WE’D been saying for ages that we should visit French Island. We’d never been, despite my brother-in-law’s family being pioneers of French Island, before they moved to Phillip Island. It was late August and my birthday and a beautiful, clear day. No second thoughts – just do it!
We check with Lois Aires to see if she is running her bus tour, then onto the ferry, anchor aweigh and out onto Western Port. Landing at Tankerton Jetty, we enter the land that time forgot, in all the best possible ways. With a welcoming Lois at the wheel, we get onto the bus with our fellow time travellers, and off we go for an afternoon spin around the island, some wonderful sights, loads of history and great commentary by our sprightly coach captain.
There’s remarkable variety on French Island, from fragile orchids and koalas, an occasional snake, sweeping views and great wine, to seriously big mosquitoes. Fortunately Lois has repellent on board.
I’d brushed up on the history via a quick scan of Ruth Gooch’s 2006 book Frontier French Island. Lois builds on this nicely, adding bits about Kylie Minogue, escaped prisoners and island life in 2014. We enjoy visiting her farm, including an old chicory kiln museum, and sharing a tasty afternoon tea, before heading back to the ferry and the bright lights of Cowes.
It was over too quickly but it was a great way to spend a birthday – a unique part of Australia, nestled in a beautiful, wild stretch of water that is Western Port. I rather fancy the next trip will be with push bikes, and lots of mosquito repellent.
Lois was insightful in many ways, including about the use of wind power to provide renewable energy on an island without an electricity grid power supply. The small wind turbine on their farm did the job nicely.
By August, the proposal to develop the Port of Hastings was increasingly topical. In response to queries, Lois did the astute thing and commented on past follies while suggesting further reading.
Once back in the mosquito-free environment of Ventnor, I did just that. Frontier French Island by Ruth Gooch is a solid read. It provides a comprehensive history of French Island, with insight into local life and the broader social and economic dynamics of the times. It would have been a tough life. I was particularly interested in the chapter on the homestead associations and village settlement schemes, as a means of solving unemployment in the 1890s depression.
Chapter 14, titled Pelican Power, provides a detailed account of plans in the 1960s-70s for the industrial development of French Island and Hastings. Many of the islanders saw this as an opportunity for prosperity and opportunity for their children. “Land prices boomed,” Gooch writes. “The population dropped from about 150 to 50 in a few years.”
She details how the State Government sought to “preserve the Mornington Peninsula against the onslaught of industry and urban development … [while ensuring that] … resources available for port and industrial development at Western Port be properly utilised in the interests of people of Victoria”.
Initial environmental and social concerns and academic research advising industrial developments could be better located at Altona, rather than Western Port, were largely ignored.
Gooch goes on to discuss the 1970 report on French Island commissioned by the Western Port Regional Planning Authority. It recommended “an 100-square-mile industrial estate and handling complex, linking French Island to the mainland by three causeways, berths for large ships, a jetport and railway marshalling yards … electricity generation stations, water, oil and gas pipelines… and long-term proposals for a network of barge canals linking French Island with Melbourne and Geelong through Port Phillip and with the Latrobe Valley brown coalfields … saying loss of much of the region’s wildlife was inevitable”.
Not surprisingly, there was a strong conservation backlash, notably with the formation of the Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council and the Save Westernport Coalition. The authors of the report The Shame of Western Port: Speculator’s Dream, Environmental Nightmare declared “We thought it was high time to reveal how the plans to destroy Western Port began, who will profit and how Australia will lose if it’s not stopped”.
Gooch then introduces an element I was unaware of – the pelican rookeries of French Island. Their existence was known to some but promotion by conservationists and reporting by The Age in late 1971 coincided with Alan Hunt taking on the role of local government minister in the Liberal State Government.
Amid the outcry and changing dynamics, Mr Hunt announced a study of French Island by the newly created Land Conservation Council, and the political turnaround had started.
On the one hand, international industrial interests were predicting “the entire Western Port would be an urban complex”, with calls for “investigation of proposals for a nuclear power station on French Island”. On the other, Dr Geoff Mosley from the Australian Conservation Foundation described the proposals as “anachronistic dreams from the era of development at any cost”.
Gooch states that while the Redbill Creek pelican rookery was probably only in existence for a few years, “the extent of its influence on the outcome of the development debate cannot be measured … and it appears its existence played a part in turning the debate toward conservation”.
In 1977, the Land Conservation Council recommended the creation of a 7700-hectare state park on French Island, which was enacted in 1982. The same year the Liberal Government lost the election.
Further land has been added to the park, which now constitutes two-thirds of French Island, and three marine national parks were established in Western Port by the Bracks Labor Government in 2002.
Oscar Wilde said “Experience is the name we give our mistakes”. In reflecting on the failure by the current Port of Hastings development proponents to learn from the mistakes of the past, we should honour the legacy of those who worked so hard to conserve the Western Port region and its precious environmental heritage, for current and future generations.
As the state election draws close, I am again reminded of the power of our democracy and the opportunity it gives us to build on this legacy and reject anyone who advocates its destruction.
Unless stated, all references are to Frontier French Island by Ruth Gooch (PMI Press, Melbourne, 2006).
January 1, 2015
I smiled continually as I read Anne Paul's article on French Island because it brought back numerous memories of taking the 1st Greenhills Scout Group on a cycling tour about 30 years ago.
By the time we got to Tankerton Jetty it was dark with a single light at its end and the timbers on the jetty running the same direction as the bicycle wheels, which caught a few boys by surprise, but no serious falls occurred. However, that was nothing compared to the trip in the dark to our first camp site through soft sand and unknown territory. It seemed to take forever and I'm not sure we actually found our camp site. We all slept well that night.
We woke up next morning to a lovely clear sky and after breakfast headed off to Mount Wellington??? which was an ascent of about 96m. It took its toll on some of the boys as we ploughed through the sandy roads. But we made it and enjoyed the banter along the way. However, the news had got around that we were there and the mosquitoes relished our company and NEW BLOOD.
Next the abandoned prison complex was heaven for the boys as they scurried about the place speculating what it would have been like there. It hardly seemed like a prison at such a nice location with heaps of pelicans looking like bomber command as they swooped in or took off, a wonderful sight.
Our next encounter was waterlogged roads, which did make a change from cycling through sand. However, we were suddenly in mozzie country and they came at us in droves. Well, we had invaded their territory!
It was with relief that we came across civilisation in the form of a cafe or was it a general store? Whatever it was, the boys bought the shop out of its stock of lollies and the leaders had a nice cup of tea and possibly a scone or two.
We didn't see a great deal of French Island's wildlife other than the occasional koala but that's probably due to the noise of the scouts as they wobbled, slapped and complained travelling across terrain quite different fromthe made streets of Greensborough.
Upon leaving the island, it became obvious that we had caught the right ferry because we were allowed on to it but another group of people to their dismay were left on the jetty because they had booked on a competing ferry that had already left and were told it was "their bad luck they had chosen the wrong ferry"
I'm sure that the island has changed for the better in some regards but hope that it can retain its quiet and natural state. There aren't too many places like it and where would the mozzies go if industry was allowed to encroach onto its shores. Perhaps a Mortein research centre would be appropriate.