Penguins, wombats and dreamy scenery: Australia’s wild side can be found in just a two hour drive from Melbourne...
I continued along the road until it ran out at Tidal River, the main base for visitors to Wilsons Promontory National Park, and there I met a man called Alan with a toilet roll and a different perspective. “Bloody wombats,” he muttered, his face as white as a boiled egg. “They’re all around our tent. My wife’s watching our tucker while I nip to the dunny.”
A wombat’s a placid beast, but it finds zipped canvas little obstacle to reaching an unguarded sandwich. I conjured an expression of comradely sympathy and chose not to mention that I was staying in one of only four luxury safari tents, complete with en-suite bathroom and stilts, lifting it free of barrelling wildlife. “Apparently wombats do square poos,” I said instead, and left Alan to his ablutions.
More accurately, they do cuboid poos, and place them in neat piles of three or four on top of stones and tree stumps, like children stacking dice in a playroom. As I set off next morning, I could have measured out my hike in columns of wombat droppings. I wondered why the animal took such peculiar and creative care over its toilet.
The trail ran past clawing mallee scrub and through a corridor of paperbark trees that creaked in the breeze, before scouting some loose dunes and a sliver of speckled beach. At the shoreline, it attached itself to the base of Mount Oberon and wound 300m up the cliffside to a lookout point. It was the scene from that rocky headland that convinced me wombats weren’t just marking territory – they were paying tribute to it, like furry Ancients building henges.
It was an epic view, the sort of view an artist invents when he wants to portray man’s grub-like insignificance. Behind me the cliffs rolled in billows of purple granite; I below, the sea charged in long white rows, the wind sniping and clipping at its peaks. I stood pinched between warring land and sea.
It seemed impossible that Melbourne was just 2.5 hours north of here; the city’s cultured lines belonged to a land far, far away. But so too did the nearby campsite with its Alans and its sandwiches. This coastal path at the southernmost tip of mainland Australia felt like somewhere beyond the rules of time and space, a hinterland at the edge of the earth.
The path noodled on around the point. Above me the character of the mountainside shifted, with craggy rock giving way to smooth rock, and then to fields of bleached tea trees arranged like skeleton armies. Metallic-skinned lizards darted into holes and a pair of crows with silver eyes rasped throatily from their perch. A log bridge spanned an ugly slash filled with jumbled wood and stone, before the trail dropped and disgorged me from Mount Oberon onto the lonely sweep of Oberon Beach. I shielded my face as wisps of sand lifted and danced like imps upon the surface.
Everything here was unfixed, neither real nor unreal, like something glimpsed at the corner of your eye. Like a midsummer night’s dream, in fact. Ah, Oberon – the king of the fairies. I got it; there was no better name for this place.
For all its aura of timelessness, Wilsons Prom has been coloured by particular events at specific moments. Take 8 February 2009, one day in a stupidly hot summer: a lightning strike near Sealer’s Cove sparked a fire that raged for five weeks through half the park’s 50,000 hectares. That was in the north, but a smaller fire had hit the south in 2005; the eerie tea trees I’d seen earlier, those massed ranks of standing dead, were victims of that moment. Or take 23 March 2011: the date of the 300-year storm. For 24 hours the rain fell and fell until the mountains could carry no more, giving way in thunderous slides of mud and rubble. The valleys filled, the rivers rose and Darby Bridge collapsed, cutting off the only route to Tidal River. Nearly 400 hikers were evacuated by helicopter in one of the biggest airlift rescues in Australian history.
The effects of the 2011 storm are still being felt. Boardwalks and roads were washed away; the park closed for six months. But ranger Julia Pickwick was surprisingly circumspect about nature’s assaults when I joined her the following day. The Australian bush needs the odd fiery clearout to prevent one species from dominating, she explained, as we walked the Lilly Pilly Gully Circuit in the shadow of Mount Bishop.
“There’s always a mad rush of re-growth after a fire because suddenly there’s plenty of light to go round,” Julia explained as she showed me buds fighting through blackened trunks; manna gum trees not only survive fire but start throwing out new shoots just a couple of weeks after being scorched.
Flames can be fruitful. Before the blaze in 2005, the park harboured 20 eastern spider orchids, but a survey in its aftermath found over 400. It led the park authorities to better understand how they might use controlled burnings to manage the habitat.
After 3km we entered the belly of the gully. “Go first,” Julia said. “It’s special.”
I stepped onto a short boardwalk through a pocket of rainforest. Bark clung in wizened folds to the lilly pilly trees growing alongside a creek stained red with tannin. Flycatchers flitted from ground to trunk, from trunk to ground, and Julia patted a tree fern that had been here for half a millennium. Fire couldn’t breach this damp haven; the foliage was thick and lush, its leaves weaving a cocoon that cushioned sound and filtered light to minty green.
Thirty minutes later we reached a very different place. I’d never seen evidence of such violence, as though the landscape was fixed in a silent scream. The gash was over 10m wide, the landslide’s plume trailing high up the mountain; inside, the guts of the earth spilled around whale-sized boulders and trees that were scattered like spillikins. It was a freeze-frame of tumbling chaos. “Nature will take longer to recover from slides like this because they change the soil type – what was underneath is now on top,” said Julia. “But it’ll get there.” She gazed down at some tiny violet flowers among the tangle.
As we completed the loop, Julia gave her personal account of the floods: how the night staff had escorted campers to higher ground as the waters began to rise; how caravans had drifted; how one snoring camper had to be shaken awake; how rangers had taken vehicles across Darby Bridge shortly before it fell; how it was a miracle no-one died. But the simplest story was my favourite. On the day Darby Bridge re-opened, Julia drove there at the crack of dawn to be the first to cross. She was too late. At the very centre of the bridge, surrounded by gleaming white concrete untouched by tyre or boot, was a solitary column of wombat poo.
Next day I headed north-west for Phillip Island. Arthur Phillip is famous for founding Sydney and coming to an unfortunate end when his wheelchair rolled off a balcony, but the island that carries his name is known for something else. At its western tip are the burrows of 32,000 little penguins, and each sunset people watch the birds return from sea. It’s called the ‘Penguin Parade’.
I joined a group of eight other penguin spotters at the visitor centre. I thought I knew nothing about little penguins, but a flick through the centre’s information leaflet suggested I was underestimating myself. ‘Penguins are birds’, it revealed. ‘They have a beak and feathers’, it continued, ensuring there was no room for misunderstanding. Fortunately Ross, our guide, was on hand in case we had any more complicated questions. He distributed some serious looking kit – dark jacket, night goggles, radio headset – and, as the light mellowed, we followed him to an empty beach on the northern shore.
In years past, there were ten colonies of penguins on Phillip Island; only one remains. As human settlements spread, bird numbers dropped, until a study in 1986 predicted all would be gone by the year 2000.
A little penguin is a creature of stubborn routine, you see. It will dig its burrow close to the burrow in which it grew up; if that happens to be at the edge of a new car park, so be it. It’s similarly loyal to the route it first took down to the sea. If that lay in a direction now covered by a road, then down the middle of that road the penguin will walk. Penguins make difficult neighbours. And so, in a rare victory for conservation, the government bought the land and set about removing the houses and tarmac. The colony has since doubled in size.
We took up position near a break in the dune that buffered the beach. This was a popular penguin highway, Ross said. Wasn’t it sweet that penguins mated for life, said a member of our party. Ross was quick to quash that myth. Recent research had shown that 17% of penguins ‘divorce’ each year, and they are rampantly promiscuous in any case. So much for penguin-themed Valentine’s cards. As the horizon turned to peach, Ross put his finger to his lips. He’d spotted a raft of incoming penguins, his voice whispered in our headsets. Dark dots in the distance.
And then there were soft chuckling noises at the shoreline and the surf started spitting sausage shapes. They glowed green in my nightscope. As each wave broke, it ejected another quacking gaggle of penguins. The birds hit the sand face first, before picking themselves up, giving their heads a shake and waddling frantically up the beach in a comic chain of trips and stumbles. I could have watched them for a week.
However, I had a brief final pit-stop to make on my Victoria road trip. Across Port Phillip Bay lay the Mornington Peninsula, a picturesque lick of land just 40km from Melbourne. It’s much loved by the city set; each year, 3 million ‘do the peninsula’, indulging at its wineries and hilltop thermal springs. But away from the peninsula’s soft centre were rougher edges to be found; the plane of the western shore – from Cape Schanck to Portsea – braves the full force of the Bass Strait.
I joined a coastal stretch called the Lifesaving Track, cleared in the 1890s to give rescuers quicker access to the frequent shipwrecks. The path skirted Pirate’s Bay, dipping through an avenue of gnarled and leaning moonah trees before creeping back to the cliffside. Pale bluffs rose to a blue sea that rumbled like a passing train. The water heaved and burrowed at the limestone, chiselling tunnels and monks’ cell hollows. At Spray Point, the waves surged against a rock ledge, erupting in fountains of foam. I pictured the wooden ships that had sailed from England only to be dashed on the stones of their promised land.
Yes, even this refined peninsula had its hinterland places where nature wars and sprites might jig. I’d leave the sipping and spa soaks to others; my indulgence was this one last pinch of wilderness.
Adrian Phillips is publishing director of Bradt Travel Guides. He was runner-up in the 2012 AITO Travel Writer of the Year competition for his piece on Heron Island, Queensland, in the September 2012 issue of Wanderlust.