Thursday, 24 December 2009


Just back from two days exploring Gippsland, the highlight of which was the penguin parade at Phillip Island. The Little Penguins are the smallest in the world (as you might expect from the name), and also the most timid. During the day, if they're not out at sea stuffing themselves on anchovies and sardines, they hide away in tiny burrows, peering out suspiciously at all the tourists urging them to come out for a photo opportunity. In the early evening, after an afternoon on Churchill Island, looking at the National Trust building there (once a farm, then a holiday home, and now again a model farm; absolutely charming), and watching a demonstration of sheep-shearing (I felt very smug, having done it myself!), we headed down to the Nobbies headland to try to spot a few. I have a photo of a flash of white breast hidden in the hillside, and we saw several lurking underneath the boardwalk, wondering who all these bloody people were disturbing the peace, but it wasn't until we were settled in our seats on the beach and darkness had fallen that the real action began.

They don't like walking across the sand, because they're not camouflaged for it and fear all the birds of prey, so first they gather at the water's edge, waiting for others to come and join them. Then they creep to the rocks, wait for a bit, wait for a bit, wait for a bit, and... turn around and rush back into the water. Then they begin again, and you think they're going to make it across the beach this time, then... something spooks them and they rush back into the water. This went on for about 20 minutes, until there was a critical mass and suddenly hundreds of penguins were streaming past us, having a groom and a fight and a chat, finding their babies and feeding them, and waddling up to their nests on the hillside (and falling over when they'd had too much to eat!). There was even some penguin loving going on.

It's the largest colony of Little Penguins in the world - about 30,000 on the island all told - and even though the Parade is a tourist trap it was just spectacular. Photography is banned, because the penguins don't like the flashes (their eyes are very sensitive), and the people are firmly kept away from the penguins' homes and coralled onto boardwalks, so as far as it can be it's regulated in favour of the penguin. Plus they're also busy demolishing holiday homes on that part of the island so the penguins can move in and expand the colony! More penguins, please - they're absolutely adorable.

The next day we headed off to Wilson's Promontory, which was equally spectacular, in terms of scenery. In places it's still looking very sorry because of the fires in February, but most places are amazingly recovered. We did some bush walking down to the world's southernmost mangroves, and then high up on to the hillsides to see the amazing views out over hundreds of hectares of bush and forest. The shine was taken off the day a bit when I ran into a low-hanging branch and thumped my head (nosebleed, lump on my head, the works - most embarrassing!), but once I'd mopped myself up a bit I was game on to head to Squeaky Beach. As usual with Australian titles, the name says it all - the beach squeaks when you walk on it. Apparently, this is because the sand has a high level of tin in it, making the grains very fine and regular, so they squeak when they rub together. More importantly to me, it was a beautiful, white beach with crashing waves, bristling with surfers doing amazing things on boards, and the sound of the surf whispering on to the shore as the sun started to go down.

We rounded off a lovely day by going wombat hunting on a deserted airfield; sadly it was still too warm for them to come out - all right-thinking wombats spend the heat of the day underground. It seems the nearest I'm going to come to my favourite Australian animal is the entrance to their burrows - but that's OK, I guess. I've not been short of wildlife on this trip! And now I'm off to spend Christmas in the lap of luxury, thanks to Mum - Novotel on Collins Street, here I come. Hooray!

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