EVERY week I drive from my home at the western end of Phillip Island to visit my parents at Inverloch. The road takes me along the spine of the island’s gently undulating plateau, across the bridge and around the southern shore of Western Port. The bay shimmers, the Bass hills rise from the flats in the distance and cattle graze on green pastures.
Past Anderson roundabout and around a few bends, I come over the hill where white breakers roll in at Kilcunda. For all those years I live in Melbourne and beyond, this is the view that tells me I’m home.
I continue past wetlands at the mouth of the Powlett River to the outskirts of Wonthaggi where remnants of the State Coal Mine remind me fondly of my grandfather. Jack Thompson, my mother’s father, arrived from Newcastle, England, in 1925 to work in the mine. Mum was born in a miner’s cottage in Matthew Street, worked in the office at the Wonthaggi Co-operative, married Dad and gave birth to me in Wonthaggi Hospital.
I am almost at Inverloch where Jack Cuttriss, my father’s father, was born in 1888. Sixty years later, he bought a 300-acre bush block, four miles from Inverloch up the Leongatha Road. Dad and my uncle work hard to clear the land and create a top-notch dairy farm, and that’s where I grew up.
It was a good life on the farm. I loved helping Dad feed the cows, adventuring with my brothers, baking cakes with Mum. I look forward to harvest time when the farm was bristling with action, everyone pitching in to get the hay in the shed before the end of the day.
On summer holidays, the Inverloch foreshore bustled with caravans and kids. On hot days we jumped off the pier (then about four times longer than today), rode the white water at the surf beach or drove the windy coast road to the sea pool at Cape Paterson.
Today I head back to Phillip Island along that same road past Eagles Nest. This impressive sandstone rock stack is an enduring emblem of my childhood. I saw it from the back paddocks of the farm as a view to the wider world.
The sun is getting low in the sky and storm clouds build in the west. As I come back over the hill to Kilcunda, the view pulls at my heart. An arc of golden-pink light bathes the space between Cape Woolamai and the Bass Coast cliffs.
In my final years at Wonthaggi High, I had school friends at Phillip Island so I visited quite a bit. It sometimes still surprises me that years later I met a Melbourne boy and he brought me back. The beaches, cliffs and wetlands of Phillip Island have become my playground again.
As a teenager, I played netball. Our games tracked along with the Bass Valley Football League. After our match, the girls walked around and around the footy ground. People barracked from their cars, beeping their horns for a goal, cheering their team along. Inverloch-Kongwak, Wonthaggi Rovers, Wonthaggi Blues, Dalyston, Glen Alvie, Kilcunda-Bass and Phillip Island competed for the coveted premiership flag. On Saturdays, the footy ground was the meeting place, the hub of the community.
On summer Saturdays through my teens, I was off to tennis with Inverloch’s team. We played at Pound Creek, Kongwak, Kernot, Blackwood Forest and Korrine. Sometimes there weren’t any houses, just a tennis court where roads met. Sometimes there was also a hall nearby, or maybe even a store.
Last Sunday I wake to a brilliant, blue-sky day. It’s sunny and still, perfect for chasing memories up through the hills. I print off a map of the Bass Coast Shire, the most detailed guide I can find.
I weave through the Bass Valley lowlands, past cowsheds and poddy calves. A single-lane bridge takes me over Bass River. Its wooden planks rattle and rumble beneath my tyres. The Kernot tennis court is still in use but an old petrol bowser in front of the store is more the vintage of my tennis-playing days.
A narrow tree-lined road welcomes me into the foothills. I stop to take a photo of a stand of tall eucalypts, remnants of the dense forest that once covered this country. I am surprised to hear a bellbird. What a joy to know they’re still here. Other bush birds sound through the clear air.
The road takes me up and up, winding through narrow valleys between high ridges. The steep slopes glow electric green in the afternoon winter sun. I am nestled into the belly of the land, cradled by her smooth, nude, big-bosomed hills.
At Krowera I am on top of the world. To call the view “breathtaking” is an understatement. Green hills sprinkled with farm dams and dairy cows fall away, away, down to the sea. Far below, to the north-west, a thin sliver of silver light marks the edge of Western Port. To the south, on the horizon, the blue water of Bass Strait stretches on to the Southern Ocean.
I’ve seen some beautiful places, around Australia and overseas. Even if I’m a little biased, the country around here rivals them all. From Phillip Island to Inverloch, from the lowlands to the hills, this country is my country and it’s all one country to me.
Postscript: I would like to acknowledge the Boon Wurrung (Bunurong) people, the traditional owners of the land that is now known as Bass Coast Shire.