There’s no millionaire and his wife, nor shipwrecked crew. There might have been a movie star,  but there’s definitely a little bit of Gilligan and some skippers, too, on Wedge Island, South Australia.

While semi-retired Melbourne sign writer Ron O’Brien isn’t marooned on Wedge Island at the bottom of Spencer Gulf, he’s earnt the nickname Gilligan after the 1960s series Gilligan’s Island, for spending a lot of time isolated on the island.

There are six homes so far on the 10 kilometre square island but for most of the year he’s the only person living on the island among the bettongs and wallabies.

Surviving for him is a lot easier than for the television series Gilligan’s Island characters, but it still takes a bit of the professor’s ingenuity to get by.

Ron O’Brien shares his morning sea view with one of the locals, a black-footed rock-wallaby.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

The black-footed rock-wallabies were introduced to Wedge Island in the 1970s to help save the species.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Ron has been going to Wedge Island for the past 12 years, living there semi-permanently since about 2019.

He built a house on the island, transporting everything by boat and a small barge that he also built.

There’s no boat ramp or working jetty so Ron has to land on the sandy beach and with the southern ocean swells and the beach sometimes washed away.

It isn’t easy — but for Ron, it’s paradise.

“I think it dates back to when I was a child. I used to come home from school and watch Gilligan’s Island,” Ron said.

“I used to think, ‘Wow, what a great lifestyle'”.

Ron O’Brien enjoys his quiet island life.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Growing up in Melbourne, he spent much of his childhood surfing at Phillip Island in Victoria.

He became an “islander” after moving to Kangaroo Island in South Australia in about 1980, initially living in a tent, then building a house and raising two children.

“It was the sort of lifestyle I’d always been longing for,” Ron said.

Island escape beckons 

“I was surfing every day. It was great, but over time, more and more people came and it slowly got overrun by people — that’s what usually happens.”

He returned to making a living as a sign writer in Melbourne before he felt the draw of an island lifestyle again.

“I wanted to go back to Kangaroo Island, of course, but, nah, it’s way too expensive, far too many people,” Ron said.

Ron O’Brien brought all the materials for his house form the mainland by boat, piece by piece.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

He looked more remotely and bought his block of land, site unseen, on Wedge Island in 2008.

Ron didn’t even have a boat to reach his new paradise, let alone a boat licence.

“When I first got here, I thought, ‘Great, there’s no one here’. It’s the main attraction,” Ron said.

“It’s just the serenity of it all, and the beaches are beautiful.”

He’s now become almost the unofficial caretaker.

There’s an old homestead built of local stone, a shearing shed, and old horse buggies are windows to the island’s agricultural past.

The winters are a lush green but the summers are dry and hot on Wedge Island.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

The island has been shaped by the ocean and wind eroding over time.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Half the island was made a national park in 1987 when three subdivisions were approved to provide 114 allotments.

The national park side features high cliffs, so it’s inaccessible from the sea.

The rest of the island is privately owned, so it is off limits to the public, with the block owners helping care for its wilderness.

It took six hours by sea to tow Ron’s small 4WD to Wedge on his barge.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

The black-footed wallabies are comfortable foraging for food along the clifftops.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Some of the land owners had bought their land to keep it undeveloped but Ron is worried there could be a lot more houses one day.

“If everybody who owned a block said, ‘let’s go out and build a house on Wedge’, well you couldn’t do it,” he said.

“The island couldn’t sustain such a thing and it would be a shame for the island.”

Development unsustainable

He admits it’s hypocritical because he’s one of the lucky ones to have built a home there.

But his idyllic lifestyle is protected by the logistics and cost of just getting to the island, let alone bringing building materials and equipment.

Everything needs to come by sea, although one block owner has used a helicopter to bring materials over from the mainland.

Ron says the key to island life is improvising.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

A majestic wedge tailed eagle lands on a pine tree at dusk on the island. Raptors and crows are the only predators for the young marsupials.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Ron brought his building materials, including the 2.1-metre poles, to the island using his small boat.

“It was just a case of ‘It’s a nice day, let’s take some poles over’,” Ron said.

He averages three hours to the island, leaving from Marion Bay on Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.

“Fully loaded, we could take four or five hours,” Ron said.

His longest trip was six and a half hours bringing over his small 4WD on the barge.

“People thought it was pretty funny [seeing the car on the barge] when I was launching from Marion Bay.”

Ron said the key to island life was improvising and figuring out how to build and fix things yourself.

He has internet and communications installed, so he says it’s easy to access that information, and marvels at how the early pioneers farmed on Wedge.

“They didn’t have the machinery, they didn’t have the boats we have,” Ron said.

A horse being brought ashore on Wedge Island.(Source: State Library of South Australia)

Everything taken on and off Wedge Island had to come by boat in the early days.(Source: State Library of South Australia)

“I just take my hat off to those guys.”

Minimal footprint

He tries to limit his footprint on the island — he has a composting toilet, solar panels and a pole house.

“I always try and make sure I walk below the high tide water mark so my footprints disappear because it’s one of the only beaches I know of you can walk along and not see another footprint,” Ron said.

There may be penguin tracks, seagulls and hooded plover marks, but no signs of people.

“You get the sensation you could have been the first person getting off the boat. To me, that’s special,” Ron said.

He sometimes has his partner come and stay, but for the most part, it’s just him and a band of wallabies, wombats and bettongs rustling around the island.

A black-footed rock-wallaby sheltering under some remnant farm machinery left on Wedge Island.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Life lesson

It takes visitors a few days to unwind and relax when they come to stay, but they soon tune into Ron’s way.

“I say, ‘Just calm down, relax, just sit down,'” he said.

“And what really brought that home was watching my brother die — like what was all that worth?

“He’d just retired. He was about to go on his holiday and he never made it and I know so many other people now that’s happened to.”

Wedge Island is a private Island with no public access.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

One of the two Peaked Rocks at the southern end of Wedge Island where the cliffs reach 200 metres in height.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Ron’s happy wandering about on his island, enjoying the birds and animals in peace and quiet.

He can see the similarities with Gilligan’s Island, but he’s not looking to be “rescued” anytime soon.