I AM standing at the top of the steps overlooking an empty Kitty Miller Bay. At high tide waves lap the back of the beach but now the bay is drained. Low tide is when hooded plovers scamper along the shore and oystercatchers wander among the shallow pools that remain on the rocky floor.
I walk along the sandy beach and onto the wide expanse of basalt cobbles and boulders that wraps around the eastern shore of Kitty Miller Bay. I watch my step as the massive pile of rocks shifts and rattles beneath my feet.
An outcrop of cindery black basalt resembles bubbling lava from which it was formed. Nearby is a flat patch of red tuff, a bed of ash laid down probably by the same volcano around 50 million years ago.
I head for the base of the grassy bluff where a rough path makes for easier walking. I reach a fork in the path and take the well-worn route to the top of the bluff where large patches of bare ground look like open wounds.
Knobbly outcrops of weathered basalt have been exposed by wind and rain and large scars are carved in the side of the bluff where saturated clay has slipped away. Although slumping bluffs are common on this coast, I feel a bit guilty for coming this way. No doubt some of the erosion is caused by trampling feet.
At the end of the bluff, the land drops abruptly down to the rounded knoll at Watt Point. Views of the rugged south coast stretch around to Seal Rocks in the west and Pyramid Rock in the east.
A Cape Barren Goose stands high above the boulder beaches piled up in the next bay. I look down and see the rusty remains of the S.S. Speke stranded on the rocks below.
The unmade path down to the shore looks steep and slippery. Skid marks from a previous walker are a warning to beware. Should I continue on or turn back and take the low route around? After a moment’s hesitation I scramble carefully down.
It is dead low tide so I have time to explore before the sea floods in again. Part of the hull of the old sailing ship stands several metres high. It would be interesting to try and identify the many remnants of the wreck strewn across the shore.
On February 22 1906, the S.S. Speke was sailing through stormy seas on her way to Geelong to load wheat. Some say her captain mistook a fire blazing east of Cowes for navigational lights and steered his ship off course towards Phillip Island’s rocky south coast.
The S.S. Speke was one of the largest three-masted steel ships ever to sail the globe so when high winds and heavy swell pushed her close to the coast, the crew had great difficulty keeping her under control. They lost the battle against the raging sea and the ship broadsided across a reef. She was pounded by surf for several days until her back cracked and she broke apart. Amazingly, all but one of the 20 men on board managed to struggle to shore.
Beyond the wreck, at the water’s edge, is a ridge of gnarled grey-green rock that runs across the shore platform and disappears into the back of the beach. This volcanic greenstone was formed when lava burst through the sea floor around 500 million years ago, when Australia was still part of Gondwana and the basement of Phillip Island lay deep beneath the sea.
Over the ages, the greenstone was transformed into hard metamorphic rock. This rock also outcrops at Mount William near Lancefield north of Melbourne where leading Wurundjeri clansmen quarried greenstones for thousands of years. The tough, shock-resistant rock was ideal for stone axes for notching toe-holes in trees, cutting and shaping wood, scraping off bark and butchering animals. The Mount William greenstones were highly prized and traded across south-eastern Australia.
Boonwurrung people spent time here at Watt Point, collecting and eating shellfish. I wonder if they also chipped off chunks of the greenstone to include in their toolkits.
Nearby, in a shallow rock pool, ancient greenstones rest beside pieces of black basalt and red tuff. I smile as I think of the extraordinary stories held within this simple jumble of stones.
I look toward the knoll and consider which way to return. The knoll is like an old man’s head looking out to sea, its basalt columns like wrinkles in his face. The knoll is possibly a volcanic plug, the hard filling of an old volcano that has survived millions of years of erosion.
I skirt around a large flat area covered with sheets of water and grapeweed (those plump beads we loved to squeeze as kids) and pick my way across the low boulders towards Watt Point. The saddle that dips between the bluff and the knoll looks too sheer and steep to cross. The tide is still well out so I decide to go around the outer edge of the knoll.
The rock face is like a work of art, etched and sculptured, with tiny pebbles wedged beside veins of calcite. Two rock pools are nestled behind a barricade of lichen-covered basalt.
As I round the knoll, I marvel at the niches nature provides. White correa clings to the cliff top and bower spinach spills down the sides. Ahead of me is a sea of boulders, a rock-hoppers dream, but not for me. I make straight for the ‘goat track’ that hugs the base of the bluff and follow it around the rim of the bay, back to where I began.
I welcome the softness beneath my feet as I step back onto the sandy beach. The short walk to the wreck has taken quite a while and the tide is rushing in. I look out across the bay and can hardly believe my eyes. Four black swans are lined up in a row as if heading out to catch the next wave.
Linda Cuttriss and Eric Bird (1995) ‘500 Million Years on Phillip Island’
Linda Cuttriss and Eric Bird (unpublished) ‘Around the Island’
Thank you Linda, your description of your journeys are wonderful. Recently I went to Linda’s presentation of 500 Million Years on Phillip Island at the Heritage Centre. The presentation was informative and interesting. Keep up the great work.