When AA Gill and Jock Zonfrillo went fishing off Kangaroo Island
Author: AA Gill
Photography: William Meppem
The pelican regarded us with a hungry mien. A bird with an ever-ready shopping bag, like Margaret Thatcher or the Queen. Their Dior beaks resting on a nautical bosom, furious porthole eyes, constantly ruffled feathers.
The pelican was the original symbol for the RAF flying school. Absurdly gimpy on the ground, they become mesmerisingly agile aerial acrobats once aloft. They take off and their wings seem to sag under the weight of their improbable beaks and rotund busts, but everything tucks in and they fly with a bewildering ease - an ability to change direction, height, speed and purpose with a sleight of feather that is magical. They are birds that make meteorology and gravity appear optional. They fly in an atmosphere all their own in the silver dawn light.
We are sitting in a dumpy rubber dinghy, full of the exhausted make-do detritus of hard work. "Can you swim?" asked Paulie the captain and crew. "No," I tell him. "Because we only have one life jacket and that's pretty filthy. It will ruin your coat. So do you want to be messy and bob? Or dapper and drown?" I go for making a beautiful corpse.
There's me, Paulie and Jock, the chef. Paulie is an abalone diver. They're leaving the dock to find king scallops for a fat-of-the-land lunch. The little dinghy burbles and grunts into the bight with the pelicans overhead. We're sharing the choppy, chilly water with black swans and piebald cormorants. The only familiar thing is the call of oystercatchers.
Kangaroo Island stretches away in a series of serrated folds. I like it being called Kangaroo Island. Back in the Old World nobody would say, "Where's that, then, Kangaroo Island?" It's self-explanatory. Everywhere else out here could be somewhere else. Which Perth are you talking about? Adelaide: named after some dead queen. Melbourne: some dead prime minister. Victoria: another dead queen. New South Wales: who wanted to have a new south Wales anyway?
It all seems to be thinking about another hemisphere. But Kangaroo Island - that's rooted right here, named, as I'm sure you already know, by Flinders, the explorer who, unusually for explorers, discovered something that wasn't there. He definitively ascertained that mainland Australia wasn't two islands. He also discovered that the kangaroos on Kangaroo Island were very good to eat, particularly if you're dying of hunger. The kangaroos, not having seen humans for a thousand years, discovered that they weren't actually bipedally disabled bald marsupials.
I've come here for a holiday with my two small children, but also to collect and sample foraged ingredients - so we start with the sea and the scallops.
Jock's attached himself to a Heath Robinson umbilical hosepipe and a rope, and straps on a lead belt. He takes his shopping bag and drops himself over the side. Paulie meanders the boat, trying not to twist or cut the airway while at the same time explaining the economics of abalone and scallop diving.
It's much the same as potato digging, only under water with sharks. The sharks have apparently become much more efficient at picking abalone divers. Paulie's father was a diver before him, having learnt his trade in Trieste; he had a handful of uninvited meetings with sharks in his lifetime. Now, in half a lifetime, Paulie has two heaped handfuls of confrontations.
Two abalone divers have had terminal meetings with sharks. His dive partner has been so damaged by the bends escaping the sharks that he can't dive any more. It's not that there are more sharks; as everyone knows, the Chinese soup trade and drift nets and general trophy hunting have made sharks as rare as communists with good teeth. But their prey species are also becoming rare. And wherever there's a spawning run or migration of big fish, you'll find hungry sharks, and just here there's a run of snapper and tuna. And Paulie dives daily with seals - right at the top of the menu for great whites.
The seals, he says, are a pain. They have a childish sense of humour - they creep up behind you and tap you on the shoulder. You never want to be tapped on the shoulder under water, when you think you're on your own and you turn around and there you are goggle-to-face with a grinning fur seal, and you've emptied your bladder into your wetsuit.
Peckish white-tipped sharks have made abalone diving one of the most dangerous professions in the world. The price for abalone is up there with the most expensive comestibles. The wedge that's only paid for things that are supposed to thicken, lengthen, splint and sustain insecure male egos. But, uniquely, the expense is not for rarity or difficulty in acquisition; it's blood money.
For a moment I wonder if sharks might consider abalone divers an aphrodisiac.
I asked Paul if it's got any easier strapping on the lead belt. Did the familiar dispel the fear? He gives me a crooked smile. It gets harder every dive. You know you're using up a life each time. It's tempting Neptune's fate.
Jock comes back with a bag of scallops and Paulie slips over the side in his place. And the morning begins to warm up, the light goes from silver to rose. He returns with another bag of scallops and we sit on the rim of the boat and he opens them with a practised stab and twist, cleaning out the elegant shell, cutting the muscle from its mooring.
He hands it to me. I slip it into my mouth and my head is full of the great sweet, ozone, iodine, salt, mineral, exotic flavour of the most perfect seafood. The taste that has layers and layers of savoury, like the notes of a sea shanty that goes on after you've swallowed in a refrain of a chorus of invigorating flavours, complex but clear - simply beautiful. A perfect mouthful that reminds us what is brilliant about food.
And Paulie looks at my face and laughs with pride and joy, and the joy of giving someone something not just special, but personal and hospitable. And the three of us sit in the early morning eating scallops, knowing that no one on the entire globe is having a better breakfast. It is a perfect moment.