Thursday, 19 January 2012

The magic of Phillip Island

Having explored the centre of Melbourne, we headed south in the car to take in the fascinating sights of Phillip Island. One of Australia's quirks is the appearance of several English place names and, mirroring the Isle of Wight, Phillip houses Ventnor and Cowes. Before crossing the bridge from the mainland, we stopped at a bakery in San Remo - notable for a coffee that took an age to make, plus good pies and desserts from a menu which boasted far more options than were actually on offer. Standard practice out in the sticks, we were told.

Rob's geographical knowledge and map-reading is immense. As I type this, I have the Greater Melbourne Street Directory in front of me to ensure an accurate recollection of our stay on the island. We swung off the main road to visit a surf beach at Cape Woolamai. These are quieter than bay beaches, due to the strong rip currents, but they do attract the surfers - as the name suggests. We slapped on the sun cream and walked along the firm sand which was crying out for beach cricket. Beautiful location, comparable to the Witterings back home.

Prior to flying Down Under, I knew Phillip Island only for its motor circuit, having reported on Kent riders Shane Byrne and Leon Camier racing there in the World Superbike Championship. A few minutes in the car along the Back Beach Road and we were there. Rachel and I paid for tokens to gain access to the motor museum and the viewing area for the track. Quite a stunning setting, with the Southern Loop and Siberia bends only a stone's throw (or a 'coo-ee' in Aussie slang) from the ocean. It was tranquil, so different from the roar of race day. Two riders, Jonathan Rea and Hiroshi Aoyama, were there testing and we heard them from inside the cafe, although we didn't see them out and about.

From fearsome machines to awesome wild animals. We embarked on a hunt for koalas in the Oswin Roberts reserve, north-east of the circuit, but what we did stumble across was even more exciting. Wallabies bouncing through the bush stopped dead in the tracks to stare us out, probably because one of their young was having a wander in search of food. Special experience.

The overriding purpose of our visit to Phillip Island was to see penguins. Yes, penguins. There is a small stretch of beach on the western tip of the island where hundreds of Small Penguins emerge from the waves every night, toddle up the sand and make their way into burrows where their chicks are waiting to be fed. Imagine Land's End but with much more than a signpost. We wrapped up warm, took our place in the stands at the water's edge and waited. Almost on cue, the 30cm-high black-and-white figures began to wash up on the shore. Through the gloom, it was pretty magical, even more so when the penguins nervously edged their way towards the car park, under the wooden walkways and into the maze of burrows. We stood within two feet of some of them as they waddled home, with bellies full of fish. I felt like David Attenborough without the HD cameras. The signs on the way out said 'check under your cars for penguins' - definitely not seen those in the Highway Code. We couldn't take photos on the night but do check out to see what we did. Easy to understand why people travel halfway round the world to watch the Penguin Parade.

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