Phillip Island, situated in the Bass Strait between Melbourne and Tasmania, was clearly settled by people from the Isle of Wight in England. Approximately the same shape, it boasts the Wight towns of Cowes, Rhyll and Ventnor, and even tails off into a crescent of rocks where The Needles would be, only because these are rather more stumpy, they are here known as The Nobbies. It is also something of a retirement and tourist resort, as well as being home of the famous race track.
None of these facts figured among the reasons why we chose to go there on Easter weekend. Newly arrived in Australia, we wanted to see these famous Australian animals that every schoolchild learns about, and Phillip Island is not only home to a number of native Australian animal sanctuaries, but also has an unrivalled position as a fertile piece of coastline poking out into what is effectively the Southern Ocean, thus attracting a number of creatures that you would perhaps be more likely to expect to find in the Antarctic. Its also a convenient days drive away from Canberra, and, if you ignore the highway, you can take an entertaining 4WD route through Kosciuszko National Park.
After an exhilarating nine-hour drive into Melbourne, we stopped at a convenient hotel and went out to check the local night life. A bar with a pool table caught our attention, and before long we’d met any number of local people, staggering eventually back to our beds in the small hours of the morning.
A few hours later, fortified by immensely strong coffee, a pile of fried food, and hiding behind dark glasses, we set off once more for the southern coast.
There is a stretch of toll road that takes you through Melbourne, but there are no toll booths. Officious signs warn you regularly that Your Car Has Been Photographed, and If You Have Not Paid Then You Will Be Fined, but there was no way of actually purchasing a toll ticket.
Eventually we saw a sign that said Ring This Number For Queries, so I called it on my mobile. I explained to the nice young man that I was a stupid tourist from Canberra and that I was driving on his motorway without a permit, and he told me that I could pay by credit card. There followed a selection of voice-activated automated instructions, number of credit card, registration number etc – how the hell are you supposed to do this while simultaneously driving on the motorway – after which I was dumped into Please Wait For Operator Assistance. The same man came back on, and said laconically, Oh yeah, the automated system doesn’t recognise out-of-state number plates. And this in one of Victoria’s premier tourist regions…
Our hotel turned out to be a typical leisure complex fronting onto the beach, with buckets and spades, frisbees and sandcastles. After a restorative bite to eat, we headed off to the koala sanctuary. Now, everybody knows what a koala is supposed to look like, a kind of sleepy cuddly teddy bear, right? So, obviously, the real thing must be completely different. Er, no. A koala genuinely is a sleepy cuddly teddy bear.
Their chosen foodstuff, the eucalyptus leaf, is so indigestible that they spend several hours stuffing themselves, and then a load more hours just sitting there asleep, waiting for their stomachs to get enough energy out to enable them to wake up and stuff themselves some more. Its a pretty sedentary life, which means that each morning the sanctuary staff can go out into the forest, and underneath each koala high up in its tree, place a sign that says “Here’s One!”, secure in the knowledge that its unlikely to move very far in the coming day.
In the evening, it was time for the Penguin Parade. Every night at dusk, a colony of Little Penguins, who have been out all day chasing fish in the Southern Ocean, swim back to their rookery on Phillip Island.
In order to get from the safety of the water to the safety of their dune burrows, however, they have to cross an open expanse of beach, and this is where a stepped auditorium has been constructed so that the public can sit quietly and watch.
It really is an amazing and extremely amusing sight. The birds swim lithely into the shallows, and then attempt to struggle to their feet. Bearing in mind that they can’t use their short flippers to aid them, this is something of an effort, and since they don’t dare go out onto the sand – where a predator may be waiting – they do it in the waves, using the momentum for one wave to stand them up, only for the next one to knock them down again. More and more penguins gather in little clumps, appearing in flashes of white and then tumbling like dominoes, making occasional forays onto the shore but always chickening out and running back into the waves, until suddenly a group will seem to get a quorum and all head up the beach together in a purposeful waddle. Although it really is comical, their persistence is awe inspiring.
The influx lasts for hours, and if you follow the birds up into the dunes, you can see them determinedly heading up through the dunes, pedalling their little bodies through the undergrowth, and issuing plaintive little brrrrp? noises and then listening for a reply in an attempt to find their mates and their nests. To think that they go through this every night!
The following day, we caught a boat out beyond The Nobbies to Seal Rocks. It was a pleasant ride, with the crew telling tales of the local people, and rich kids on sea-doos buzzing in our wake. In the distance we could see the Rocks sticking out of the sea. “You can’t see them,” said the nearest crew member, “but I can see about ten thousand seals right now.”
He wasn’t kidding. When we got closer, we realised that what we’d thought was rock was practically all occupied by seal, and all around were more seals playing in the waves, swimming out and then surfing in on their bellies, leaping out of the waves in gay abandon. The boat was an instant hit, too. Around us, the sea boiled with eager brown faces, a veritable seal soup. I’ve seen seals before, but never like this.