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The Road Through Melbourne to Phillip Island

We’re at about the halfway point of the trip, and I’m starting to feel the weight of the time passing – I’ve got a limited time here, but in the constant motion things are blurring together, and Sydney suddenly seems so far in the past. But we’ve got a few more days in Australia, and then almost another vacation entirely in New Zealand. For a moment I sense the trip slipping through my fingers, then I put the thought aside.

My giant blue duffel bag is full of wrinkled clothes. I haven’t done laundry since Ayers Rock. I go with the miraculous Thor-Lon socks, because I still can’t smell them.

Melbourne’s not too far away, just the other side of Port Phillip Bay. I guide the station wagon through the back streets of Geelong and out onto the main highway. The overcast that’s followed us since Adelaide is giving way to a high haze, and after about a half hour we see the city skyline in the distance beyond a flat plain of factories and chemical plants; it’s a lot like coming up on New York City from New Jersey (only on a smaller scale). Melbourne is a bustling city of wide boulevards and giant electric streetcars… plenty of distractions when you’re used to driving on the other side of the road. I lean heavily on my navigator as I negotiate the south side of town heading for our next hotel.

is a restored 19th-century doctor’s mansion within walking distance of the glitzy Chapel Street shopping area south of the Yarra River. It’s about noon as we pull up; the sun’s out now and it’s hot and pretty humid. We drop off our bags and tell Alexander, the innkeeper, that we’re headed to Phillip Island to see the penguins. He hands us a blanket, and we’re bewildered given all the heat and humidity, but accept it with thanks and head back to the car.

Phillip Island is about two hours’ drive southeast of Melbourne, the road cutting through noisy storefront suburbs to flat open land and eventually the Southern Ocean. We’ve come for the Penguin Parade, the nightly gathering of the Little Penguins as they march up from the sea and back to their nests in the grassy hills of the island. The parade starts at sunset, but we’re hoping to catch a ferry to the far rocky islands to visit the seal colonies; we miss the last boat and have a few hours to kill. We pause at the little seaside town of Cowes for a few VBs and to let Eric swim around for a while. As the sun begins its long descent we drive over to The Nobbies to visit the end of the Earth and kill a little more time.

Within the last year the park rangers have forbidden photography at the Penguin Parade visitiors center – flashblubs scare the little birds, and the “no flash” warnings went unheeded, so no more pictures of any kind, even video. In the stiff breeze at the Nobbies Melanie spots a few penguin chicks sheltering under the boardwalk. No photo restrictions here!

The rocky island is covered with loose scrubby grass, where the penguins make their nests. The grass is also home to rabbits and brown snakes that leave rabbit carcasses scattered about the hills. After about an hour of watching nature take its course we make the last short drive to the visitor center, where a few cars and vans have begun gathering in the long parking lot. Those of us “in the know” want to stake out some grandstand space before the stream of buses from Melbourne dumps thousands of tour group folks into the mix.

When the glass doors open to the beach boardwalk at 7:15 I’m the third person through, striding quickly down the winding walk toward the sound of the surf. I come to a fork in the path – the beach is still out of view beyond the low scrubby hills – and bear right. I’m the first to arrive at a little wooden platform, maybe thirty feet long by twenty feet deep.

  • Bear right at the fork.

I park myself at the wooden turnbuckle close to a trail of webprints leading through the sand up to the hills to my right. The cold wind blows in from the surf and I’m overpowered by the stench of rotting seaweed, a sulfur miasma that envelops the beach.

  • Bring a gas mask.

Phew. These penguins better show up soon.

An hour later a gagging crowd packs the platform. In the fading light we think we can see some movement way out on the rocky flats – we’re told the penguins gather into groups for safety before marching up the beach. A fat downy chick emerges from under the platform, and waits for mom an arm’s length away. It’s tough to resist the urge to pat its little head.

The fragrant breeze has its origins somewhere in the cold vicinity of Antarctica, and with no sun to provide warmth anymore that blanket we got back at Toorak becomes a godsend. There’s movement out on the rocks. Three penguins wobble toward the beach, and disappear behind a low dune. A minute later they crest the dune, closer, then disappear again. The chick advances toward the near dune and the three incoming penguins arrive, stopping before the platform to preen. They peck at their feathers for fifteen minutes. The floodlights come up and we see more motion out on the beach, large groups of waddling bowling pins negotiating the dunes. A bizarre screeching warble erupts from the hills as the hungry chicks in the rocks call out for supper. For the better part of an hour hundreds of penguins file past the little platform, flopping forward on their bellies every few feet when they tire of all the walking. It’s a remarkable experience. I’ve been sitting cross-legged for about two hours now, and I rise to stretch and check out the view from the main grandstand. The thousands of tourists are themselves filing past, headed back to the buses. There are floodlights all along the raised boardwalk, illuminating hundreds of adult penguins in the manicured grass. Many of the birds are standing still, resting or looking for the right nest. It looks like a giant Easter egg hunt, with these penguins as the eggs.

We see the Milky Way again for the first time since Ayers, and are once again awestruck by the view.

It’s about ten o’clock now. Just forget about getting something to eat along the road. In one of the close-in Melbourne suburbs we stop at a closing to get something, anything. We order a few Footy Combos – burgers and fries and tasty caramel milkshakes. We make an unexpected discovery.

  • Australians put beet slices on their burgers.

Hats off to Melbourne cuisine.