The darkness is just about upon us when hushed whispers spread excitedly through the group –the telltale white bellies of the penguins have been spotted by the water’s edge.
They waddle forwards and then backwards again nervously, unsure if any birds of prey still linger. And suddenly, as if reacting to a starter’s gun, they’re off, storming the open stretch of dangerous sand like a D-Day landing party, moving in groups of 10 or 20 for safety.
Within a minute they’re right by our sides and it’s party time. The little penguins, which at under 50cm of charismatic cuteness are the world’s smallest, have made it. They’ve survivedthe daily commute one more time and now stand together, preening, chatting and seemingly oblivious to us gawping at them like idiots from just a metre or two away (although I’m guessing there’s one or two penguin posers secretly loving it).
Every few minutes the group swells as another and then another platoon arrives, out of breath and jubilant, to join the nightly celebrations. Once fully preened and gossiped out, they then begin the waddle back to their respective homes.
Strolling along the network of boardwalks I follow their excited chatter, joining them for thefinal leg as the night fills with the sounds of hot pingu loving and babies demanding regurgitated fish.
I can’t deny the fact I’ve always been a sucker for a cute bird, but this is something else. With a population of around 70,000 little penguins (6,000 of which are in the penguin parade area),the Summerland Peninsula boasts one of the biggest penguin colonies on the planet. And it shows.
Black and white bundles of feathers and fluff are everywhere I look. Jumping in holes, squawking in bushes or simply waddling contentedly down the track, I see literally hundreds of them, while tourists “ooo” and “ahhh” like school girls on every side.
Eventually dragging myself away, there’s only one thought on my mind, “I want a penguin”.
Sealing the deal
I’m on Phillip Island which, at less than a couple of hours drive from Melbourne, is one of the most popular getaways from the Victorian capital.
The island’s unbearably cute black and white locals are undeniably its main draw. However, there’s much, much more to this 26km long island, making it worthy of doing more than just the obligatory penguin parade.
My first port of call on arrival is to head up to the island’s northern tip and have a gander at the enticingly-named Nobbies. Walking around the jagged rocks as waves dramatically crash into the shore as though they’ve been eagerly dreaming of the moment for a 1,000km (and they probably have), walls of spray are created while blow holes, er blow, whichever way I look.
People made nervous by Hitchcock films should probably avoid the area as the skies are literally filled with birds. Crested terns, hooded plovers, short-tailed shearwaters… they are just three of the winged creatures I’d never heard of before but apparently love the area.
And just off the shore lie the jutting rocks which are the Nobbies themselves. These slabs of stone rising from the frothy waters are where 25,000 fur seals call home, giving birth to over 5,000 pups a year. The blubbery fur balls it seems absolutely love the Bass Strait area, due to abundant foods like mackeral, squid and red cod. Also it helps that they’ve been protected since 1975, since when their population has doubled.
Now, 25,000 sounds like a serious amount of seals but, to be honest, stats like that normally spend around three seconds in my head. So how about this for a fun fact. The 25,000 seals all jostling for space on this tiny corner of this small Victorian island are actually a quarter of the entire Australian fur seal population.
This is great. I mean, seals, what’s not to love? Well, there’s one thing. Wherever you get lots of seals, you get big sharks. And wherever you get crazy big numbers of seals, you get crazy big sharks, which kind of explains why some of the biggest great whites ever caught have been caught off Phillip Island. Again, that’s kinda cool. But right now I’m finding it a very long way from cool. The reason? I’m pulling on my sexy seal-like wetsuit for a surf lesson…
Man vs Wild
Meeting my instructor Ash, I’m quick to raise my concerns. “Ah don’t worry,” he quickly reassures me. “The sharks are too big to worry about us round here.”
“Great”, I think, taking a final fond look at my arms and legs. Very reassuring.
“But seriously,” continues Ash. “They’re definitely out there but I’ve never seen one surfing here in all my years.”
And so, wetsuits donned and a few right hooks to a shark nose mentally rehearsed, we take to the water. Within a surprisingly short time I’ve completely forgotten about looking for fins as I concentrate on keeping my footing on the longboard, wooping with joy every time I manage to briefly stay up and ride a wave. After a few hours I’m exhilarated, hooked and still alive, but I’m exhausted, so crawl out of the water, all limbs still attached.
By now, however, I’ve built myself up a serious hunger and so go in search of food. Confident that my prowess on the board has scared off any potential maneaters I’m feeling particularly virulent and so decide on a bit of hunter gathering.
I stroll into the Rhyll Trout and Bush Tucker Farm intent on catching my lunch. Now, considering my one experience of fishing involved a traumatic childhood day aboard a boat off English fishing village Whitby in torrential rain, catching zero fish – thanks Dad), my confidence of actually succeeding in this was low.
But, not to be defeated, I grab a rod, get shown how to put the bait on and cast it, before sitting back to bask in the sun. Half an hour later and nothing has happened. At least I don’t think it has. I mean, how hard does a fish pull? Maybe I missed it.
The really wild show
But then suddenly I really know it’s on. Some water-sucking monster is trying to steal my rod! I get to work and within a minute or so he’s on the shore, my very own 450g trout. Okay, maybe not the giant I imagined, but the feeling of catching my first fish is strangely exciting.
Better yet, I take it straight to the kitchen and within half an hour it’s been baked with Kakadu plum, lime and chilli. It’s truly delicious, even if I do get disturbingly hyped about eating my own kill for the first time.
Belly satisfied, next stop on the agenda is the Churchill Island Heritage Farm. Covering 57 hectares, this historic working farm is surrounded by the inky depths of the Bass Strait and is a great place to bring out your inner child. I happily spend a couple of hours riding a horse-drawn carriage, getting licked by a lamb, milking a cow and watching a sheep get sheared.
It’s then on to my final stop, the Koala Conservation Centre. It’s scientifically proven (sort of) that you can never get bored of looking at koalas, or that you can walk away from one without first taking an excessive number of identical photos, making this place as good as any to stop at.
Set within protected bushland, the centre’s trees are home to 33 koalas, which happily sit around with their stoned-looking eyes as I stroll the boardwalks, which have been elevated to the treetops allowing for great up-close viewing.
A thousand pictures later, I leave the koalas to their eucalypts and head back to Melbourne, amazed that so much could be crammed onto one tiny island so close to the city.
The damage & the details: Beds at The Island Accommodation (Ph: 03 5956 6123,www.theislandaccommodation.com.au) cost from $30/night. Tickets for the Penguin Parade (Ph: 03 5951 2800, www.penguins.org.au) cost from $21.20 or you can buy a Three Parks Pass (for the Penguin Parade, Churchill Island Heritage Farm and Koala Conservation Centre) for $36. Surf lessons with Out There (Ph: 03 5956 6450, www.outthere.net.au) cost $60. Fishing, rod hire and cooking of catch at Rhyll Trout and Bush Tucker Farm (Ph: 03 5956 9255,www.rhylltroutandbushtucker.com.au) costs about $28.50 (dependent on size of fish caught)
More great Melbourne escapes
Wilsons Prom: Walking tracks, abundant wildlife and stunning beaches – it’s not hard to see why the “Prom” is such a popular national park.
Ned Kelly: Relive the days of Australia’s favourite “crim” around Glenrowan. Visit the gloriously over-the-top Kellyland, or put a bucket on your head and recreate the famous final shoot-out.
Worship the Twelve Apostles: One of Australia’s most famous sights, these rocks jut dramatically out of the ocean. A Great Ocean Road roadtrip is a must-do.
Snowy River NP: If you want to get away from it all, head to one of Victoria’s most isolated parks. It also just happens to be the most spectacular.
Head to the Dandenongs: Tired of the city? Well, the Dandenong Ranges are only 35km east of Melbourne and its national parks, ferns and exotic trees make for a great bushwalking escape.
Bushwalk the Grampians NP: For a taste of the Victorian wilderness, head to the Grampians. There’s plenty of opportunities for bushwalking, horse riding and rockclimbing, plus Aboriginal rock art sites and wildlife.