Vic – Portland

Portland and its Three Capes Portland is one of the only cities in Australia where koalas, seals and whales are all regular visitors to the CBD, and it’s a highly industrial city at that Portland is a place where the sea still dominates daily life. The bay is the only deep sea port between Adelaide and Melbourne. It offers a sheltered anchorage against the often wild weather, as much for the sailing ships of old as it does for the queue of huge ships that still dock there every day collecting wheat, woodchips and aluminium ingots. The surrounding Victorian coast is usually surface limestone, but Portland is predominantly basalt from recent eruptions, some only 6000 years old. The main practical difference is that the area has big stark volcanic cliffs and three large jutting capes, a geological gift that shelters the Portland area from damaging westerly winds. The bay was named in 1800 by the British navigator James Grant who spotted the headlands from the Lady Nelson while sailing along the Victorian coast. Gunditjmara people lived in the area and were renowned for living in relatively sophisticated permanent stone huts and for their elaborate aquaculture practices. Early whalers made use of the shelter of the bay on periodic whaling forays and “brought disease and violence” to the local Aboriginal inhabitants. However, it was the settlers who had the most impact on the Gunditjmara people. Portland has a temperate climate with cold, wet winters and warm dry summers, ideal for sheep farming. In 1834, the Henty family settled there from Tasmania and they were the first white people to turn a sod in Victoria. Henty immediately began planting crops, grazing sheep and coordinating the local whaling trade, 15 all without permission from the government. He arrived a year before fellow Tasmanian settlers established Melbourne. There are some dark stories of massacres as a clash over land ensued. By 1841, the local Aboriginal clan had been reduced to one old man and a youth. They joined forces with the Gard gundidj clan at Mt Clay. The Mt Clay people prohibited any Aboriginal person from going into Portland, a ‘taboo’ that was still being followed by some as late as 1941. In 2007, the Gunditjmara People were recognized by the Federal Court to be the native title-holders of Crown land and waters in the Portland region. Due to its coastal location and east facing harbour, Portland had became the focus of European activity in Western Victoria, but frequent storms demonstrated the need for a more enclosed harbour. Several proposals were made but there were decades of delays until the present huge breakwater and wharves were constructed. Through the 19th century Portland developed to become an important fishing port and a centre for wheat and wool exports. Eventually the wool industry came to be dominated by Geelong and Portland fell behind Warrnambool as the region’s main commercial centre. In the late 20th century Portland’s role as a major hub began to revive, boosted by the tourism industry and a new industrial smelter. Portland has Australia’s third largest aluminium smelter, with a capacity of around 352,000 tonnes of aluminium per annum. The other huge piece of industrial plant is the wind farm which opened in 2005 and runs along the coast of Portland’s three capes. At the time it was one of the biggest wind farm developments in the Southern Hemisphere. It produces 195MW enough electricity for about 125,000 homes. While it’s helping reduce our carbon footprint, it is a great illustration of how everything we do comes at a cost and is a balancing act. There was strong opposition from residents to the visual impact of towers and the power lines. Love it or hate it, all vistas in Portland come with complimentary wind turbines, combining the ancient with the modern Cape Grant is now dominated by a smelter, but ironically a gannet colony thrives nearby 16 The Port of Portland has even been proposed to take over some of the overflow from Melbourne. However, while it is a large industrial complex, efforts have been made to keep it accessible to tourists and locals. There are good picnic areas, a marine discovery centre, a light rail along the foreshore running a vintage tram, and lots of surviving heritage buildings. While no longer as important as an industry, Portland is still home to a fishing fleet of 60 vessels. During the austral summer, the Bonney Upwelling brings nutrient-rich deep ocean water to the surface in the Portland area, supporting rich marine life. Seals and large Eagle rays frequent the city boat ramp and fish cleaning tables. Southern Right whales and Humpbacks enter the bay annually and support a big influx of sightseeing tourists. For the fit and hardy the Great South West Walk provides a challenge for bushwalkers. The Portland capes are one of the highlights of this a 250-kilometre (160 mi) walking track. Designed as a long distance walking track, it is also ideal for short walks and day walks. The walk travels though forests, river gorges, cliff tops and sheltered bays. Short walks to the bays around Cape Nelson are great. They even have a good restaurant at the lighthouse to add a bit of glamour to your sweaty bushwalk. For me, the trip to nearby Cape Bridgewater was the highlight, a short 20 minute drive from Portland. The Cape is actually the western rim of an extinct volcano, much of which has now subsided into the bay leaving behind impressive cliffs and a series of unique features. To attract tourists the locals have built a walking trail along these rolling sea cliffs. To access the walking track is just past the kiosk and Surf Club at Bridgewater Bay. It’s strenuous without being tough and well worth the 2-3 hours out of a busy travel itinerary, especially on a good day. The track leads to a viewing platform at the Seal Colony at Cape Bridgewater, so bring a zoom lens or binoculars as the platform is well away from the seals. The colony consists of up to 650 Australian Fur Seals lolling about on the rocks. In fact, I found the seals less interesting than the coastal scenery in general, and there are lots of hawks, seabirds and other things to see along the way. If you don’t want to go the full distance, walk 15 minutes to the old boathouse. You can then rent a spot on a boat tour out to the seal colony. When you get back, try snorkelling out to Horseshoe Reef, only a stones throw from the boatsheds. 17 To cap it off Cape Bridgewater also has plenty of other geological features, the most popular being the Petrified Forest. There are many theories about how the Petrified Forest was formed. It is not made of petrified wood, but is a series of solution tubes. Once it was a forest of probably Moonah tea tree scrub (Melaleuca Lanceolate), which was eventually smothered by a large sand dune. Water seeping down through the sand formed a crust of sandstone on the outside of the tree trunks. Over the years they have suffered considerably damage at the hands of souvenir collectors and walkways have been built to protect the site from erosion. It is also hard to take a picture that doesn’t include, you guessed it, wind turbines. If that doesn’t float your boat, nearby there are also some blowholes, not working too hard on the glorious day when we were there. The crazed patterns left behind in the basalt as it cooled still capture some of the geological drama of a coast that was recently belching lava into the ocean from a number of inland volcanoes. If you want to see one of the spots where it started, check out amazing Tower Hill Reserve near Warrnambool. There are great short walks there too. So how does a marine enthusiast get the best out of South West Victoria? I’d say don’t go there with a one-eyed approach, or for a day, only to fish, or dive, or canoe, or bushwalk, or beachcomb, or birdwatch, or read a book. Go there and try the whole lot on different days. You can go there and realistically expect a once in a lifetime encounter with Blue Whales and endangered Albatross on an offshore cruise (hard enough to organise), but you could also be there for a week just watching the waves bounce the charter boat against the jetty. This coast has lots of everything, but often it is tantalisingly difficult to grasp. But the extreme weather, crashing waves and nutrient-stained waters are part of what makes this coast unique and gives it life. Spend some time, have a plan for something special, but also have another plan to try other ideas outside your usual comfort zone.