adventure

Kennett River wanderings

It was raining and cold, but we put on warm jackets and raincoats and went out anyway. The beach was calling… and waterfalls, rainforest and glow worms. Why stay indoors? It was mid-June and we were spending the weekend at Kennett River, halfway between Lorne and Apollo Bay. The small town, full of holiday houses, was peaceful and almost deserted, apart from busloads of tourists visiting the solitary shop on the Great Ocean Road and feeding the flocks of waiting Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Crimson Rosellas, King Parrots and sparrows.

We followed the steep streets down to the beach. It was close to high tide, but there was a narrow strip of wet sand. Among the washed-up seaweeds, a few with their tough stalk still attached to a small rock, we found a sponge shaped like a shallow bowl on a pedestal. When the beach ended, we walked across the sloping rock platform and rounded stones, towards Point Hawdon, dodging out of the way of waves washing in towards us. At the rocky point, the tide was too high for us to continue, and bigger waves were breaking around the corner. We retraced our steps, watching large swells of green water on the horizon.

Kennett River locals hoping to share our breakfast.  Image: Kristen Cook

Kennett River locals hoping to share our breakfast. Image: Kristen Cook

The nearby river was deep and more peaceful. We walked along its grassy bank below houses, avoiding puddles deep enough for ducks to take a swim. Across the river was a steep, bush-covered slope. Past the last garden, an old vehicle track followed the base of a cliff through riverside forest of tall trees, mosses and fungi. Beyond the cliff, we scrambled up a steep, and at times, muddy track which brought us out behind the highest houses. We retreated to warmth and dryness to eat lunch, then ventured forth again.

This time we drove, following the winding road west along the coast to the mouth of Carisbrook Creek. A muddy track led uphill under arching sheoaks. We noticed damage to the track, the bank above us and the vegetation, caused by large animals, probably deer. We arrived at a wooden fence and a view in the distance of the long waterfall cascading down a rock slope. I watched waves of lacy white froth sliding downwards, dropping into small pools, dividing around higher mounds of dark grey rock, then falling into another pool, the pattern of movement and water drops constantly changing. The bottom of the fall was out of sight behind a pile of huge lichen-covered boulders. The creek turned a corner, becoming visible again above another boulder, where it split and fell to form a narrow, boisterous creek rushing over rocks and under sheoaks on its way to the sea.

We drove inland to Grey River Picnic Area, a small open patch of soggy greenness, sloping gently downwards towards the sounds of a narrow rushing river hidden amongst the tall gums, wattles and tree ferns. We watched its flow from the nearby bridge, then followed a narrow walking track into the gloom beneath the trees. Daylight was diminishing, so we saw only hints of ferns, mosses and fungi growing on the ground, on rotting logs, and the trunks of tree ferns. The track ended at a view upstream, partly obscured by the growth of young trees. As we returned, the world had become grey and black. We admired our roof of tree fern fronds and the ancient, giant gum trees towering above them.

The emerald green tree ferns and ancient towering eucalypts of Grey River.  Image: Wendy Cook

The emerald green tree ferns and ancient towering eucalypts of Grey River. Image: Wendy Cook

It was soon fully dark. Leaving our torches in our pockets, we walked up the road. On the dirt bank, under the tree ferns, were tiny white fairy lights, hundreds of them. These were the lights of glow worms, the larval stage of fungi gnats. They spin dangling, sticky threads to catch small flying insects. To attract their prey to this line, a light-producing chemical reaction occurs in the body of each larva. While to the insects this is merely a feeding strategy, to us it was magic. We continued up the road gazing and wondering.

We returned the next day to enjoy the forest in daylight. As we drove up the road, we saw a Koala sleeping in the fork of a gum tree, and watched a Red-necked Wallaby hop away from the road’s edge. The rainforest was still gloomy, but now it included colour - greens and browns. We waded along the first few metres of the track where a newly arisen creek, born of the last day’s rain, rushed through the forest to join the river. The trunks of the tree ferns were covered in plant life. The upper portions offered support for the creeping rhizomes of Kangaroo Fern, its fronds’ long side lobes occasionally giving it the shape of a kangaroo’s foot.

Below this, the trunks wore a dense, dripping cloak of False Fern Moss, their stems reaching outwards, laden with tiny dark green leaves only one cell thick. When I held a mirror under these long mosses, light reflected upwards shone through them, revealing them as almost transparent with a mere hint of green. Among the ferns and mosses, tiny fungi grew solitary or in clusters, their stalks curving away from the tree fern’s trunk, supporting delicate caps of white or brown. Seedlings of rainforest trees had germinated on the verdant trunks of some tree ferns. Some carried saplings, while a few trees showed the bowed remnants of a tree fern on which it had started its life. Mosses and fungi grew on the bases of the giant eucalypts, on the fallen rotting logs, and among the ferns covering the remaining soil.

After heavy rainfall, Grey River rushes rapidly under fallen branches and tree fern fronds.  Image: Wendy Cook

After heavy rainfall, Grey River rushes rapidly under fallen branches and tree fern fronds. Image: Wendy Cook

We visited the river bank. The muddy brown water rushed and foamed among the tree ferns, and under and over mossy logs. I watched a tree fern frond, caught in the current, sweeping downstream as far as it could reach. As the river hurried below and beyond it, it relinquished the frond which returned to its natural position, to be immediately caught again.

We left the forest, returning to the brightness of the coast. Today, as well as the rain, a strong wind was blowing inland and the sea was wild. We parked facing into the weather and ate lunch while the big, busy waves raced and foamed in front of us, crashing onto the rocks and the sand. Small flocks of dark birds soared and twisted through the sky above the waves. Four glided towards us and landed on the beach, revealing themselves as Sooty Oystercatchers with black feathers, pink legs and long red bills, strolling comfortably along the sand, unconcerned by the weather.

At Wye River, the beach was mostly submerged. We watched waves rolling a log and other debris to block the path to the sand. Barricades have been built to keep the sea in its place, but the water rose against them, almost to the level of the grassy picnic area. Further east, we stopped at Artillery Rocks, where the battering of the sea has created knobbly formations on the rock platform. From the base of the steps below the road, we could see a few rocks above the foam. We watched and heard the white fury of the waves crashing over the platform and eventually the lowest step, causing us to retreat to the windswept road edge. From there we could see the green sea filling the bay, spray flying from the white wave tops as they rolled in towards the forest-covered hills. The road hugged the feet of the hills, just above the vanished beaches.

The crashing waves at Artillery Rocks make for an exhilarating end to this eventful journey at Kennett River.  Image: Wendy Cook

The crashing waves at Artillery Rocks make for an exhilarating end to this eventful journey at Kennett River. Image: Wendy Cook

With no hope of a beach walk, we looked at the inland side of the road. Sheoak Creek had flooded the path to Sheoak Falls. Nearby, the waves crashing on the rocks were only one or two metres below the road. We walked up the estuary of St George River and into the forest following an old tramway, once used to remove the tall straight trees that grow there. We turned back at a river crossing, where a bridge had been washed away or stepping stones were covered by the rushing brown water. From there, we followed the Great Ocean Road eastward through Lorne and beyond. As the hills became lower, the coast more populated and the towns larger, the waves, although still covering the beaches, seemed smaller. At Anglesea, we turned inland, away from the wild sea and headed for the warm sanctuary of home.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.


Banner image courtesy of Wendy Cook.

Winter whale-watching along the Victorian coast

While the idea of going for a swim in Melbourne’s cold winter waters might seem like a nightmare for some, hundreds of others have recently flocked to our shores for a welcome winter holiday. For a few short months each year, the Victorian Coast becomes home to some of the world’s largest and most majestic creatures - whales.

The whales are migrating up to 10,000 kilometres from the colder Antarctic waters where they’ve spent the summer feeding, to the shallower, warmer waters of New South Wales and Queensland. On their way north along the eastern Australian coast, a handful visit the Bass Coast between April and November each year to calve and rest.

That’s right – they’re in our backyard, and they’re easier to see than you might think.

Last month, I went on a four-hour whale-watching cruise around Phillip Island, only an hour-and-a-half drive from Melbourne. I spend the first hour of the cruise eagerly looking out to the horizon – is that a whale? No, it’s another buoy. Finally, a promising blow in the distance indicates we’ve found what we were looking for, and the boat heads in the direction of the sighting.

Humpback Whales seen from a distance.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Humpback Whales seen from a distance. Image: Ella Loeffler

The vessel approaches the whales, abiding by strict regulations under their permit – they must keep a 100-metre distance at all times. It is up to the whales if they choose to approach the vessel any closer, although often they do, in which case the engine is turned off.

Coming up for a few breaths, the Humpback Whales give us a good look before they disappear underwater for several long minutes with a flick of their tail. They leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface - and an excited energy in the air as we wait for them to reappear.

Every year, two main species of whale – the Humpback Whale and the Southern Right Whale – are welcomed by the Bass Coast. Humpbacks have a characteristic white underside and a dorsal fin, while Southern Right Whales are generally black, and are smaller but heavier than humpbacks. Occasionally, Orcas (or Killer Whales) also come for a visit to feed on seals, but the crew tells us that on the days when Orcas are spotted, there is nothing else in the water.

Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear. Image: Ella Loeffler

Wildlife Coast Cruises, together with the Dolphin Research Institute, contribute to the Two Bays Whale Project, which relies on citizen science to build a database of whale sightings. In 2017, an estimated number of 458 individual whales were sighted in Port Phillip and Western Port Bays. These figures are promising, especially considering the dark history of industrial whaling, which saw whale numbers plummet dangerously close to extinction. But it seems that these populations have bounced back, highlighting the importance of continued research and protection of these species.

'Ten o’clock!' calls the crew, pointing to the resurfaced pair of humpbacks, as everyone huddles to one side of the boat. Watching the whales, I feel a child-like exhilaration I haven’t felt in years. Everyone else on board seems to share the same feeling – all you can hear are awestruck exclamations and camera clicks.

Commentating on the loudspeaker, the crew at Wildlife Coast Cruises are careful not to anthropomorphise, highlighting that we really don’t know much about the behaviour of these captivating yet cryptic creatures. But it’s hard not to see these animals as playful, curious beings. One of the crew members hangs off the back of the boat, slowly clapping his hands – apparently, this attracts whales.

At one point, we find ourselves surrounded by three small pods of Humpback Whales, all in different directions. Seemingly jealous that the attention is not on them, a large group of fur seals arrive, playing in the water around the boat. A minute later, there are dolphins swimming along the bow, catching a free ride. Pelicans, albatrosses and gulls fly past – I don’t know where to look, overwhelmed by the abundant wildlife.

Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

When things calm down again, we’re watching a pod of three whales lazily swimming along. The crew tells us that they only exhibit breaching behaviour (jumping out of the water) five to ten percent of the time, and not to get our hopes up. But just as we’re about to head back in, one of the whales flings itself out of the water, landing with a huge splash; the sheer size and force is incredible. No one really knows why whales breach – it could be to clean themselves, or as an act of aggression. Or it could just be a playful leap. Either way, it makes a wonderful end to our cruise as we head back to Rhyll jetty.

There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world.  Image: Ella Loeffler

There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world. Image: Ella Loeffler

The cruises at Phillip Island run between June and August, and have finished for the year. But if you’ve missed out, don’t worry – what comes up must come down, which means you can catch the whales returning through Wilsons Promontory from September to November. And Jess from Wildlife Coast Cruises promises a good show at the Prom – 'we had a 100% success rate for sightings last year with up to 50% of cruises sighting breaches.'

If you’re looking for a new way to experience our beautiful coastline, a whale-watching cruise is a great chance to get outdoors and see some of the spectacular wildlife Victoria has to offer.


Ella Loeffler studied a Bachelor of Arts and Science at Monash University, combining her love for literature and animals. She is currently completing her honours in Zoology at Deakin University, where she is researching the foraging ecology of the critically endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot. She is passionate about wildlife conservation, and hopes to continue working in threatened species management.


This article is an honest review and has not been sponsored in any way by Wildlife Coast Cruises or affiliates.

Banner image courtesy of Wildlife Coast Cruises.

The Big Outside is waiting

Treeless alpine ecosystems cover just 0.5 per cent of Australia. While we might lack huge mountains, what we do have is a network of ranges that run in a long arc from the outskirts of Canberra almost to Melbourne’s doorstep. They host a unique combination of plants, animals and landscapes. Despite our moderate latitude and very modest altitude, we do have significant areas that tend to be snow-covered in winter – in total, an area about the size of Switzerland.

Melbourne residents who enjoy the snow will probably know the resorts – places like Mount Buller and Falls Creek. These get you to the edge of some incredible “winter wilderness”. Even though the Victorian Alps are generally well protected through the Alpine National Park, there are road networks through much of the High Country. In winter the mountains are transformed into seasonal wilderness through the closure of many of these roads and tracks.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

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Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There is nowhere else on the planet where you can stand in Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forest. These are tall mountain trees that have a subtle twist as they grow into old age. Often called Woolly Butt because of their fibrous lower sections, their upper trunks are pale and “gum”-like, mirroring their close relatives the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Alpine Ash forest, which will often host lyrebirds, and a range of possums and wombats, merge – often quite rapidly – into Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) as you climb up the mountain. Snow Gums are lyrical in the way they grow – with such diversity of form and so many colours in their bark, from silver and white to red and green. As you climb closer to the treeline they become smaller, trimmed by the cold and prevailing wind, until you emerge into the true alpine zone. In early summer these areas are ablaze with colour, but in winter the snow gives a sombre black and white aspect to the terrain.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There are so many adventures to be had in the Victorian Alps. Probably one of the best ways to experience them is to do one of the long climbs from a river valley to one of the higher peaks. This will often involve a long climb of up to 900 metres of vertical, but will take you from Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) forests along the rivers into the Peppermint forests of the foothills, which include Narrow-leaved Peppermint (Eucalyptus radiata), and eventually the alpine. Tracing the Howqua River up Howitt Spur to the West Peak of Howitt, or Bungalow Spur up Feathertop, or the Staircase Spur to our highest mountain – Bogong - are all great examples of these classic walks. Once you’re out walking or skiing, what I notice is the silence and lack of people. Just a few hours from Melbourne you can have silence, clouds, the sound of gentle snowfall and a sense of the “big wild” that comes in winter when many of the four-wheel drive tracks are closed. In winter our higher mountains are transformed into temporary wilderness that makes you feel like you’re in Tasmania rather than a few hours’ drive from Melbourne.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Many Melburnians who ski or snowboard will have looked out at the surrounding mountains but not ventured out into them in winter. But a set of touring skis, snow shoes or a splitboard (a type of snowboard adapted for touring) will get you out into the solitude. I once heard a French ski instructor describe the ‘cool, slow’ mood of the Australian Alps which are so different to the ‘fast’ European Alps. Our mountains are like nowhere else. But finding a way to explore this backcountry terrain can be daunting for first timers.

To help people find a way to get into the mountains outside the resorts, the Victorian Backcountry Festival is taking place this September. It will start and finish at the Falls Creek Resort in north-east Victoria. While Falls Creek charges an entry fee, all the tours, clinics and workshops are free.

Everyone is welcome. If you’d like to learn the skills that will help you experience some winter wildness, then check the festival website and come along.


Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne and a keen walker, skier and climber who loves the Victorian High Country and wilds of Tasmania.


Banner image courtesy of Cam Walker.

The world under Rye Pier

I felt the sun beating down on me and the heavy weight of my diving gear on my shoulders as I stared at the never-ending stretch of pier before me. It was my first time diving; the destination - Rye Pier.

I was told by my dive instructor not to expect too much; it was unlikely we were going to see anything apart from crabs, a few fish and a ray if we were lucky. However, it was a good place to begin learning the art of scuba diving, so with low expectations I stepped off the pier and into the water.

As we began our five-metre descent I was overwhelmed. Looking off the edge of the pier into the water, one couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of life that has found a home in these waters. Bright orange sponges and delicate red and brown seaweeds form an intricate collage that envelopes the pillars and guides the path to the sandy expanse at the bottom of the pier. Schools of porcupinefish dart across your path, seahorses curl their tails, clinging to the foliage lining the ocean floor, and crabs decorate the pillars. It really is another world.

If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

If you're lucky, you might even spot a nudibranch in the marine habitat beneath Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

My instructor explained that he had heard of a human-made sculpture park, Elsa's Reef, just past the end of the pier. Following the flag markers just off the end of the pier, we swam along the sandy flat. The small journey wasn't without some incredible finds. Nearly every flag had an octopus, camouflaged to match the sand, hidden at its base. Little skates darted along the sand and we even spotted a few Banjo Sharks. The reef itself was striking. An abandoned bike, a trolley and other objects that made up the reef were completely overtaken by nature. Beautiful seaweeds and crabs of all sizes coated the structures. Schools of fish swam around, even curious enough to swim between our hands and legs.

Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'.  Image: Edison Sands

Elsa's Reef is home to a diversity of marine life that utilises this human-made 'sculpture park'. Image: Edison Sands

Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby.  Image: Edison Sands

Stingrays dart along the sand as scuba divers swim nearby. Image: Edison Sands

Perhaps a feeling words won't be able to capture was the moment I lay on my back on the sandy ocean floor. I looked up through the five metres of water above me, admiring how the sunlight filtered through and touched the ground. The only sound was my own breathing. It was this experience that told me I would be back in this underwater world again. It is one of the most peaceful places we can venture with so many wonders.

Swimming back along the pier I couldn't help noticing the undeniable human impact leaching into the beautiful habitat. Littered along the bottom of the pier were the abandoned lines and hooks of fishers. We even found an octopus who had taken up residence in a littered tin. It was as I was struggling to untangle a hook and line that had caught on my gear that I noticed the thrashing in the corner of my eye. A Banjo Shark was entangled, desperately swimming against the lines that constrained him. Drawing closer, I realised that the shark was stuck due to a hook in its mouth. A fisher had obviously caught it and thrown it back alive without removing the lines that would inevitably entangle the fish and stop it from hunting to survive.

Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier.  Image: Edison Sands

Hermit crabs are another form of marine life you might encounter near Rye Pier. Image: Edison Sands

For me, this dive was another reminder of the importance of protecting our natural world. Though life may seem scarce when looking off the pier into the water, we must remember that underneath is a whole world of life. Properly releasing fish and avoiding discarding waste into the ocean is something we can all do that makes a big difference to life down there.

Re-surfacing and walking back along the pier my gear felt light. I had just had my eyes opened to the marvels of the blue backyard at our doorstep. I leave you with the goal to try scuba diving for yourself and experience the wonders of the marine world beneath Rye Pier.


Monica Coleman studies Science and Arts at Monash University. She grew up spending time in nature, traveling, reading and fostering a guilty pleasure for reality TV. She hopes her future will be dedicated to the fight to protect our environment and lives by the motto it's not a good day if you haven't learnt something new.


Banner image courtesy of Edison Sands.