The Forts of Magnetic Island

IMG_20151115_124611I’m cursing myself for being insufficiently prepared. I’m going through my water bottle quicker than I should, my boat shoes are proving themselves to be very ill suited for hiking, and I’m wearing a singlet, so my shoulders and upper arms are exposed to the harsh Australian sun. Despite my judicious use of sunscreen, I can tell I’m going to get at least a mild burn. At least I have my trusty hat.

The gravel path turned into dirt a few hundred meters back. I’m spending half my time scrambling from rock to rock. The few bits of forts that I’ve seen so far have been a bit of a disappointment, to be honest: all that remains is the concrete slab of their foundation. But I did get a glimpse of a baby koala sleeping in a tree, which was one of the most adorable things I’ve seen in ages, so that was nice.

The animals on this island are truly magnificent. Crane-like birds that wail like a crying woman, great, silent bats that swoop overhead by the hundreds at sunset, and tiny rock wallabies hop from rock to rock as agilely as any goat.

But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here for the ruins of a WWII military fort. Magnetic Island, so named because Captain Cook erroneously blamed it for his misreading of his compass when he first passed it, is a large island off the northeastern cost of Australia, and was a vital strategic location in the second World War for spotting ships, sending messages, and maintaining control of the surrounding seas. Atop the mountain are said to be the spot where two huge guns were mounted, as well as the old command post, and most interestingly, the communications tower and relay center. The communications tower is the one area of it that hasn’t been fully abandoned: its location is too valuable to be left completely disused, so it’s now the site of various radio and telecommunications antennae.IMG_20151115_124457

I continue up the winding path, amazed at having the whole thing to myself, and counting myself lucky. More likely I’m the only person foolish enough to come out in the hottest part of the day. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun, so they say, and the foolishness of my ancestry seems to be in top form, as I wipe the sweat from my forehead. I’m soon rewarded for my foolhardiness, though, as I pass a bend and see for the first (but not the last) time on this trek a view that truly takes my breath away.

I had enough foresight to bring my new phone with me, and I’m snapping pictures left and right, as you can see. Jungle tumbles down the mountainside before turning to bright sands that spill into the brilliantly blue ocean, the bluest I’ve ever seen, thin stretches of island reaching out to shelter either side, forming a series of calm, cool bays. I can see holiday makers on their yachts below, taking in the beauty surrounding them, and I can’t help but think that I’ve got the better view. Coral reefs form dark patches under the ocean, their brilliant colors obscured by the sapphire seas.

I continue along the path, and before long I’ve come to the first of the gun mounts. The guns are long gone by now, but their absence is felt as much as their presence would be. The enormous concrete circles that they were mounted on reveal the guns’ size with their negative space. It’s striking, and I can only imagine how terrifying it would have been to be on the receiving end of their might. Behind them are small bunkers, with wrought iron bars in the windows, strangely bent out of shape, as though something had forced its way out.

PANO_20151115_125136I pause for a while in the shade to rest and recuperate, before continuing on. The path winds back and up above the gun mount, to where the range finder was, giving an even more impressive view. I’m continually astounded that the view can improve this much each time I find myself just a bit higher up. The thought of what it must look like from the peak gives me motivation and I continue up, barely pausing at the second gun mount, which is much the same as the first.

I make it to the top of the mountain, but not the peak. The top is split in two, a sort of crescent shape with two peaks. On one is the base of operations, on the other the communication center. I flip a mental coin and go to the base first. The path squeezes through a crack in a huge boulder, and then opens up to the Brutalist looking fort. Tall and narrow, the way up is more ladder than stairs, and whatever was once inside is no more, so I have to vault up to make it to the top. There is a thin opening along the wall, like the slit in a knight’s visor, letting the commander have a commanding view of the island and its surrounding waters. I admire the well framed panorama for a while, before heading back down and traversing the gap over to the communications center.

The communications center is a similar building: narrow, tall, with thin ladder stairs leading up to a structure made entirely of  concrete slabs at right angles to each other. Unlike the command center, this has some things inside of it: a miniature museum exhibition, with an archaic telegraph machine for sending morse code. I tap out a few messages, impressed at the ease of motion on the ancient, rusted machine, and then continue around to the other major difference between this and the command center: you can get on to the roof of this one.

A similar set of stairs lead upwards to a flat plain with a multitude of modern antennae protruding from it. The wind is strong enough here that I actually leave my hat below, so that I can take my hand off my head to take photos with my phone. The pictures don’t nearly do it justice.

A complete 360 degree panorama, I can see nearly the whole island, and back to the coast, and out far into the distance on the sea. Enormous ships traverse the shipping lanes below me, looking like tiny toys at this distance. The bays are spread out before me like I could just reach out and scoop them up in my hands. The green hills leading down into them are like the folds of a blanket, the swiftly moving clouds above me like balls of cotton being spun into thread on a spindle. My breath is taken away, and it isn’t until well later that I can come up with the words for it that you just read.

I came here expecting the ruins to be the highlight of my trip, but the view they’ve afforded me easily trumps it. Sometimes I can see why people travel to see nature.PANO_20151115_134621


Photos are by me. The forts are on the North-East bit of Magnetic Island, off the coast of Australia, near Townsville, Queensland.

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