I HEAR no roar of the ocean, no sound of waves pounding the coast. I am standing on the sheltered side of Phillip Island, on the bluff above Rhyll Inlet, listening to the north-westerly wind whispering through the she-oaks.
Across the calm waters of Western Port Bay is French Island, a low band of land on the horizon that rises gently westward to the rounded shape of Tortoise Head. Beyond are the northern reaches of Western Port Bay.
At low tide, Observation Point ends in an outstretched finger that bends softly inward as if to protect this special place. The inlet’s winding channels are exposed and the sprawling mudflats are feeding grounds for resident and migratory shorebirds.
At high tide, Observation Point is a slender forearm, a safe place for waders, waterbirds and seabirds to rest. A gently curving line defines the mangrove fringe, a line that constantly changes with the ebb and flow of the tide.
Around six thousand years ago, the sea had risen from the low levels of the last phase of global cold climate to roughly shape the present coast of Phillip Island. Observation Point was beginning to grow as sand drifted eastward along the northern shore.
Over the centuries, mud washed down from rivers and creeks into Western Port and was carried by currents to settle as tidal mudflats along the eastern shores of the island. Mud crept into the space between Observation Point and the former sea cliffs on which I am standing. The mud was colonised by seagrass meadows and mangrove-fringed salt marsh and soon fish, reptiles, insects, birds and mammals moved in.
Now, each year 20,000 migratory waders – eastern curlews, whimbrels, bar-tailed godwits and red knots – fly from their breeding grounds in China, Siberia and Alaska to feed on the mudflats of Western Port Bay. By the middle of spring they have all arrived. By the end of March they have gone.
The walking track weaves through sweet bursaria, gums and wattles, some laden with fragrant blossom. Lomandra grass and sedges spread across the ground. The bush is soft and light and there are glimpses through to the water.
An old truck and a fence post beside the path remind me that farming has been part of this landscape for many years.
A small track off the path opens to a lookout above the old Diamond Dolly Quarry where rock was quarried for road material in the 1930s. The yellow-brown rock outcrops beside the lookout were formed in the Cretaceous, around 120 million years ago.
At this time, the basement of Phillip Island was far from the sea. Streams drained down from the hills dumping layers of sand and mud in swampy areas. Time compressed these sediments into mudstones and sandstones which outcrop on Phillip Island only in this small area south of Rhyll Inlet through to Rhyll Road and Conservation Hill.
The Diamond Dolly Quarry provided work for local farmers during the depression but it was short-lived as there was too much clay in the mudstones.
I come to a seat overlooking the inlet and sit for a while, enjoying the peace of this place, feeling the gentle morning sun on my face.
Further along, the bluff slopes down to a picnic table with views across the expanse of mangroves and salt marsh that stretches to Silverleaves at the eastern edge of Cowes.
I continue on to a boardwalk that meanders through the canopy of low mangrove forest. Below the decking is an upside-down, micro-world where pneumatophores, the mangrove’s aerial roots, stick up like muddy soldiers. They march across the sodden ground and mass around the base of the twisted trunks. Flooded twice daily by the tide, it is their mission to breathe in air when the water retreats at low tide.
I wonder if those perfect circles in the mud are home to crabs or shrimps. Creatures such as these are food for spoonbills which live here all year and for migratory birds that come from the other side of the globe.
I stroll through the glossy green canopy to a landing above a wide mangrove-fringed channel. A leaf moves lightly on the water, like a little wooden boat heading out to sea.
I retrace my steps and follow the boardwalk across a wide area of salt marsh, the buffer zone between the land and the sea. Shrubby glasswort nestles up to the mangroves, huddles around shallow pools laced with red-tinged beaded glasswort and scattered tussock grasses and continues to the rim of tall swamp paperbarks that mark the edge of the salt marsh.
The swamp paperbark forest is almost closed to the sky. I hear the twitter of little bush birds and see the blue flash of a superb fairy wren. Beneath the tall spindly trunks is a carpet of soft green grass. High up on a branch a currawong pecks for insects under the papery bark.
The paperbarks give way to eucalypt and acacia woodland and I am surrounded by the sweet perfume of flowering wattles and the sound of bees buzzing around.
As I emerge from the trees, an uneasy feeling comes over me. I get the sense I am being watched. I look across to the edge of the bush and am relieved to see two wallabies staring at me.
Before long, the path opens to a grassy rise that leads up to Conservation Hill and the end of the Rhyll Inlet Walk.
On my return, I recall that 20 years ago this path tracked through an open paddock with a high fence in the middle. Since then, the fenced area has regenerated and revegetation by Phillip Island Nature Parks’ rangers and volunteers has transformed the farmland to bushland again.
So much has changed in recent decades. Wetlands were once regarded as wastelands, places best “reclaimed” for farming, housing, tourism or industrial development.
At Rhyll Inlet salt marsh was cleared for farming and there was a cattle landing down by the mangroves. The bluff to the west of Conservation Hill was the island’s rubbish dump (then transfer station) for almost 65 years until its closure in 2014.
In 1968, a proposal for Rhyll Inlet to be dredged for a safe boat harbour and marina was met with alarm by some Phillip Island residents. The plan was the spark for the start of the Phillip Island Conservation Society and the battle for Rhyll Inlet was won.
Now wetlands are valued as feeding grounds and roosting areas for shorebirds and as spawning grounds and nurseries for fish. Salt marsh and mangroves are valued for filtering pollution, trapping sediments and nutrients and defending the land from erosion.
In 1982, 60,000 hectares of Western Port, including Rhyll Inlet, was declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.
As I wander back along the walking track I am grateful to the people who have fought for this place. A pelican glides overhead. The sun shimmers through the trees. The wind has picked up and is rustling through the leaves. I stop to look closely at a clematis vine, its creamy buds dripping down like candle wax, poised to burst into flower.
All photos by Linda Cuttriss, August 2015
Cuttriss L. & Bird E., 1995, 500 Million Years on Phillip Island
Cuttriss L. & Bird E., 1995, unpublished, Around the Island
Grayden C., 2008, An Island Worth Conserving: A History of the Phillip Island Conservation Society 1968-2008
Kellogg Brown & Root, 2010, Western Port Ramsar Wetland Ecological Character Description. Report for Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra.
August 31, 2015
Another fantastic week for the Bass Coast Post.
I particularly liked the story and the great photos from Linda Cuttriss in her story on the Rhyll Inlet, one of the area’s hidden treasures. Wish I had time to go out and do it today. Thanks Linda.
Roger Clark, Grantville.
We sometimes take friends visiting the Island on this walk, and it always causes a surprise. However, your insights and knowledge add new understanding. Thank you, Linda.
Tim Shannon, Ventnor