Montague Island, Australia’s best spot to get stranded

Even on a good day the notorious sand bar beneath Narooma Harbour on the NSW South Coast can cause the water to go from benign millpond to treacherous tempest in minutes. Add a 20-knot onshore wind, and few dare to cross it. Which is why no one would be coming out to get us off our island today.

“The boat’s been canceled,” Montague Island’s resident National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger told us. “You can unpack your cases. We’ll try again tomorrow. You’re marooned”. 

Marooned. What an evocative word, a conjuring up of images. OK, so it was hardly Papillon on Devil’s Island, or Napoleon in exile on Elba. But the effect was much the same. We couldn’t get off. Not that we wanted to.

Montague Island, 9km to the southeast of Narooma and 6km out to sea is a remnant of a 100 million-year-old stratovolcano. It’s almost two islands in one, with its unpopulated, pristine northern end of basalt and dark lava tuffs, and its larger southern end with its glorious colonial-era lighthouse set among outrageously sculptural granite outcrops, separated from each other by a low-lying, rock and boulder-strewn “neck”.

Built in 1881, the lighthouse was designed by James Barnet, the great NSW colonial architect. Made from local granite blocks quarried from the island itself they have no mortar between them, each one held in place by its own considerable weight.

In 1886 Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published a list of the artisans responsible for one of Australia’s most elegant lighthouses and its two adjacent lightkeeper’s cottages: “42 stone cutters, two setters, four wallers, six scrabblers, and seven shoddy masons”.

The shoddy masons excelled themselves. The buildings are gorgeous examples of early colonial architecture, but it’s the rock-strewn landscape that really mesmerizes, the grass and shrubs punctuated by those enormous outcrops of silvery-gray, rounded granite. Well, everyone says it’s granite. Actually, it’s monzonite, a coarse-grained, micaceous rock with far less quartz than is generally found in granite.

Our accommodation was in the main lightkeeper’s cottage, which like everything here is maintained and operated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). It accommodates 12 guests across five spacious, high-ceilinged bedrooms and has a modern kitchen with a central island benchtop. There’s an ocean-facing loungeroom and front porch, and a sunny, sheltered courtyard, a refuge from those onshore winds that would, in two days’ time, become the reason for our confinement. 

Next door the assistant lightkeeper’s cottage can sleep seven and has three bedrooms. It too was booked, but despite standing side-by-side, we barely saw or heard our neighbors in three days. Eighty-two hectares is a lot of islands for just 19 people.

Wildlife encounters abound on Montague Island. Picture: Sebastian Goldhorn
Wildlife encounters abound on Montague Island. Picture: Sebastian Goldhorn

The tranquility almost overwhelms you. Day-trippers come out on charter boats but only stay a couple of hours, visiting the lighthouse and a walk along some of the island’s manicured, grassy trails. No matter what time of the day or night, if you take a stroll, chances are you’ll be on your own.

If you don’t count the wildlife. The entire island is a nature reserve, home to more than 90 bird species including being a nesting location for three species of shearwaters. There’s a 10,000-strong colony of little penguins as well as Australia’s only significant haul-out of Australian and NZ fur seals. Narooma Charters can take you to the seal colony, and you can swim with them. 

The island’s penguins, seals, and birds all forage for food that is brought here from northern waters on the moveable feast that is the East Australian Current. Surrounding the island you’ll find baitfish, predator fish, trevally, snapper, and squid which thrive in the 850sq km Batemans Marine Park in the midst of which Montague Island sits.

You’re also in the fast lane of Humpback Highway, the behemoths heading south every spring and returning north each winter. We spent the last couple of hours on that last, unplanned-for-day watching a dozen or so frolicking off the island’s eastern shoreline. On Montague, you don’t have to wander off, fingers crossed, in search of wildlife. The wildlife comes to you.

Manicured, grassy trails lead visitors around Montague Island. Picture: Daniel Tran
Manicured, grassy trails lead visitors around Montague Island. Picture: Daniel Tran

Its soils are nourished by the guano of tens of thousands of birds and penguins and it’s covered in matrush, a compact, fast-growing native grass as well as tussock grass so thick that taking shortcuts through it can be a perilous exercise.

The NPWS, in co-operation with the island’s traditional owners, the Walbanga and Djiringanj people, have spent years regenerating the land here, freeing it as best they can from invasive species such as kikuyu grass. The Walbanga and Djiringani call the island Barunguba, and it was once an important hunting ground for mutton birds, penguins, and bird eggs. Elders are now regularly consulted as part of a joint island management program, and occasional ceremonies are still performed here.

Old photos show there were once small trees here, and descriptions from the late 1800s talk about “ragged banksias” and “scrub trees” including acacias and casuarinas. But now they are gone. So while there’s not a lot of covers here if you’re caught in a storm, that’s the fun of it. Walking trails criss-cross the island’s southern end, all of them heavily exposed to whatever weather’s coming your way.

To the Walbanga and Djiringani people, Barunguba will always be a sacred place. But Barunguba should be sacred to us all.

The writer was a guest of the NPWS.


To book a stay on Montague Island visit

Get there, and swim with seals, courtesy of Narooma Charters.

A minimum age of 5 is required for all visitors to the island.

Montague Island accommodates a maximum of 19 guests - with 82ha to explore. Picture: Tourism NSW
Montague Island accommodates a maximum of 19 guests – with 82ha to explore. Picture: Tourism NSW

This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of

About the author


Hi! I’m Ozzie!

Before joining Australia Exploring, I was a writer at Tripadvisor.

I'm looking for the best posts for you about travel adventures in Australia and around the world. This website has the purpose to inspire you to travel… travel more and better. I hope it can help you explore the world a little bit better.

I graduated from the University of Sydney. I live in California with my wife and two children.


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