Then to bed. To sleep and dream until 3.00AM for this was the peak of the Eta Aquariid meteor storm. This is debris from Halley’s Comet. This little time lapse was shot in Victoria’s Western District from about 4am until just before dawn. The sky is at it’s most frenetic just as Venus comes up behind the gum tree.
So it’s new moon and I’m at the coast. The Night Augmented Reality module of Photopills shows the milky way emblazoned across the night sky with the lighthouse beneath. All that stands between me and a photogasm is a dense layer of cloud. The lights of Warrnambool are a poor substitute …
Isolated locations, slippery and uneven surfaces and the unpredictable nature of the ocean, makes rock fishing the most dangerous sport in Australia. In just eight years, between 1992 and 2000, 74 people drowned while rock fishing just in New South Wales and the numbers are consistently high right around the country.
As beautiful as the Great Ocean Road between Lorne and Peterborough is, it does mean that there are no secluded hideaways along the coast. It’s one of Victoria’s top tourist attractions but I can’t help feeling that an inland road with dead end offshoots would have given the magnificent coastline more of a Cornwall feel. For me the adventure starts where the road stops and this road goes on and on.
But at least there is access. Continue west beyond Peterborough and the highway ducks inland. It hits the coast at Warnambool, very settled and domesticated but a good place to see whales in the winter. You can get to the sea again at Port Fairy, more rugged and way more charming. After that access to the coast is extremely limited until you get to Portland. Tourists can look across privately owned farmland to the distant ocean and wonder what they’re missing.
In fact they’re missing scenery that is the equal of the Great Ocean Road.
From the Crags and from Yambuk Lakes you can see Australia’s only off shore volcano, Lady Julia Percy Island. It’s been fairly quiet for the last 6 million years but you could get lucky. The island is home to Australia’s largest fur seal colony – about 27,000 strong. Sea Lions and Elephant Seals are occasional visitors. A number of different sea birds nest there. It’s the long flat topped one on the horizon …
Ship wrecks are a dime a dozen along Victoria’s coast but plane wrecks are not so common. There is a memorial at the Crags to four airmen who lost their lives in 1944. They were the crew of an Avro Anson thought to be looking for submarines. For reasons unknown it failed to return to its base in Mount Gambier. Wreckage was found on Lady Julia Percy Island and in the sea nearby. The bodies of the crew were not found.
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 …
In the old joke an Arab goes to Blackpool for his holiday. On his return to the desert he’s asked how it was. He replied “Perfect, it rained every day”
It hasn’t rained at home in the Goldfields for two months, three days in Port Fairy and two cold fronts later has me wondering if the grass will be green by the time I get home. I doubt it but the sea looks even more exciting in a gale …
… and the sun has been out between showers. A bit of bad weather can’t spoil Port Fairy. Stay at Doc’s at the Mill, it’s right on the wharf. You book through Langley’s (03 5568 2899), tell them I sent you and I’ll get a discount next time! A morning walk on East Beach and lunch at Rebecca’s. You can’t beat it.
The mill was built in 1860 and enjoyed a relatively brief career as a steam driven flour mill. It’s right on the wharf and the tallest building in town.
In the evening as the lights come on …
The town is situated where the Moyne River reaches the Southern Ocean. It is one of the oldest settlements in the state of Victoria and was once an important port.
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“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” – Robert Cushman Murphy, 1912.
Murphy, ornithologist, ecologist, conservationist, was writing to his wife from the whaling brig Daisy in the vicinity of South Georgia. He describes the Albatrosses “Lying on the invisible currents of the breeze” which beautifully portrays their flight in light airs but it’s when the wind rises to a gale that I find them most impressive. When your hands are clasped tightly on the ship’s rail and you hope your pyloric sphincter will maintain an equally strong grip on your gastric contents, the Albatross passes elegantly by demonstrating a complete mastery of its elements. I saw my first Wandering Albatross just outside Sydney Heads and I remember it well.
The Albatross family is one of the four (extant) families making up the order Procellariiformes. When you go to the seaside you encounter numerous seabirds, gulls, cormorants, and gannets for instance, but most of them don’t venture too far out to sea. The procellariiiforms are true ocean goers, they may spend years at a time without coming ashore something that they usually do only to mate.
To get amongst them you have to go to sea. This weekend I did exactly that sailing about 30 nautical miles south of Port Fairy to the edge of the continental shelf.
The largest albatrosses are the Wanderers and the Royals but they didn’t put in an appearance this time out. The largest on this occasion were the Shy Albatross. They were present in good numbers and not at all shy. Slightly smaller and rather more numerous were the Black-browed Albatross …
The black margin on the underwing is broader, the bill a different colour. They come in two subspecies (full species according to some) which can be distinguished by the colour of the iris, yes you do need to get reasonably close. One has a dark eye, the other is honey coloured, both were present.
Smaller still is the Yellow-nosed Albatross …
Sea birds tend to be black, white, gray or combinations of black, white and grey! Diagnosis has its challenges. Albatrosses are actually the easy ones.
All the procellariforms have tubes leading to their external nose. If you look at the top close up of a Shy Albatross you can see that there is a small nostril on the side of its beak. The Albatrosses all have two quite small nostrils, in all the other families that make up the order the tubes merge into a single opening on top of the beak.
The four families are :-
Family Procellariidae (shearwaters, fulmarine petrels, gadfly petrels, and prions)
Family Diomedeidae (albatrosses)
Family Hydrobatidae (storm petrels)
Family Pelecanoididae (diving petrels)
and at least one member of each family turned up. Here are a few of them …
Australian landscapes are ancient, the heady days when rift valleys tore Gondwana apart, and sea floor spreading propelled its fragments around the globe are long gone. It’s hard to imagine a Mt Nyrigongo popping up and obliterating Adelaide. And I do so miss her warmth, the twinkle in her magma and her sweet sulphurous perfume.
But the reality is that western Victoria is littered with volcanoes. It’s just the timing that’s out of kilter.
Ken Grimes, of the Hamilton Field Naturalists Club has written a very nice paper on the subject which you can find <HERE>.
In the Western District there are mainly three types of volcano, though combinations of these also occur. About half of the volcanoes are small steep-sided scoria cones built from frothy lava fragments thrown up by lava fountains. Most of the remainder are broader but flatter lava volcanoes formed from relatively gentle flows of lava welling out of a central crater. A group of about 40 maar craters
near the coast formed from shallow steam-driven explosions which produced broad craters with low rims. These now often contain lakes.
These are the New Volcanics, they started about 5 million years ago. The most recent eruptions occurred about 5000 years ago. They seem to have occurred about every 5000 years so we may be due. According to Ken they erupt for a few weeks or months and never again, the next eruption being at a new site.
Melbourne University’s Professor Joyce anticipates that the next eruption would be “the sort of thing that would be interesting for tourists”. I’m sure it would, and Dr Lin Sutherland of the Australian Museum reassures us that
… no panic is needed. It probably would be a small discharge and a temporary nuisance, rather than the large eruptions we see in the Pacific ‘Rim of Fire’.
This assumes that it isn’t a Phreatic (15 points, more if you can get it on a double or triple word square) eruption. Boil one cubic meter of water and you have 1,600 cubic meters of steam. If magma comes into contact with ground water the result is an explosion. Such
explosions crush the overlying rocks and launch them into the air along with steam, water, ash and magmatic material. The materials usually travel straight up into the air and fall back to Earth to form the tephra deposits that surround the crater.
Thus producing a maar, these are usually a few hundred to a thousand meters in diameter and less than one hundred meters deep. Nothing to panic about.
Tourists do enjoy them but not until they’ve settled down a bit! My favorite is at Tower Hill near Port Fairy, incidentally this vicinity is high on the list for the next eruption.
It’s probably about 25,000 years since it went bang. It is now a very attractive game reserve, home to koalas, emus and kangaroos. Interestingly, you can’t take your dog there but during duck season you can take your gun.
So there you have it … photographic evidence of life on maars.
I have the enormous luxury of spending a few days here.
It is 290 km west of Melbourne where the River Moyne reaches the southern ocean. This coast was home to a small whaling industry from the 1830’s, a store opened here in 1839 and the Post Office in 1843. It is the home of Victoria’s oldest continuously licensed pub and some other fine heritage buildings. If it wasn’t for the sand on the beach and the better weather it could be an English seaside village.
It is still a working port. Less than a hundred metres from where I’m staying there is a guy making wicker cray pots on the deck of his fishing boat. A couple of days ago they were just a bundle of rods soaking in the river.
The tourist can walk along the wharf, take a stroll around Griffith’s Island, the early whaling base, or visit the koalas and emus at Tower Hill fifteen minutes drive away. Have lunch at Rebecca’s, tea at the Lemongrass Thai Restaurant and recharge the soul. They tell me the folk festival in March is not to be missed although it’s not my scene.
It is a splendid place for the bird watcher.
The best place to stay is Doc’s at the Mill, right at the wharf and an easy walk into town or to the beach. The old flour mill was built in 1860, it’s the only three story building in town. It has had a colourful history itself, as you can see from the photo the third story is now wood. If you want to see the stone that used to be there you need to look at the tower of the Anglican church in Regent Street!
It has been converted to luxury accommodation with three bedrooms. Contact Langley’s +61 3 5568 2899.