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All at sea: private island in Whitsundays deserted by prospective buyer

A week out from settling the sale of a private island in the Whitsundays’ pristine waters, the buyer has disappeared.

It is not the plot of a murder mystery novel, but a real quandary faced by the directors of Private Islands Online Australia, Richard and Norelle Vanhoff, who have had to put Poole Island back on the market.

The buyer, a WA-based businessman, had signed a contract and paid a $5,000 deposit for the 20ha island with an asking price of less than an average home in Australia’s biggest cities.

However, when the property was ready for settlement, the solicitor acting for the purchaser couldn’t find his client. Neither could Vanhoff. His phone had been turned off and emails went unanswered.

“The owner selling the island was doubting our ability to track this gentleman down,” Vanhoff said, “and so I gave him the details, and he came to the same conclusion.”

Vanhoff said the experience was “rather odd” – he had never had a client completely cut off communication since he and his wife began the business in 2004.

“Normally, if somebody is not going to proceed, they’ll let you know pretty early not to waste your time.”

With an asking price of less than $1m, “where else can you buy a waterfront property for $1m, and be at 50 acres, surrounded by coral and deepwater fishing and not too far from Airlie beach or Hamilton Island?” Vanhoff said.

The price allows the buyer the right to own the lease granted by the Queensland government for a period of 20 years, with $20,000 paid annually in rent.

The island is surrounded by the deep blue water the area is renowned for, but unlike other islands in the Whitsundays there is not much in the way of infrastructure beyond two buildings in need of renovation, some sheds and lawn.

The current owners, two Sydney businessmen who bought the property in 2018, had plans to turn the island into a rentable property for functions, such as weddings and birthdays, in order to make the island cost-neutral at the same time as using it for their families’ recreational purposes. However, the pair no longer have time to spend on the project, Vanhoff said.

Before 2018, a doctor from Melbourne had owned the island for more than 40 years and used it as a getaway for his family. When he began his tenure in the 1980s, the doctor built a home as well as a natural saltwater swimming pool fashioned from the island’s rock outcrop.

The only other existing structure on the island was built out of bricks made by convicts for the manager of the island when it was used for sheep grazing in the late 19th century. Later, the building became the residence for workers at Australia’s first refrigerated abattoir, located on the island.

“It was the first place that they used refrigeration in Queensland,” Vanhoff said.

There has been no evidence of First Nations people having lived on the island, said Vanhoff.

He understood that the new buyer had intended to use the island primarily for his own purposes but had also intended to proceed with renovations to bring the assets up to a commercial standard for third-party accommodation.

Despite the “weird” episode of the disappearing buyer, the market for private islands has been “going gangbusters” since the pandemic, with no dip in demand since the end of lockdowns, according to Vanhoff.

“A lot of buyers have looked at the market during the Covid period: how best can they isolate themselves? How best can they get themselves away from the humdrum of city life? How do they control their businesses whilst they’re not in residence? And islands seem to cover all those areas and give them that ultimate leisure.”