Five Spectacular Waterfalls Near Melbourne

There’s nothing quite like a waterfall: an awe-inspiring show of nature’s strength and beauty. Although we in Victoria don’t have anything akin to the massive Niagara or (ironically) Victoria Falls, you still don’t have to venture too far outside Melbourne to hear that roar of water cascading down a cliff. Whether you’re after a quick pit stop, a leisurely stroll or an epic day trip – here are some of the best falls in easy reach for Melbournians.

Erskine Falls – Lorne (2hr 15min from CBD)

The namesake of the famous Falls Music Festival, these falls are out the back of Lorne nestled amongst the Otway’s mountain ash rainforest. The lookout for the falls is just a short five minute walk from the car park, but if you’re after a bit of a hike, head along the track to the base of the falls. It gets a bit steep and wet in places, but is well worth the effort. Erskine Falls are surrounded by a beautiful fern gully, and are a favourite stop for those exploring the Great Ocean Road.

Erskine Falls, Lorne. Photo: Tim Brown

Erskine Falls, Lorne. Photo: Tim Brown

Mason Falls – Kinglake West (1hr 20min from CBD)

A must-see for all those exploring Kinglake National Park, Mason Falls are surrounded by towering forest that is bursting with regrowth after the Black Saturday bushfires. The lookout is an easy walk from the picnic area and car park (which is well equipped with toilets and BBQs). If you want to spend a bit of time exploring, head down some of the other surrounding tracks. Keep an eye (and an ear) out for lyrebirds; there are plenty of males around here trying to attract a mate with their famous mimicked calls!

Mason Falls, Kinglake West. Photo - Ella Kelly

Mason Falls, Kinglake West. Photo - Ella Kelly

MacKenzie Falls – Grampians (3hrs 40min from CBD)

The Grampians National Park has no shortage of spectacular views, but MacKenzie Falls is up there in one of the best spots! It’s an easy 40-minute walk (paved and wheelchair accessible) to the Bluff Lookout, where you can admire the falls from high above the gorge. Alternatively, you can take the longer path down to the base of the falls, which passes by Broken Falls lookout. This will take a bit longer (an hour and 20 minutes), and the path beyond the lookout is steep and can be slippery, but it will be all worth it when you reach that special spot at the end.   

Mackenzie Falls, Grampians National Park. Photo: Skare Media. 

Mackenzie Falls, Grampians National Park. Photo: Skare Media. 

Trentham Falls – Trentham (1hr 10min from CBD)

Located on the outskirts of Trentham, Trentham Falls is the longest single drop waterfall in Victoria. It’s an easy stroll from the carpark to admire the falls from the lookout, a perfect stop on the way home from lunch in nearby Daylesford or Castlemaine. The public used to be able to access the base of the falls, a large pool, but it’s recently been cut off for safety reasons.

Trentham Falls, Trentham. Photo: Mattinbg

Trentham Falls, Trentham. Photo: Mattinbg

Steavenson Falls – Marysville (1hr 50min from CBD)

With a drop of 84 metres, Steavenson Falls is another awe-inspiring site, located a short drive from the township of Marysville. You can drive to the car park, then follow the short path to the lookout at the base of the falls. But if you’re interested in a bit of a longer walk, take the Tree Fern Gully Trail that leads from Marysville to the falls. This easy walk will take you up to an hour and a half each way, through the scenic ferny mountain ash forest, finishing at the falls.

Steavenson Falls, Marysville. Photo: John Sharp.

Steavenson Falls, Marysville. Photo: John Sharp.

Cover image by Skare Media. 

Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.

SpongeBob is Moving House

This is a guest post by Fam Charko.

The largest sponge transplant project in the world is currently happening right here in Port Phillip Bay. Operation Sponge, a community-led initiative taking place in Blairgowrie, aims to move and re-attach 5,500 wild sponges within the next three months to preserve one of Victoria’s most beautiful dive spots.

On a cold, rainy Sunday in August, I find myself donning a ridiculously thick wetsuit and slipping off a boat berth into the 10-degree water of Port Phillip Bay. ‘Why am I doing this again?’, I ask myself as freezing water creeps down my spine and makes me gasp for breath. I put my scuba regulator in my mouth and descend, forcing my unprotected face into the cold that instantly numbs my cheeks. But I soon realise that it’s worth it. With nothing but the sound of my own breath and bubbles accompanying me, I descend into a temperate underwater wonderland. The drab, grey pier pylons suddenly burst into a wonky version of the rainbow, as I see sponges of many different shapes and sizes growing all over each other, hosting arrays of fragile, nearly transparent bagpipe-shaped sea squirts. Seaweeds are lazily waving their broad leaves in sync with the undulating current. Crusts of bryozoans grow around the base of their stems. I swim past pylon after pylon covered in brightly coloured life forms, fish fleeing before me, hiding in nooks and crannies between the seawall’s wooden panels and huge orange sponges. The whole experience is quite psychedelic.

‘A project like this has never been attempted on this scale before,’ Operation Sponge coordinator AJ Morton says. ‘It has attracted a lot of attention over the last few months, including from people in South Australia and Western Australia who are facing similar issues.’

A few months ago, Dive2U dive school operator AJ and his wife Nicole found out that the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron was planning to replace the seawall that protects the marina from wave action. The current seawall, which is made of timber, has been weakened to the point of needing replacement by an invasive, wood-boring mollusc called shipworm. Similarly to termites, the shipworm drills into the wood, creating tunnels and hollowing out the structure to the point of disintegration. 

A diver is ready to glue. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

A diver is ready to glue. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

Upgrading the seawall, however, also means the destruction of what is arguably Victoria’s most beautiful and popular shore dive site. As the marina is privately owned by the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron, there are no permits or compulsory mitigating environmental measures required – for example, re-homing the species that live there – and sea life attached to the old timber panels risk being carted off to landfill.

‘Blairgowrie pier is home to an incredible number of sea creatures, attracting Scuba divers from all over Victoria,’ AJ explains. ‘The place is amazing. We have seen many species of nudibranchs, sea stars, red-handed shrimp, spider crabs, all kinds of fish, sea squirts and of course many colourful sponges. We really wanted to preserve this dive site and were racking our brains on how to do this. One night, Nicole and I stayed up very late talking about it, desperate to think of some way we could help. In the early hours of the morning, Nicole suddenly sat up in bed and cried: “I got it! Why don’t we scrape off the sponges, and glue them onto the new wall as it is being built?” ’

Shortly after this eureka moment, Operation Sponge was born. The Mortons did some research and found a special underwater glue that is used by scientists to attach coral onto new substrate. They tested their idea by scraping off a few sponges and sea squirts and gluing them onto a new location. The pilot proved successful: about half of the transplanted animals survived and started growing in their new home immediately.

‘The next step was to come up with a proposal for the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron and see if they wanted to work together,’ AJ says. 

The seawall will be replaced in sections over a period of a few months. The Mortons proposed to deploy volunteer divers from the community, and have them remove sponges from the old panels that will be taken out, then glue them straight onto the new panels that have been put in that week before. Elastic bungee cords strung tightly along the panels keep the glued sponges in place to ensure that they aren’t dislodged by strong wave action until they have attached onto the substrate by themselves. ‘If we do this every weekend for the next few months, we should be able to transplant most of the sponges and preserve the marine life at the site,’ AJ explains. 

To their delight, Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron was happy to cooperate and together with the company contracted to do the panel replacements, Aegir Divers, they worked out a strategy. AJ is full of praise for the Yacht Squadron and Aegir Divers: ‘They have been absolutely fantastic. The Yacht Squadron has even donated $1,000 to the project to help with buying the glue and they continue to support us.’

Transplanted sponges and wild sponges in the sponge gardens of Blairgowrie. Photo credit: Fam Charko

Transplanted sponges and wild sponges in the sponge gardens of Blairgowrie. Photo credit: Fam Charko

Help is currently coming from all directions; not just from volunteers donating their time, but also through a donation of glue from the glue company itself. This is much-needed sponsorship, as the glue costs $50 for a 300ml tube; AJ estimated that they need about 50L in total. To raise funds for the purchase of more glue, Dive2U has started a crowd funding campaign.

Operation Sponge is exciting not only because it brings the community together; it now also involves scientists who have transformed it into a citizen science project. Kade Mills, a marine scientist who runs Victorian ReefWatch for the Victorian National Parks Association, wasted no time getting stuck into the scientific side of Operation Sponge. ‘When I first found out about the project I thought: what these people are doing is amazing,’ Kade says. ‘If we can ask a few scientific questions, get people involved in doing citizen science and get the results published in a journal for other people to benefit from, then all that time and energy spent by the volunteers would be rewarded.’

Under the pier, I closely examine the newly transplanted sponges, freshly glued to the new panels and supported by the bungee cords that press them onto the timber. On the old seawall, there are many sponge species growing in a seemingly random composition, providing homes, food and breeding places for many other animals, much like coral reefs do. When a sponge is transplanted onto a new structure, it will first attach itself firmly to the substrate. Then it will start spreading in all directions as fast as it can, competing for space with other sponges, algae, seaweeds and tubeworms. Depending on the species, this could take anywhere from two weeks to several months. The encrusting sponges in particular have been observed to be relatively fast growers, covering the new panels quickly, like lichen. Ball sponges and finger sponges may take longer.

Kade is hoping to use simple data collection methods to answer a few questions, such as how many sponges survive the transplanting process initially; how long will it take for the sponges to completely cover the new panels; and what will the species composition of the new wall eventually look like?

The question of survival rates can simply be answered by counting the number of sponges that were transplanted, followed by counting how many survive the process over time. ‘One big advantage for the sponges is that the aspect of the new seawall is exactly the same as that of the old wall,’ Kade explains. ‘Variables like shade, water quality, food abundance, water flow and temperature will all stay the same. The expectation is therefore that sponge survival rates will be relatively high.’

The question of sponge growth rates will be answered using data collected by the volunteers: ‘Anyone with an underwater camera of any description can help. Training time for this is minimal and nobody needs to sit through an hour-long lecture to do this. I’m aiming for the divers to ‘adopt a sponge’, where they regularly visit the same sponges they have transplanted, and take photos of individual sponges at different points in time. We use a simple and free software program that can then calculate the percentage of sponge cover from the photo, eventually showing us the growth rates over time.’

Diver scraping sponges off the old panels for transplanting. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

Diver scraping sponges off the old panels for transplanting. Photo credit: Flavien Foncin

By leaving a few panels bare of sponges, the rates of colonisation between transplanted panels and ‘natural’ panels can be compared. If the panels with transplanted sponges recover faster than the bare panels left to be colonised on their own, this shows that there is merit in doing this work when marine structures elsewhere need to be replaced. It would also be interesting to see if leaving panels bare will favor the establishment of invasive species, rather than natives. ‘The most difficult part of this will be to convince AJ to leave a few panels bare,’ Kade laughs.

The last question is about what the entire ecosystem on the new wall will look like in the end. What sponge species will have successfully established themselves? And will the artificially established sponge garden be as biodiverse as a naturally grown ecosystem? Kade estimates that these last questions will take at least two years to answer. But first things first: there is about 150 metres of seawall that needs its sponges transplanted. 

With less than half a scuba tank of air left, I ascend to the surface where AJ helps me out of the water. ‘What do you think?’ he asks me.

‘Amazing,’ I answer, the words coming out slowly as my face muscles defrost. ‘What an amazingly beautiful dive spot. What an amazing project.’

He smiles and says, ‘Only about 5000 sponges to go!’

Click here to see the Operation Sponge crowdfunding campaign.
Like Operation Sponge on Facebook here. 

Cover image by Jacqui Younger

Jade Hameister: Melbourne’s Teenage Polar Explorer

In April, Melbourne teenager Jade Hameister posted a selfie on Instagram almost every day. She described the weather, the food she’d eaten, her current mood and her location. On the surface, it sounds like almost any young person’s Instagram feed. But in her pictures, Jade is squinting against the cold, wrapped up in thick layers, her face framed by a fur-lined hood. She’s not just dealing with the onset of a Melbourne winter. As the temperatures range around -25ºC, Jade’s mood evolves from ‘tired’ to ‘exhausted’ and then, on Day 10 of her expedition, to ‘pumped’. 24 hours later, Jade Hameister became the youngest person in history to reach the North Pole.

The Hameisters have always been an adventurous family. Jade’s father Paul became the twelfth Australian to climb the Seven Summits, and Jade conquered Mt Kosciuszko with him at the age of 6. By 12 she had trekked to Everest Base Camp, partly a wish to ‘go and see where Dad had been’. It was on this trip that Jade met Vilborg Arna, the first Icelandic person to solo ski over 1100km from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. Vila inspired Jade to take on her own adventure. She decided to become the youngest person in history to conquer the Polar Hat Trick: skiing to the North Pole, the South Pole, and across the Greenland glacier.

With her dad at her side, Jade set her plans in motion. In 2016, to trek to the North Pole from Barneo, the temporary ice base established by a Russian team every year from which adventurers can make the trek. A year later, to then ski 540km across the Greenland ice cap, coast to coast. Finally, she aims to follow in Vila’s footsteps by skiing from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole, a journey of 1,170km. This “Hat Trick” would see Jade become the youngest woman in history to ski across Greenland, and the youngest person – ever – to ski to the Poles.

Walking along the beach at Lorne, you might be surprised to find a teenage girl dragging tyres along the sand. It’s one of the ways that Jade trains for her polar expeditions while based in our very different climate, preparing to ski pulling a sled of her own bodyweight carrying all her equipment and supplies. ‘We were pulling sleds at the beach and in our backyard, and also up the Thousand Steps along a track,’ she explains. The Hameisters have always made the most of the Victorian landscape to prepare for adventures abroad, climbing Mt Bogong together before their Base Camp trek.

Still, nothing in Australia could prepare Jade for the alien world she would enter in April. ‘The environment was pretty extreme and surreal,’ she says. ‘But I think the training that we’d done was pretty good.’ It took longer than expected to get going, with cracks in the sea ice making it difficult for the Barneo base to be established. At one point it looked as though the base wouldn’t be set up in time for the expedition to reach the Pole. The team, made up of Jade, her father Paul, polar guide Eric Philips and cinematographer Peter Nyquist, had to adjust their plans to cover over 150km in just 11 days.

Life on the ice settled into a routine: getting up early to make breakfast and melt snow for drinking water, skiing for 6 to 7 hours to cover approximately 15km each day, and back to snow-melting and cooking in the evenings, when Jade would post her Instagram updates. When asked if she ever thought it might be too much, Jade admitted to ‘a few extremely tough moments – but I think the fact that we’d worked that hard over a year, I didn’t want to give up.’

The landscape was not one of featureless white, as you might imagine, but made up of ‘lots of rubble and compression zones where the sea ice collides to create one to three metre-obstacles that you have to ski over.’ While the establishment of the Barneo base had been more difficult than in previous years, such obstacles were apparently more common, too. At one point the team reached a stretch of open water, which they crossed by putting their sleds together to make a raft, then pulling each other across. “That was pretty cool,” Jade laughs. While no wildlife made itself known to them, they did come across some polar bear tracks in the snow.

‘It was all absolutely incredible but I think my favourite moment was actually making it to the Pole. That was pretty special,’ says Jade. There is no permanent landmark to indicate the place – only their GPS could tell them that they’d reached their goal. As the sea ice is constantly shifting, Jade and her team were only on top of the world for a short time. ‘Once we got there and set up our camp we would have drifted off the pole in like half an hour,’ she explains.

One history-making expedition later, Jade is home in Melbourne, settling back into the routine of school and homework like any other teenager – except for her polar training. Greenland is next on her list and she’s not taking the challenge lightly. Her Instagram feed is still testament to her determination: CrossFit, weight lifting, and out dragging her sled again.

It is truly inspiring to see a young woman raised in Melbourne who has such love for the outdoors. Whether she’s dragging a sled in the Dandenong Ranges or across Greenland’s glacier, Jade is clearly connected to the landscape and passionate about exploring it. She hopes to pass on the inspiration she felt meeting Vila to young women everywhere through her adventures. ‘One of the big things I wanted to get out of this trip was to inspire young girls in particular to chase their dreams and become more fit and healthy,’ Jade explains. ‘Dreams that are unique to them and not for other people.’ 

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape. 
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra

Albatross Amnesia

The power of the albatross to help you forget life’s problems.

I love Melbourne. I did not grow up in this city but it has been my adopted home for the last nine years. I grew up in the country three hours north of Melbourne, and as a young child I had endless opportunities to explore the bush across the road. Catching tadpoles, climbing trees and all of the other stereotypical activities that an inquisitive young boy can get up to fill many of my early memories. It was these experiences that eventually led me to Melbourne where I studied a science degree majoring in zoology and botany.

Sometimes, though, for someone who grew up with a love of natural places, the city can feel awfully claustrophobic. It’s times like these, when the city has become too much for me, that I find myself standing atop the sea cliffs along the coast of Anglesea. I look down at the swirling water as the waves crash into the rocks below, and then I look out further. I lift my binoculars and scan the horizon, looking for the graceful shape of an albatross sweeping just above the rolling ocean. It rarely takes long to spot one, and in an instant everything else you have in your mind is forgotten.

The long, down-curved wings of a shy albatross are all grey on top and mostly white below with a thin black edge. Photo: Rowan Mott

The long, down-curved wings of a shy albatross are all grey on top and mostly white below with a thin black edge. Photo: Rowan Mott

There is something romantic about the movement of an albatross that cuts through every other thought and makes you realise that the world is, as you knew all along, a beautiful place. As I extend the legs on my tripod and frame the bird in my spotting scope, all sense of time disappears and I can be captivated for hours.

Many people are surprised to learn that albatrosses can be sighted so close to Melbourne. Others will tell you that they saw one on the beach the last time they were there. The truth is that albatrosses are rarely seen on land unless it is their breeding colony. If we exclude birds breeding in the sub-Antarctic territories of Macquarie Island and Heard Island, there is only one species of albatross that breeds in Australia: the shy albatross. It breeds on three islands around Tasmania and is the most likely species you are to see if you look out to sea along the Victorian coast.

The ‘albatrosses’ that people tell me they have seen on our beaches are usually pacific gulls. They are impressive birds in their own right with their striking red-tipped, yellow bill and a size that dwarfs the silver gull (commonly referred to as seagulls). However, if you consider pacific gulls have a wingspan of 1.5 metres and a shy albatross has a wingspan of up to 2.6 metres, then you begin to get a sense of the true grandeur of the latter species.

Pacific gulls are large seabirds and often mistaken for albatrosses due to their imposing size. However, a shy albatross is much bigger and unlikely to be seen on the sands of Victoria's beaches. Photo: Rowan Mott

Pacific gulls are large seabirds and often mistaken for albatrosses due to their imposing size. However, a shy albatross is much bigger and unlikely to be seen on the sands of Victoria's beaches. Photo: Rowan Mott

If you want to increase your chance of seeing an albatross, the best time to head to the coast is after the worst weather. When a storm lashes the coast with strong southerly winds, it frequently results in many birds being pushed towards the shore from out near the continental shelf. The presence of a sea breeze also provides the most spectacular views; it is in windy conditions that an albatross’s mastery of the air becomes truly apparent. In still conditions, they do not receive the up-draft effect, as the wind is deflected upwards over the crest of the swell; when no breeze is blowing, they regularly loaf on the water surface. A strong sea breeze can make it very cold atop the cliffs, so dress sensibly.

Shy albatrosses are typically present in Victorian waters year-round but other seabirds come and go with the change of the seasons. Over the warmer months, you may be lucky enough to see an arctic jaeger harassing gulls and terns, or a flock of fluttering shearwaters out beyond the breakers. In the depths of winter, many species from the Southern Ocean move north to escape the cold. Some of them prefer to stay far out to sea but you may be lucky and spot a brown skua or a northern giant-petrel. If the seabirds aren’t showing, Australian fur seals and common dolphins can always liven things up.

If there aren't many seabirds around, Anglesea also offers the chance of seeing southern emu-wrens and other heathland gems, just metres from prime seabird-viewing spots. Image: Rowan Mott

If there aren't many seabirds around, Anglesea also offers the chance of seeing southern emu-wrens and other heathland gems, just metres from prime seabird-viewing spots. Image: Rowan Mott

If all else fails and it happens to be a very quiet day, you can always turn your back on the ocean and look for chestnut-rumped heathwrens, rufous bristlebirds and southern emu-wrens that inhabit the heathland atop the cliffs. This diversity of habitats is why I like Anglesea but Point Lonsdale and Cape Schanck also offer great seabird-watching. So the next time you feel that the hustle and bustle of the city is all too much, go and find yourself an albatross and, if only for a while, forget your troubles. 

Cover image by Rowan Mott.