Martin Clunes on Australia’s islands, snorkelling with a whale shark and wallaby carpaccio

In his latest travelogue, the actor discovers the brutal history of some of Australia's idyllic-looking islands

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When Martin Clunes touched down on Norfolk Island, a tiny outcrop in the South Pacific, he was greeted like a superstar.

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“It was like being one of the Beatles. There was a crowd at the airport. They were screaming ‘Doc Martin!’ as I stepped off the plane and we saw ‘We love Doc Martin’ notices all around the island.” It turns out the Cornish drama – in which he plays a dyspeptic GP – is as popular Down Under as it over here, but the Aussies are more vocal in their appreciation. “That was quite a surprise, but it was very nice to be so welcomed.”

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On Rottnest Island, Martin Clunes tries his hand at taking a trendy “quokka selfie”; quokka are small marsupials related to kangaroos and wallabies 

On the map, Norfolk Island is a minuscule speck between Australia and New Zealand. It’s just 13 miles square and a two-and-a-half hour flight from Sydney, making it the remotest of the 16 islands that Clunes visits in his travelogue Islands of Australia. As well as being the biggest island in the world, Australia boasts over 8,000 islands, ranging from skerries to the state of Tasmania, which is the size of Ireland. 

Those who venture to the Norfolk islet are rewarded with sandy beaches, turquoise waters, technicolour coral, rolling green hills and freshly caught seafood. Clunes was keen to see the famous Norfolk Island pine. “I’m fascinated by trees and this amazing pine tree comes from there. Afterwards, my wife Philippa bought me one as an anniversary  present. He’s wrapped in a fleece at the moment because I want to give him every chance in the UK climate.”

But like many of the islands he visited for the series, this picture-perfect island has a brutal history. “Norfolk Island was a massive penal colony with sadistic commandants,” explains Clunes. “There was a Victorian obsession with penal colonies: prisoners were shipped out there, then forced to dig the quarry, bake the bricks and build their own cells. 

“They cherry-picked trades they were short of. So a plumber who might just have had a speeding fine in his horse and cart would be nicked and sent out to Australia because they needed a plumber. This crops up again and again in the series. We couldn’t escape it. Maria Island, off the east coast of Tasmania, really brought it home because there was a quarry where the prisoners got the clay to make bricks.”

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Martin Clunes scuba-dives with a green turtle off the Ningaloo reef near the Murion Islands in Western Australia 

Aussies who know Clunes through his curmudgeonly alter ego in Doc Martin will have been surprised by how jolly and game he is: stroking a venomous tiger snake, grappling with live rock lobsters, tucking into mutton bird (“fishy”) and wallaby carpaccio (“ratty – not that I’ve ever eaten a rat”).

He jumped at the chance to snorkel alongside a whale shark. “She wasn’t at all bothered by me and she just ploughed on, mouth open, feeding and feeding. It was absolutely amazing – just studying her musculature, looking for similarities with a horse in that giant torso.”

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A whale shark off the Ningaloo Reef 

So what does he like to do on his actual holidays? “A lot of lying down in the heat, rolling into the warm sea, eating too much and maybe having a massage. Doing any of the things that I do when I’m making these documentaries is not my idea of a holiday, although I do like a little snorkel.”

He always packs a couple of noodles, the cylindrical foam tubes used as swimming aids. “One round the back of your shoulders, one under your knees and you just float in that warm sea. It’s just heaven. I’m a world-class noodler.” 


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Martin’s treasured islands

1. Phillip Island, 90-min drive from Melbourne

“The hippy vibe reminded me of San Francisco. There’s a penguin visitors centre where you can watch them parade in and out of the sea, completely unbothered by any human presence.”

2. Tasmania, one-hour flight from Melbourne

“Tasmania is very rural, and feels very different to the mainland. The food is very good, although we ate a bit too much wallaby for my palate.”

3. Lord Howe Island, two-hour flight from Sydney

“Landing on Lord Howe is like discovering the Garden of Eden. It’s your archetypal rock popping out of the sea with beautiful palm trees.”

Martin Clunes: Islands of Australia is on Tuesdays ITV 8pm


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