SANDY beaches stretch along the entire west and north coasts of Phillip Island. When the tide is high, rocky outcrops and headlands might block your way but at low tide you can walk for as long or as little as you like.
On the north-western shore is Ventnor, where the island’s first European family settled and where Captain William Grossard was fatally shot. Along these beaches are colourful cliffs, rare shorebirds and rocky reefs exposed at low tide.
At the end of Ventnor Beach Road a car park is shaded by giant cypress trees. From the path, tall coast tea-trees form an arch that frames Elizabeth Cove with its long sandy beach that curves in two crescent shapes around a rocky reef down to Grossard Point.
Elizabeth Cove is where Lieutenant James Grant anchored the Lady Nelson in March 1801 after sailing into Western Port from London. Grant named the small bay for the daughter of Governor King, the governor of Britain’s fledgling colony of New South Wales.
When Lieutenant Murray anchored here in the same ship later that year, the ship’s first mate, Bowen, found a freshwater spring with a collection of large stones at the bottom. Later, an Aboriginal midden containing an abundance of shells was found nearby, both signs that traditional Bunurong/Boon Wurrung people often used this place.
Behind the beach at the end of the path, Boat Creek winds out of the scrub past a bank of tall feathery-topped reeds and ends in a shallow tannin-stained pool.
Low dunes topped with indigenous hairy spinifex grass and introduced marram grass line the back of the beach and rise gently to Grossard Point.
Two hooded plovers scamper along the shoreline feeding on insects. These shorebirds are a threatened species in Victoria. Their nests are indistinct depressions of sand just above the high-water mark so their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to walkers, dogs, feral cats and even stormy weather. Volunteers patrol this beach in nesting season requesting walkers to stay close to the water’s edge and keep their dogs leashed.
Eight masked lapwings make a racket, sounding their shrill call as they rise from the shore platform further down the beach. These common birds are often called plovers but are unrelated to the much smaller hooded plover. Hooded plovers are around 200mm with a light-grey back, a black head and a white band around the nape of their neck. Masked lapwings can reach 380mm in length and have a brown back, white front and a bright yellow mask (wattle) that folds over their face.
Six sooty oystercatchers wade in the shallows among the rocks. They poke their long red beaks into pools, immerse their heads and shake them around, scrabbling among crevices for limpets, periwinkles and mussels. One takes to the air with a high-pitched whistle and lands twenty metres away. Maybe this one got too close to another as they prefer to spread out when feeding.
A pacific gull patrols a low rock ledge as if it owns the place. With chest pumped out and upright posture, it struts along like an admiral inspecting his fleet. It dips its big yellow beak into the water then lifts its head and flies off with wide outstretched wings.
The low shore platform that wraps around Grossard Point is McHaffie Reef, cut from basalt (lava) and tuff (ash) laid down by volcanoes around 50 million years ago. Marine animals occupy niches where waves have swilled stones around and ground out potholes and pools. Grapeweed decorates the rock surface and seagrass meadows spread over the sandy shallows.
McHaffie Reef is named for the McHaffie family, the first Europeans to settle here when, in 1842, John D. McHaffie and his brother William leased the whole of Phillip Island. They established their homestead nearby and set about burning the bush to clear the land for grazing cattle and sheep. Flames sometimes engulfed the whole island, the fiery light seen for days and nights from ships far out at sea.
When conditions were favourable, the McHaffies launched their nine-metre whaleboat from McHaffie Reef, crossed Western Port to the Mornington Peninsula then continued by buggy and pair along a rough track to Melbourne.
The McHaffies often hosted members of Melbourne’s social elite at their island homestead. Baron von Mueller, Governor George Bowen, Bishop Moorhouse, Sir Alfred Selwyn and Superintendant Hare were among the visiting dignitaries.
On the December 17, 1868, Captain William Grossard was at the McHaffie homestead preparing for a hunting expedition with Mr Frederick Grimwade when he handed a loaded gun to his hunting partner. Grimwade mishandled the gun and a shot discharged into the captain’s side. “My God, I have accidentally shot the poor captain,” Grimwade cried.
As Captain Grossard lay dying, he absolved Grimwade from any ill intent and asked to be buried on the cliff near the sea. His grave can still be seen beside a gnarled old cypress tree, the oldest on Phillip Island, above the cliff at the end of Grossard Point Road.
Grossard Point is a headland of basalt and tuff weathered by wind and rain, its flanks reducing to crumbling clay. At its base, the veins in a ledge of weathered rock appear like the leathery hide of an elephant’s leg kneeling in the sand.
Beyond Grossard Point the view opens to the wide mouth of the Western Passage and beyond to Bass Strait. The rounded forms of The Nobbies at the end of the island and West Head at Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula mark the western entrance to Western Port Bay.
Behind the beach are cliffs of orange and brown weathering basalt above pink and purple tuff. The colours show where volcanic lava once flowed over a band of volcanic ash. Weathering rock has disintegrated into tiny pebbles and scuttled down grooves to form neat pyramids among the silvery saltbush below.
At the water’s edge, low tide has exposed a broad patch of pink tuff planed smooth by waves over thousands of years. Further along, a bluff covered with tussock grasses, white correa, sea box and stunted boobialla slopes down to the beach. Scatters of seashells are strewn across the sand, remains of shellfish that inhabit the adjacent reef.
Beyond Angelina Reef the beach stretches along Woolshed Bight where dunes spread inland across a valley to McHaffie Lagoon. The McHaffies established their homestead here, close to five freshwater lagoons, all former embayments enclosed by sand as the rising sea brought sand from the sea floor after the last phase of cold climate when the sea was at least 100 metres below its present level.
Out on the water, two fishermen in a small boat cast out their lines as a tourist boat speeds by on its way to Seal Rocks. I notice the tide is turning, it is time to make my way back.
At Grossard Point the afternoon sun shimmers on wet sand and drenches the bay in light. A large navigational beacon looms from the clifftop.
In Elizabeth Cove, two children laugh and play in the shallows under the watchful eyes of their mother. A man on a mountain bike cycles along the firm sand. Two walkers smile as they pass me by.
As I approach the end of the beach, a low rumbling sound disturbs my peace. An oil tanker is pushing through the water, heading swiftly out of the bay. I watch the ship thudding along and shudder at the thought of an oil spill in the semi-enclosed waters of Western Port.
Western Port Bay’s mangrove-fringed waters, seagrass meadows, reefs, beaches, sandflats and mudflats provide habitats for a multitude of fish, shorebirds, waterbirds and migratory waders and its sheltered shores provide solace and joy for all those who walk here.