SUMMERLAND peninsula on Phillip Island sits between the open waters of Bass Strait and the western entrance of Western Port Bay. The scenic drive has views to rival the best in the world and behind the scenes is a unique history of tourism, development and wildlife conservation.
Ventnor Road leads to a large roundabout where a sign marks the ‘Traffic Control Point’ for busy nights at the Penguin Parade. To the right, surrounded by tussock grasses and rushes is Green Lake, a popular spot for boating in the late 1800s until grazing denuded the nearby dunes and sand blew into the lake.
The road passes through dense coastal scrub of coast tea-tree, coast banksia and boobialla which in spring is dripping with thick clusters of creamy yellow clematis flowers.
I reach the roundabout at the Penguin Parade and drive ahead past open boom gates closed at dusk to protect penguins returning to their burrows. Penguins live around the rim of the entire peninsula, the world’s largest colony of little penguins.
In the 1920s, Bert West led the first public viewing of penguins by torchlight. Soon he and two other locals were taking private tours to watch penguins waddle up Summerland Beach after a long day feeding at sea. The nightly parade became more and more popular and grew into an international tourist attraction that creates many local jobs and generates big dollars for the Victorian economy.
I pull into the car park at Right Point overlooking Cat Bay and the Western Passage. Point Sambell is to the west, the Mornington Peninsula sprawls across the horizon and high dunes curve eastward to Flynn Point, part of the sandy isthmus that connects the peninsula to mainland Phillip Island.
Middens and stone tools found at Cat Bay show it was an important camping place for traditional Bunurong/Boon Wurrung people. The dunes provided shelter, there were freshwater lakes nearby and food was abundant, especially in spring and summer when great numbers of short-tailed shearwaters returned from their northern feeding grounds to breed. Penguins and seals were close and shellfish plentiful on an offshore rock platform.
On the beach, a few hundred metres to the east, are the remains of an old jetty built in the early 1900s by Mr A.K.T. Sambell’s Phillip Island Holidays Development company. Guests arrived by ferry and were taken via an access road to stay at his guest house and play golf on a 9-hole golf course on the site of the present-day Penguin Parade car park.
Further along is Shelley Beach where the dunes are covered with bower spinach and sea-berry saltbush, a sign of penguin and shearwater rookeries. Small holes among the succulent mounds lead down to their private burrows.
Summerland peninsula was once grazed by cattle and sheep and chicory was grown here. Remnants of pasture grasses can still be seen but the land is now mainly covered with indigenous vegetation. Large stands of she-oaks planted many decades ago and swamp paperbark which once dominated most of the island, run down the spine of the peninsula. Coast tea-tree merges into open tussock grasslands, swathes of coast sword sedge drift across sheltered slopes and green succulent herblands cloak the dunes and bluffs.
From the car park above Cowrie Beach, I can see The Nobbies and Point Grant at the end of Phillip Island and across the water to Cape Schanck at the tip of the Mornington Peninsula. A wide pathway leads down to a cindery basalt rock platform and a large rock-pool, and if you are lucky you might find a cowrie shell on the beach.
The late afternoon sun casts a band of light across the Western Passage where, in March 1801, Lieutenant James Grant sailed The Lady Nelson into Western Port. The Lieutenant gave his name to Point Grant, the first point he passed on his way into the bay.
Lieutenant Grant had left England with instructions to make the first official passage through Bass Strait from the west. Three years earlier, George Bass had sailed down from Sydney Cove and sailed west to Western Port. He entered the bay through the Eastern Entrance and left via the Western Passage, returning directly to Sydney.
I drive past several families of Cape Barren geese and enter the car park at the Nobbies Visitor Centre which has the Antarctica Experience, interpretative displays, a café and shop. A boardwalk leads around steep bluffs to The Blowhole.
The Nobbies are two rock stacks separated from the island by a flat rock platform inundated by the sea at high tide. The larger of The Nobbies has at least six distinct layers, successive lava flows from Phillip Island’s volcanic past in the Eocene, around 50 million years ago.
Several hundred metres offshore are Seal Rocks, home to 30,000 Australian fur seals in the breeding season when cows give birth and males arrive from their island bases far to the south.
The South Coast Road meanders through grassland with sea views on one side, bay views on the other and observation lookouts along the way.
At the first lookout, the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean opens out before me. I take a deep breath of sea air and listen to the layers of sound. A distant roar is drowned by thumping, crashing and hissing sounds. I watch as waves explode into billowing spray, white-water bubbles and churns, waterfalls drain down and little arcs of foam push into the cove below.
A rugged rocky coast draped with a carpet of green stretches to the western end of the island. Waves relentlessly attack the broad rock platforms and bare vertical cliffs. Hardy plants grow on sloping bluffs behind wide rocky beaches where waves are unable to reach.
To the east, Helen Head, Wild Dog Bluff and Redcliff Head stand their ground against the sea. The distinctive shape of Pyramid Rock sits in the middle distance and a silhouette of Cape Woolamai rises at the far end of the island.
The road winds around the top of steep green bluffs etched with tiny pathways where penguins pass on their daily treks back and forth from the sea. At the top of one massive slope, a bank of solar panels powers a weighbridge down below that counts the number of penguins and monitors changes over time.
As I step from the lookout at Lion Head, a wallaby watches me from the other side of the road. A magpie warbles. A raven carries a mouse in its beak as it glides over the grassland. A swamp harrier flies up high then twists and turns on its way back down, whistling to flush out prey.
There is a calm stillness through the grassland. But it wasn’t always like this. Penguins had been living here for centuries when, in the 1950s, Summerland Estate started spreading across the peninsula. By the 1980s it became clear a housing estate was incompatible with a penguin colony. Foxes, dogs and cats attacked the defenceless birds, cars skittled them at night and kikuyu lawns choked their burrows.
In 1985, the State Government started buying back all the houses on Summerland Estate. The houses were removed, a major revegetation and weed control program began and by 2010 the buy-back was complete. Ongoing conservation and management of the peninsula remains in the hands of Phillip Island Nature Parks.
As I follow the road down from Phelan Bluff lookout, visitors are congregating at the Penguin Parade below. On my left, the original streets of Summerland Estate are fenced off with chains, the original blocks are thick with paperbark trees and penguin nesting boxes have replaced the houses. It is time for me to leave as the penguins will soon be arriving home.
Summerland peninsula is always magnificent. If the weather is wild and windy it can be thrilling to watch the spectacle from the comfort of your vehicle. If you are pressed for time, the scenic drive can take less than an hour or you can immerse yourself in a full day trip with walks and wildlife experiences.