Going Wild on Phillip Island
To shoo or not to shoo, that is the question that’s bothering me as I drive across Phillip Island. Road signs warn that you should always check under your car for penguins before you drive, but they don’t offer any helpful advice on what to do if you do find one peeking out from behind your mud flap. Do you shoo or do you just quietly wait for it to waddle away? And what happens if it just wants to stay?
Wildlife watching takes on a whole new meaning on Victoria’s Phillip Island, where personal encounters with some of Australia’s cutest critters is a regular occurrence.
I’m on my way to the island’s western tip, where every night hundreds of little penguins (that's their official name, although they were once called fairy penguins) come out of the sea at Summerlands Beach and waddle up the hill to their burrows, much to the delight of enthralled visitors. The famous Penguin Parade is one of the country’s best – and most popular – wildlife events.
The island is connected to the Victorian mainland by a bridge at San Remo and is an easy 90-minute drive southeast of Melbourne. I’ve only been on the island for a day and already I’ve been eye-to-eye with wild koalas at the Koala Conservation Centre where there are two elevated boardwalks offering a superb view of the koalas perched (rather precariously to my untrained eye) in the treetops. I’ve also seen more birds than I can possibly count. Rhyll Inlet is a haven for birdlife, with thousands of pelicans, black swans, gulls and migratory waders.
The walking track and boardwalk is a great way to explore the inlet and mangroves without getting your feet wet. I followed the track and boardwalk all the way from Conservation Hill to the seaside village of Rhyll (it takes around 90 minutes return) but you can just do the half-hour mangrove boardwalk if you wish. I drop into the nearby Rhyll Trout & Bush Tucker Farm for a cup of bush tucker tea and a home-baked wattleseed scone after my walk, and end up catching a trout in the beautifully landscaped ponds. The chef cheerfully cooks my catch for lunch, but they also serve a superb tempura trout if you don’t fancy fishing. For afternoon tea I taste some wine and try some Gippsland cheese at Phillip Island Winery, making sure I keep an eye on my watch (and under my car) because the road to the Penguin Parade and the nearby Nobbies Centre closes one hour before sunset in order to protect the wildlife.
Just a five-minute drive from the Penguin Parade, it can be tempting to dismiss the Nobbies Centre as just a ticket outlet, tourist information centre and souvenir shop, but the displays inside on the local marine life, including penguins and seals, are really informative. There’s also a multi-media ‘Antarctic Journey’ exhibition if you’d like to know more about the great frozen south.
Australia's largest fur seal colony lives at Seal Rocks, just beyond the point, and there’s a fantastic cliff-top boardwalk along the headland – if you've got binoculars you'll get a good view of the seals. During big southern swells the blowhole at the end of the walk puts on an impressive display.
But it’s the penguins that steal the show. There are two viewing platforms and a number of tours, including behind the scenes tours with rangers. I opt for the 'Penguin Plus', which offers a prime viewing position. The penguins start arriving at sunset, which in summer is around 9pm, and lights are turned out 50 minutes after the first penguin arrives, so it can be a late night. It also gets cold, even in summer, so bring warm clothes, and maybe a cushion or blanket to sit on because the bench seats get hard after an hour or so. And don’t forget to check under your car for penguins before you leave.
The following day I drive to Pyramid Rocks, around halfway along the southern coast. It's an easy 10-minute walk – much of it along wooden boardwalks – to the lookout platform, which provides great views not only over the triangular pile of rocks that gives this scenic point its name, but also north and south along the coast. You can follow the clifftop trail to Berry Beach – go early in the morning and you're almost guaranteed to see wallabies on the track.
I spend the day beach combing and exploring the rusted remains of wrecked ships washed ashore last century and linger over a long lunch of fresh seafood at a waterside restaurant in Cowes, the island’s main town. As the sun sets I head back to the mainland, not sure whether I’m relieved or disappointed that I never found a penguin hiding beneath my car.
Tip: A Four Parks Pass gets you entry to the Penguin Parade, Antarctic Journey, Koala Conservation Centre and Churchill Island Heritage Farm, or buy tickets separately for each attraction at www.penguins.org.au
By Lee Atkinson
To shoo or not to shoo, that is the question that’s bothering me as I drive across Phillip Island. Road signs warn that you should always check under your car for penguins before you drive, but they don’t offer any helpful advice on what to do if you do find one peeking ou...