I HAVE a home address for Neil Le Serve, the French Island mailman, but when I arrive in Corinella in fading light I realise finding his house may be more difficult than I first thought.
I call into the general store for directions and see a large, impressive-looking launch hooked up outside. Surely no one in their right mind would have been out pleasure cruising on such a wild and chilly day. Maybe I have found my man. Bingo! Neil is inside the store.
Neil Le Serve has been delivering the mail to French Island for 30 years. Photos: Barbara Oates
Neil Le Serve prepares for his daily postal delivery to French Island, in the background.
Minutes later we are sitting in his coastal home and I am looking out over the 3.2-kilometre stretch of dark Western Port water to his place of work.
Five days a week at 7am Neil sets out to deliver mail and occasionally heavier cargo to the Island’s residents. He's been doing it for 30 years. “I keep two cars over there for the mail run,” Neil says, “one at the jetty and the other as a backup.” After making his regular 15 mail deliveries, he spends the rest of the day contract fencing, returning to Corinella at about 5pm.
“Been fencing ever since I gave up dairying at Bass some 30 years ago,” he says. “Took on a job at Tarwin Lower putting up 45 kilometres of fencing. Went at it non-stop, 12 hours a day working by myself. It wore me down both mentally and physically.”
Nowadays he confines his fencing work to the island, combining it with other farm work such as spraying and building sheds.
I get the impression Neil hasn’t slowed down much. He admits to enjoying his work, never gets bored and is happiest when the weekend is once again behind him.
He has had his share of dramas over the years. Before the days of GPS, fogs were a challenge. “When you get caught up in thick fog you tend to go round in circles. You have no idea where you are. On one occasion I ran into Snapper Rock and stuffed up the boat’s propeller.”
Another time, he was so far off course he ran aground on a mud bank at Elizabeth Island. “I had to wait over five hours for the rising tide to get me off.”
He has had several boats since starting on the job. His current one is purpose built at a cost of $78,000. Needless to say with that sort of outlay, it is fitted out with all the latest essential equipment. It looks more functional than comfortable.
I ask about his scariest moments.
“Well, I got swamped a few years back. Knew there was a squall coming, should have waited for it to pass. They don’t last long. When it hit, we were halfway across. She finished up with her nose pointed to the sky and I was sitting in water with a submerged battery and a floating fuel tank.” Somehow, he managed to get the boat turned around in the unkind sea and make it slowly back to shore.
French Island has always been something of a mystery to me. I know I am being fanciful but its low-lying profile seems moody; at times, almost foreboding. When I look over at it, I get the feeling it is looking back at me.
I have a grasp of its size when compared to Phillip Island but little else. French Island is about 170 square kilometres, 70 more than its better known neighbour.
Neil says the island residents are a good example of users of renewable energy. Since the island is without a power supply, they really have no choice. Stand-alone solar power, generators and a growing number of wind generators provide the inhabitants with electricity.
He is genuinely pleased there are signs that more young couples are making the island their home and expresses his satisfaction that a qualified mechanic is among the new arrivals. The school, which at one time whittled down to only two students, now has 15.
There is a strong sense of community amongst the islanders. Neil talks about its beef industry, which is the backbone of the land use (there is only one sheep farm left), farmers markets that have recently evolved, the general store and its homemade pies, the development of a vineyard and an olive grove and, to my surprise, a local cricket team.
There is pride in his voice as he lists all the island’s attributes, and justifiably so. He has every claim to being an islander, having spent more time than most over there.
It is a wet cold night as I set out to drive home and the outline of the Island has melted into the dark.
Foreboding? After talking to Neil maybe not so much.
When I reach to turn on the car heater, I think of Neil launching his boat in the early hours of tomorrow morning. The island’s mail delivery is in good hands.
Thanks Bob, I really enjoyed your rare glimpse into French Island through Neil's story. I took the ferry there from Cowes with friends a couple of years ago. We had all lived at Phillip Island for ages and had never been. It was a fabulous day. Surprisingly different from Phillip Island - the landscape, the vegetation, the whole feel of the place. Your story was a happy reminder of how special it is.
Linda Cuttriss, Ventnor