The early history of the European settlement of the Victorian coast is shrouded in mystery. Most of the early players came across Bass Strait from Van Dieman’s Land to explore and exploit what was then the Port Philip District of New South Wales. By ship it is less than half the distance from Launceston to any part of the Victorian coast than it is from Sydney. Settlement was forbidden and mostly went undocumented.
Port Fairy gets its name from The Fairy, a cutter that visited the Moyne River in search of fresh water in about 1828. Sealers and whalers from Van Dieman’s Land were probably using the area from about that time on.
There were three islands at the mouth of the Moyne. Some characters named Penny and Reiby established a whaling station on the largest of them.
In 1834 the Henty brothers settled an area about 70 km to the west which would become Portland. They were the first settlers to come to the government’s notice, their presence being discovered by an exploring party commanded by Major Thomas Mitchell. By the time officialdom, in the form of Foster Fyans reached the area in 1839 there was already a settlement at Port Fairy catching whales and growing potatoes. Captain Foster Fyans, magistrate and Commissioner for Crown Lands arrived in Geelong in 1837 charged with the virtually impossible task of overseeing the orderly settlement of all of south west Victoria. Geelong and Portland are 240 km apart. Fyans and his party made the first recorded overland journey between the two.
In 1835 a gentleman named John Griffiths purchased the whaling station at the mouth of the Moyne and the island acquired his name. The station operated until about 1843 by which time Southern Right Whales were too scarce to warrant such an establishment. But as whaling declined the importance of the port increased.
Melbourne was also pioneered by adventurers from Van Dieman’s Land. The founding of a town wasn’t approved until 1837. Until Melbourne eclipsed it Port Fairy was the busiest port in the district. It remained busy until 1960 when the harbour at Portland opened for business. It still is a working port – 30 tonnes of squid were landed during my stay.
Victoria gained its independence from New South Wales in 1851. Van Dieman’s Land became Tasmania in 1856.
A lighthouse was built on Rabbit Island in 1859. Various improvements were made to the mouth of the river which combined with natural build up of sand caused Rabbit, Goat and Griffiths Islands to coalesce into one, still known as Griffiths Island.
The lighthouse was manned by two keepers until it was automated in 1954. The keepers’ cottages were demolished soon after but some plants from their garden linger on.
The island is home base for a colony of Short-tailed Shearwaters. They nest in burrows during the summer. They spend the remainder of the year on an extraordinary journey that takes them way into the northern hemisphere.
A stroll around the island takes about 45 minutes. You are quite likely to meet one of these on the way …