a year. We bought weaner steers and heifers, mostly the beef breeds like Angus and Herefords and fattened them up on the islands’ lush native grasses. We ran around 600 head at one stage.
“Of course, the trouble with leaving cattle on their own on places like Erith Island was that with plenty of scrub to get into they became wild buggers. On Hogan Island there was no scrub and nowhere for them to hide. On Badger we had horses to round them up.
“After three years on that tucker they’d be big brutes, grown out to around the 800kg mark. Oh, they could be quite a handful, some of them.
“I was knocked arse over head by a big bullock once. I was pushing him down a chute, twisting his tail and banging his bottom with my hand to make him go forward, when he suddenly stopped and backed up. I went down and he ran backwards right over the top of me. Fortunately he didn’t put a foot on me. I’d have been in real trouble if he had.”
The Stackhouse brothers became principal shareholders in the Flinders Strait Shipping Company which operated a fleet of trading ketches: Lady Gillian, Katika, Flinders Trader, Shearwater and Prion. The ketches sailed across Bass Strait taking the cattle and sheep to the railhead at Port Welshpool, Victoria.

The old shearing shed on Badger Island. 

“In the early days,” Alf said, “we hoisted the beasts off one at a time in a sling, but later we organised a ramp to walk them straight up into the trucks. From Port Welshpool they’d be taken on to the saleyards at Newmarket. Our island beef was pretty highly sought after and our animals generally topped the market.”
To avoid any problems with feed shortages during the bleak winter months, Alf and his brother always under-stocked their islands.
“There was no question of hand-feeding out there,” he said, “so we kept the numbers down to ensure the animals always had abundant feed. That way they were never stressed. That’s one of the reasons they did so well out there.”
Alf still leases Badger Island where he runs a flock of 1,000 merinos.
Alf has had several close encounters with catastrophe over the years. He wrote-off his vintage Auster Mark VI in a cross-wind crash landing on Cape Barron Island and has lost two of his boats to Bass Strait gales.
He acquired Alcheringa II in 1980 after she was caught in a blow and driven onto rocks on Dog Island. Alf bought the wreck, salvaged her with plywood patches and had her celery-top pine hull repaired at Beauty Pointy on the Tamar. He still uses her to bring sheep and his annual wool clip in from Badger.
“Many’s the time I’ve driven cattle and sheep on horseback and walked them down to the boats,” he said. “Before the jetties were built on the islands, the boats would be beached.
“They’d take the ground at low tide and load directly into a horse-drawn dray that came alongside. Cattle were driven down to holding yards on the beach. Head ropes were attached to the bullocks and they were hauled out to the boat, one at a time by an endless line.
“Once they were in the water we could come alongside them in a motorboat and get control over them for the swim out to the ketch lying at anchor. A chain sling was then passed under the beast which would then be hauled aboard by a steam winch. The cattle either went into the hold or stood in pens on deck. They’d kick up a bit of a fuss at times but we never had one get away.”
When I observed that Alf was still in remarkably good shape for an 86-year-old he agreed wholeheartedly.
“Yes,” he said, “I thank God that I’m still kicking around. I keep busy mentally and physically. I’ve lived an exciting life. I’m still enjoying it and for that I’m grateful.”