Wilsons Promontory: Southern star
IT WAS ONE OF those days where “wet” just doesn’t cover it. The sky was swollen to bursting point; rain soaked through our backpacks, clothes, socks, even our underwear. Yet, we were oblivious to everything but the vibrant colours before us.
The large granite boulders at the northern end of Refuge Cove, on the east coast of Wilsons Promontory, were stippled with orange and black lichens above the high-tide mark, as bold and vivid as though an artist had just swept a brush across them. The sand beneath our feet was pearl-white, and offshore a yacht rocked gently on turquoise water, safe from the furious weather of Bass Strait.
Five minutes later we passed a boaties’ campsite tucked away behind the beach, amid tall trees. We ducked in and gazed upon long wooden railings inscribed by mariners with the names of vessels that had sought haven here over the years. Some had been carved or inlaid with rope; many with superb skill. At the southern end of the beach was the campsite, where we dropped our packs and watched an elegant white-faced heron stalk a small fish through a tannin-stained creek the colour of whisky.
Faced with such stunning scenery, I find it hard to conjure an image of Refuge Cove’s darker side. Early Europeans ran whaling and sealing operations from this very spot, and they were a rough crew indeed. There are tales of them dressing up as evil spirits to frighten off attacks from the Boonerwrung and Gunai people, and they hunted the Australian fur seal almost to extinction. Today, whale ribs and vertebrae are scattered around camp, reproachful reminders of those unruly days.
Did the sealers see this place as beautiful, or just as a wild, lonely spot at the bottom of the Earth? As we sat in camp listening to birdsong mingle with the sounds of crashing waves, I decided that even the hardened heart of a rough-as-guts sealer couldn’t possibly have been impervious to the beauty here.
WILSONS PROMONTORY National Park, universally known as ‘the Prom’, occupies the southernmost part of the Australian mainland, about 175 km south-east of Melbourne. Its untamed coastline is notched with sheltered coves and white sandy beaches. Forested peaks dotted with granite outcrops descend steeply to the sea and creeks flow strongly, fed by an annual rainfall of about one metre per year.
The park covers 50,500 ha of diverse habitat, including warm temperate and cool temperate rainforest, tall open forest, woodland, heath, swamp, coastal communities and mangrove. These habitats also support 50 per cent of Victoria’s bird species and many threatened animals, such as the New Holland mouse and the long-nosed potoroo. The waters around the Prom are protected in Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park, Marine Park and Marine Reserve – a total of 22,075 ha of ocean environment and offshore islands prized by recreational snorkellers, divers and sea kayakers.
George Bass – for whom Bass Strait is named – was the first European to map these shores, on his 1797-98 exploratory voyage from Sydney Cove. But he wasn’t the first European to reach the Prom. A few months before Bass arrived, 14 convicts stole a whaleboat in Sydney and set sail, fuelled by rumours that a ship with large quantities of rum onboard lay wrecked on Preservation Island off the north-east coast of Tasmania. Low on supplies, and with no idea how to reach the rum, the convicts landed on an island in the Glennie Group, 7 km west of the Prom and now part of the adjoining marine reserve. Seven convicts made off with the boat, leaving the others marooned. When Bass sailed by in January 1798, he saw smoke from their fire and landed, but with limited room aboard his whaleboat he could only take two castaways back to Sydney. He dropped the others on the mainland with a few supplies. Neither they nor the convicts who deserted with the boat were ever heard from again.
When Bass and Matthew Flinders sailed Norfolk back to the Prom later that year – on the voyage that would ultimately prove Tasmania was an island – they were accompanied by Nautilus, which had been sent to investigate sealing opportunities. Nautilus returned to Sydney laden with seal oil and skins, and four lucrative decades of sealing and whaling followed. By the 1850s this had given way to timber-getting and pastoral runs; there was even, from 1866, a short burst of goldmining at Mt Singapore.
Following a visit to the Prom in 1884, members of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria spent two decades fighting to reserve the Prom as a national park. A regional Victorian newspaper, the Yarram Chronicle, trumpeted their cause, calling the Prom “the future People’s Park, the sanatorium of Victoria, the most picturesque spot in the Colony”. Plans to develop a town and grazing subdivisions on the Prom prompted a flurry of submissions to the government and, in 1898, land was temporarily reserved, making it the oldest existing national park in Victoria. The Prom was finally gazetted in 1905.
YOU DON’T NEED to spend much time here to understand why Wilsons Promontory has captured the hearts and minds of so many Victorians and visitors. Parks Victoria ranger Ryan Duffy says one of the Prom’s great strengths is the variety of walking trails available, from short tracks with wheelchair access to multi-day hikes and wilderness treks. “There’re hikes that access incredible areas, but are still suitable for beginners,” he says.
At Little Waterloo Bay campsite, I crossed paths with a Year 9 outdoor-education class from Heathdale Christian College, in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Teachers Carolyn Thomas, Jim Graham and Carolyn Greenhough were leading students on the 35.5 km East Prom coastal hike. “As the kids’ first exposure to the outdoors, it’s perfect,” Carolyn Thomas said. “It’s our outdoor classroom,” Jim added.
At the Wilsons Promontory light station I met Colin Macaulay, from Junee, NSW, and his family – including his 75-year-old mother-in-law Fay Baker. The light station is only accessible by foot, via
Telegraph Track – a 38.2 km round trip. “We went to South Point today, the southernmost point on the mainland,” Colin told me proudly. “It’s the best holiday I’ve ever had,” Fay said.
The historic light-keeper’s cottages, where Colin and his family were staying, are testament to the park’s ability to accommodate visitors. The light station was incorporated into the park in 1995, and it quickly became one of the highlights of the Prom, with its outstanding views of Tasmania’s Rodondo Island and the jagged Bass Strait coastline. The lure of comfortable overnight accommodation now available at the keeper’s cottages has inspired many less-seasoned walkers to tackle the walk. The visitors’ book contains tales about blisters and sore knees, but few complaints about the destination. Ailsa Richter, who manages the light station with husband Chris, said: “When visitors go away with good memories and are recharged; it’s very rewarding.”
Despite its wide-ranging appeal, after more than a century of protection there’s an authenticity about the Prom’s natural beauty that’s hard to match. It may be altered by natural events such as bushfires – the most recent, in February 2009, burnt nearly 50 per cent of the park – but its regeneration only serves to underline its timelessness. Beloved by Victorians, it’s a space for all Australians to treasure.
Source: Australian Geographic, Issue 97 (Jan – March, 2010).