CAPE Woolamai is the great-great grandmother of this coast. She sits at the south-east tip of Phillip Island and is seen from far and wide. She is always there, watching over her coastal waters, keeping an eye on the cliffs and dunes and beaches, guarding the eastern entrance to Western Port Bay.
It is a sunny, still mid-winter’s morning and I have come to walk the upland of Cape Woolamai. I arrive at Woolamai Beach car park where a slab of polished pink granite marks this world-famous beach as part of Phillip Island National Surfing Reserve.
The low winter sun casts long shadows across the beach as lines of frothy white-water prance towards the shore. Beyond is Cape Woolamai, the grand old lady I have come to visit.
I walk along the smooth sand, beside the Woolamai dunes that stand up to 30 metres high. In the past 6000 years, masses of sand have accumulated on top of ancient dunes many hundreds of thousand years old. The old dunes, cemented into soft dune sandstone, have been laid bare here and there by wind and waves and trampling human feet.
A few hundred metres along the beach is a staircase that zig-zags up a weathered basalt cliff to the walking track that leads to the upland.
I look across to Cape Woolamai’s high cliffs of mottled pink and green. Slashes of smooth white decomposing granite decorate her shoulders. Her cape drapes down in giant folds and spills across the beach to a ragged platform where the pink granite meets the black basalt of a former lava flow.
Broad swathes of seaberry saltbush and bower spinach spread over the ground and cloak the coastal slopes. Beneath the lush green is a multitude of deep burrows, home to short-tailed shearwaters for half of every year.
The rookeries are now abandoned, but the birds will soon return from their northern feeding grounds to renovate their digs for the coming breeding season.
At the end of September, one million shearwaters descend on Phillip Island. Half of that number will reclaim their address on the cliffs and dunes of Cape Woolamai.
On summer evenings, as daylight fades to night, thousands upon thousands of shearwaters return from a day’s fishing at sea. Watching them circle the sky above Cape Woolamai is a wondrous sight indeed.
I feel my stride lengthening as the land rises steadily towards The Pinnacles. I smell the salt air and look out across the wide blue sea. All is quiet up here except for the chitter-chatter of a willie wagtail flitting from branch to branch among the sparse, spindly shrubs.
A flash of bright green catches my eye. One after another, six small green parrots land in an everlasting daisy bush and feed on the seeds of the dried flower heads. I can’t see their bellies from here. Could they be orange-bellied parrots? Experts suggest there are less than 200 of them living in the wild.
I reach The Pinnacles, giant gun-turrets that lean out from the cliffs to defend the grand old lady from the ravages of the sea. Her castle walls appear as blocks of granite, etched along cracks that formed when magma cooled and contracted slowly beneath the earth. Large boulders are scattered across her cliff-tops like unexploded cannonballs.
Shearwater rookeries carpet the ground and large tussock grasses sway in the breeze. An echidna waddles along, moving its beak from side to side like a little vacuum cleaner, devouring a small army of ants.
There are places to sit above sheltered coves where low shrubs and grasses occupy nooks in the sheer cliff face. Away from the edge, pigface, saltbush and sedges nestle among lichen-covered boulders.
I am startled by an unexpected voice calling out to me, “Did you see the whale?” I quickly turn and cast my eyes across the water. The white boat I had seen earlier is floating a kilometre offshore. I had thought its occupants were fishing but it seems they have been whale-watching.
I catch a glimpse of black and white then a shower of spray, followed by another and another. It is intriguing how the sight of these massive mammals inspires a sense of awe.
The path inclines more steeply to a high point where a wallaby dozes in the sun at the edge of a patch of scrub.
My eyes are drawn to the green and white line of high dunes that stretches from Kilcunda to Cape Paterson. Beyond, a darker band of distant blue fades away to Cape Liptrap. Rising up behind the land and sea are the granite peaks of Wilsons Promontory, 100 kilometres away.
The path curves north towards the beacon, a navigational aid for boats and ships that stands on the highest point of Phillip Island, 108 metres above the sea.
A peregrine falcon hovers above then dives out of sight. A magpie shouts. A raven sounds its wailing cawing, three long trailing calls to advertise its territory.
I reach the beacon and try to absorb the 360 degree views. In front of me the land falls gently away to the slender isthmus that joins Cape Woolamai to the main body of Phillip Island. Woolamai Beach sweeps west to Pyramid Rock, and the rounded shapes of the Nobbies and Cape Schank mark the western entrance to Western Port. South is Bass Strait and the great Southern Ocean.
To the east, the Bass cliffs look like a large chocolate cake that rises in the middle and tapers down to the small town of San Remo. The sun shimmers from the north across Western Port and Cleeland Bight, waters divided by the bridge that crosses from the mainland to Phillip Island.
Further north is the low hump of Churchill Island and farther still is Rhyll, set against the back-drop of French Island and the Mornington Peninsula.
I continue down the path to a lookout high above the eastern entrance to Western Port. I wonder if a group of Boon Wurrung was standing here on January 5 1798 when George Bass arrived with his six-man crew in a 28-foot (seven-metre) open whale boat, having rowed down from Sydney Cove.
It is impossible to imagine how they would have felt. Was it horror, fear or wonder? What we do know is that their lives would never be the same.
When Bass looked across at the great sloping cape he thought it was like a snapper’s head, and so named her ‘Wollomai’, an Aboriginal word for snapper.
I look down to the pink boulder beach and across the aquamarine water to Gull Island which appears like a whaleboat with sail set, heading back to Sydney.
The path leads down through banksia and she-oak woodland planted by Phillip Island Conservation Society volunteers from the 1970s to the 1990s.
I follow the track back onto the beach where a pair of hooded plovers scampers along the sand, fossicking among the driftwood and dried seaweed.
It was the presence of these precious little birds, along with orange-bellied parrots and short-tailed shearwaters that in 1986 prompted the establishment of Cape Woolamai State Faunal Reserve, now part of Phillip Island Nature Parks.
Cape Woolamai has been here for a very long time. Her heart is still strong but she is vulnerable to weeds and her plant cover is fragile. Nature Parks’ rangers help to protect her and visitors can play their part by keeping to the walking paths.
I look back at Cape Woolamai and reflect on her epic life. She has been shaped by rivers and carved by the sea. She has seen the ocean rise and fall. Surely the majestic promontory, and all the living things she supports, will still be watching over this coast for a very long time to come.
Cuttriss L. & Bird E., 1995, 500 Million Years on Phillip Island
Cuttriss L. & Bird E., 1995, unpublished, Around the Island
Grayden C., 2008, An Island Worth Conserving: A History of the Phillip Island Conservation Society 1968-2008
September 30, 2015
Linda’s great article really hit the “navigation” mark with me. I too have walked up to the top of Woolamai, admired the sensational views and “experienced” the wildlife (a sunning black snake in June?! I’m scared witless of them).
So it’s great that others may be encouraged to do likewise. Though a word of warning. Once we get into the warmer months, I’m told snakes can be a real problem up there. That’s why I went in winter.
Linda’s evocative descriptions from the land can only be matched by the view from the sea. Though a “creaky old back” has largely eliminated my ability to “get out into the Strait” to chase a feed of the big flatties that inhabit the 30-plus metres depth out there, during the countless times I was able to do so, I never tired of the Cape’s magnificent seaward side scenery. Coming back with a feed was a bonus.
Linda describes “Gull Island” very well. It’s basically just a small rock outcrop about 30 metres off shore. Anyone I take out there for the first time is informed that they should return home and tell everyone they “circumnavigated Gull Island”. Well, it sounds impressive. The waters around Gull are also notable for crystal clarity and a clean sandy bottom.
A bit further back from Gull Island there lie a couple of caves in the cliff face. Big enough to get an average size fishing boat in, but I’ve never had the courage to try. Three young generations of my family, including me, have been told it was a “pirates cave”.
Hopefully, in the future when someone does take that lovely walk, the view to the northwest will not be dominated, and therefore spoilt, by container cranes operating the Port at Hastings, not to mention the 60,000-tonners anchored off Rhyll.
Kevin Chambers, The Gurdies