Photographic ramble around a small seaside town
My wife and I are regular visitors to Port Fairy, Victoria. As a daughter of a Western District farming family, Susan has connections aplenty there. No less than three of her cousins have holiday homes in the town, including the little bluestone (basalt) cottage on Sackville Street, in the heart of town, that we often stay in.
The cottage, the town and the coast feature often in my fiction, as they do in my life.
Port Fairy started off in the 1830s as a whaling and fishing settlement at the mouth of the Moyne River. In the early days, the town was sometimes called ‘Port Fairy’ and sometimes ‘Belfast’. Yes: you’d be right to detect a strong Irish influence in this part of the country.
The town lies on the lands of the Gunditjmara people, the traditional custodians of a long strip of low-lying coastal plain from Warrnambool in the east to Cape Bridgewater near the South Australian border in the west. The area of Port Fairy was called Pyipkil or Ummut.
When we’re in Port Fairy, I take a regular morning walk down the wharf and across the causeway to Griffiths Island. This coastline has been heavily modified by human activity, though it appears wild and natural.
As I walk along the river on this particular morning, I see a huge stingray gliding along the weed-covered margins, looking for a tasty morsel. Fur seals also venture up the estuary from time to time, looking for a feed.
I cross the causeway to the low-lying island, covered by heath dotted with thorn bushes. The breeze off the Southern Ocean grows stronger and cooler on my face. A couple of hundred metres along the track (stopping to say G’day to a browsing wallaby) and I can see the white surf ahead, pounding the black basalt reef.
To protect the extensive seabird colonies, access to the island is limited to a walking track which encircles the eastern half of the island. I walk it anti-clockwise by preference: across the island to the surf, then left to the lighthouse and up the Moyne back to the causeway, returning home along the wharf. From the cottage it is a pleasant 6 km stroll. In summer it fits nicely between coffee around sunrise and nine a.m., when the thermometer starts to climb and the sun starts to burn.
I’m a brisk walker, but this particular walk takes twice as long as it might: there is so much to see, smell, hear, photograph. There are tracks of mammals, birds and reptiles across the pristine sand of the beach: gulls, oystercatchers, a wallaby which seems to make a regular early morning trip down to the waterline.
There are tracks of snakes, lizards and occasionally a dog, which makes me cross. Dogs are banned from the island, and really, the local wildlife has enough to cope with, without some entitled dog owner who thinks that the rules don’t apply to their pooch. Grrr.
As I walk through the shearwater colony, there is the salty, fishy smell of shearwater guano and the desiccated corpses of birds which arrived from Siberia too exhausted to breed and rear the next generation.
There is natural wastage, of course, particularly among hatchlings, but increasingly climate change and plastic waste are killing the adult birds and disrupting this long-distance migration, a wonder of nature, a strand of the great web of life upon which so many other lives depend.
Where there were once a quarter of a million birds, in living memory of older locals, there are now only a few thousand, and they often arrive weeks late. One year soon, they may not come at all.
Where there are shearwater burrows, there are snakes. The island has a good population of tiger snakes, although I guess that they, too, are struggling. Other locals which feast on the shearwater bounty include Australian white ibis — gawky birds with improbably long bills, perfect for poking down burrows, piratical ravens and handsome Pacific gulls.
In years gone by, it was not only the birds and reptiles which feasted on the seasonal bounty: the popular name for the short-tailed shearwater is mutton bird. They were a staple to the Aboriginal people and the early settlers. Apparently the oil-rich flesh is gamey, fishy and … muttony. I think I’ll pass.
Over at the old bluestone quarry, a picturesque curved wall cut into the basalt reef, an echidna trundles across the path. This spiky, ant-eating, basketball-sized animal is neither a placental mammal nor a marsupial but an egg-laying monotreme, the only near relative of the platypus.
The next waystage is the cute white-painted, red-capped lighthouse, built in 1859 with stone from the old quarry and surely the most-photographed feature on this stretch of coast. The sun is climbing, it is getting warm and those darned bush flies are starting to niggle.
I bump into a camouflaged photographer bearing a professional-looking camera and tripod. We briefly lament the decline of the shearwater colony before he heads off to photograph birds and I head back to the cottage for breakfast.
Back on the wharf I get chatting to Ross, the owner of Putty’s Pride, a pretty, bright yellow cray boat and another photo magnet. She’s one of a small number of commercial fishing vessels still operating out of this once-bustling port.
These days the competition comes from Portland and Apollo Bay in fast boats with all the latest electronic gadgetry, but old Ross still has a trick or two up his sleeve. He and his brothers built and launched Putty’s Pride back in 1982 to their father’s design. It was the biggest, fastest boat in the fleet, dropping pots in the treacherous waters off Cape Otway.
Ross still runs Putty’s Pride as a commercial fishing vessel. He used to have a crew of three, but now operates alone, taking his big wooden boat many miles offshore to fish the deep reefs. He’s a chatty, avuncular chap, and a treasure-trove of sea stories, but I have no doubt that in his prime he was a hard man in an unforgiving profession.
Ross’ surname suggests that he is related to my wife’s family. The sport of establishing family connections in Western Victoria is a popular and absorbing one. I must ask him some time.
Further along the timber wharf I stop again to admire the sleeker vessels of Garry Stewart, Port Fairy’s well-respected wooden boatbuilder. My wife remembers him from when they were both teenagers; he also renovated a cousin’s wooden couta boat some years ago. Everyone seems to know everyone in this town — except for blow-ins like me, but I’m slowly working on that.
Then further along the wharf, there’s that little GRP catamaran for sale. I stop to look her over for the sixth time in four days. She’s a lot of boat for the asking price, and looks tidy enough: nothing wrong that a scrub-up and a lick of paint wouldn’t fix.
Unfortunately, my wife feels — strongly — that we’ve spent enough on the little boat that we already have. Maybe I’m secretly relieved.
Back home for breakfast!
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this little ramble with me.
I acknowledge the Gunditjmara people, the traditional owners and custodians of the lands upon which Port Fairy is built. I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.