IT IS low tide on the first day of winter and Western Port is like a millpond. Reflections of soft white clouds and the colours and contours of the edge of the land are mirrored on her glassy surface.
I am on Churchill Island, a small undulating basalt island that lies in sheltered waters off the eastern shore of Phillip Island.
A single-lane bridge leads onto the island. The land rises gently through open paddocks where Highland cattle rest under trees and sheep and cape barren geese graze on green pastures.
Churchill Island Heritage Farm has a café, a visitor centre and you can buy a ticket to the farm experience and see the historic farmhouse, watch sheep shearing, working dogs, cow milking and whip cracking. There is also a farmer’s market on the fourth Saturday of the month. But I have come to wander the walking track that circuits the island.
Lieutenant James Grant named the island on his 1801 expedition from England in the Lady Nelson. Grant was so enchanted by the island that he chose this place to plant the seeds given to him by his countryman John Churchill. He felled several trees and built a 24 feet by 12 feet blockhouse hoping to return one day.
A path near the lavender garden leads to two giant moonah trees and the start of the walking track. The air is so still I can hear popping and crackling sounds from the exposed mudflats below.
I head towards the north of the island. On my left is a rural scene of rustic wooden fences, a windmill and a homestead on the hill set among established European and Australian trees. To my right, the bluff slopes down to mudflats bathed in shimmering sunlight. Cormorants are clustered on a muddy islet resting and drying their wings.
In spring and summer, when thousands of migratory waders fly from the northern hemisphere to the wetlands of Western Port, this is a good place to view eastern curlews, red-necked stints and bar-tailed godwits feeding on the shore.
Lorikeets screech as I pass beneath a large eucalypt. The tree-lined path opens to glimpses of a small cove below where chestnut teal cruise along the shallows trailing v-shaped wakes behind them.
I reach the northern tip of the island where Rhyll and French Island appear as dark strips of land on the horizon and the low winter sun floods the bay in glimmering silver.
The Yalloc Bulluk and Burinyong Bulluk clans of the Boonwurrung people are the traditional owners of the land and sea around here. The Boonwurrung used bark canoes to move between the mainland and the islands of Western Port until their traditional lives were forever changed when the sealers and British settlers came.
Ancient moonahs (Melaleuca lanceolata) tower above the coastal scrub on the western flank of the island. Some of them have been standing here for hundreds of years. Western Port is the eastern extremity of their range and Churchill Island is home to some of the oldest remnants of the species.
I look across the smooth waters that stretch between Churchill Island and Phillip Island. All these waters and the mangroves, salt marshes, seagrass beds, mudflats and intertidal rocky shores are feeding and roosting sites for shorebirds and waterbirds, including black swans. They are feeding and breeding places for whiting, bream and mullet. And they are all now protected as Churchill Island Marine Park.
As the path bends south along Rennison Bight I notice three wide bands of seagrass arched around the edge of the mudflats, strand lines that indicate where successive tides have reached.
It has been an easy hour’s walk to the monument that commemorates the first cultivation of wheat in Victoria by Lieutenant James Grant. Grant was never to return to the island but Lieutenant Murray arrived in the same ship the following year and found wheat and corn growing six feet high. He harvested the wheat and corn as well as barley, oats and some potatoes and onions.
Around 60 years later, Samuel and Winifrid Pickersgill became the first of the British settlers to make this island their home. Scotsman Samuel Amess, successful stonemason and builder and Mayor of Melbourne in 1869 and 70, purchased the island as a seaside retreat in 1875 and built the farmhouse that remains here today.
The island was privately owned by several families over the years and in 1976 was acquired by the State Government of Victoria for conservation of its natural and historic values. It is now managed by Phillip Island Nature Parks with help from Friends of Churchill Island volunteers.
From the monument, I could follow a fork in the path and return to the visitor centre but I continue ahead to complete my circumnavigation of the island.
The track slopes down beside the water’s edge where I stop to take a photo. I turn my head and right beside me is a mother goose with her eye on me, a cape barren goose nesting in a large tussock grass. She has selected a very pleasant spot elevated from the mudflat with fine views across Rennison Bight.
The mudflats that surround the island are strewn with crusty red stones, broken down from the volcanic basalt and tuff that lie beneath. On the shore are several white ibis, masked lapwings and a white-faced heron.
A willy wagtail chitter-chatters at the edge of the path as two new holland honeyeaters dash from a she-oak tree. Magpies probe the ground in the open pastures and purple swamphens peck around for insects, herbs and seeds.
The path crosses the road and curves back along the fence line where sheep and Highland cattle are grazing. I stop to watch the shaggy red-haired, long-horned beasts from the safe side of the fence then follow through to the top of the bluff where my walk began.
The mangroves are still stranded on the mudflat, cormorants are still resting and chestnut teal are still feeding in the shallows. Grant wrote in his journal “I scarcely know a place I would rather call mine than this little island”. As I look across the bay, with this tranquil scene around me, it is clear why Grant is not the only one to fall in love with this little island.