Phillip Island is most popular for the penguin parade, but there is more to do and see to make the long trip truly worthwhile. I know in asking about the island, there were many that said “don’t bother”, but we ended up taking a tour out that direction, and found it very worthwhile. The big difference was because us foreigners, truly marvelled at the uniqueness of native wildlife. We couldn’t get enough of the koalas and wallabies, and there was plenty of exposure there. Our pre-conceived notion from the description was this was going to be like a zoo-type setting; instead, there were boardwalk areas set up throughout the trees the koalas were living in, so we could get up close and personal with them. Most were snoozing away, since they do sleep about 20 hours a day, but we came across one that was pigging out before it fell asleep again. Also, as we wandered about, we came across quite a few wallabies that we had to stalk to see how good of a close-up picture we could get. Wasn’t sure at times who was staring harder at who. The Churchill Heritage Farm was also an experience because it enlightened the kids to have a feel of an actual working farm. Sweetened amidst picturesque views and conducive climate conditions of course.
We rented a car to self drive for approx. 1.5 hours to Phillip Island. The drive (via right hand drive) was quite a task for Anton. Especially maneuvering out of the city. But after a few minutes of mind and left hand setting, things improved. It was refreshing to get out of the city – we gaped at the change of scenery as we drove by vineyards and pastures. In no time, we were already crossing the Phillip Island Bridge.
As we drove through the island, we were getting excited with all the signs leading to the attractions. I booked us a 3 Park Pass to visit the top three attractions that makes up Phillip Island Park : Penguin Parade, Koala Conservation Center and the Churchill Island Heritage Farm. Apart from the discount, you can visit the sites in any order and the tickets are valid for 6months. A very good deal.
We decided to begin our tour with the Churchill Island Heritage Farm.
Churchill Island, just off the coast of Phillip Island holds an important place in the history of European settlement in Victoria. The site of the first European agricultural pursuits in Victoria, the island has been farmed since the 1850′s and in 1872 was purchased by Samuel Amess, former Mayor of Melbourne.
We walked to the end of the orchard to take a closer look at the Clydesdale horses. Their paddocks extended up to the cliffs with gorgeous ocean views and Tasmania from afar.
Migratory waders such as the Bar-Tailed Godwit, Sacred Ibis, Cape Barren Geese, Red-necked Stint and Chestnut Teal roost and feed within the park. Upclose is a Cape Barren Goose.
As we moved towards the ranch, we came across this canon. It came from the CSS Shenandoah, a warship of the Confederates States in the American Civil War. During the ships’ stay in Melbourne in 1865, the canon was presented to Samuel Amess in gratitude for his role in the hospitality offered to the officers. After Amess built the house on Churchill Island, the cannon was located there.
Adi was fascinated with the herbs grown in the Kitchen Garden. While waiting outside, I was playfully crossing paths with this Bantam Chicken. I fondly remembered my brother who would love to see this breed as he’s into cockfighting.
We arrived by the ranch’s center just in time for a whiplashing demonstration. The working farm hosts different farming activities for guests to participate in. Other activities involve milking cows, shearing sheep, blacksmithing and working dog presentations.
John Rogers arrived in Sydney from Cornwell England in 1838 and after trying his hand during the Gold Rush returned to the Western Port region. He became the legal owner of Churchill Island in 1866 and built this little cottage. He lived here with his wife Sarah and their three children two of whom were born here. The simplicity of this cottage reflects the hardship of the times.
The Amess House, built in 1872, provides a good idea of the comforts of an upper class home of the era. Based on information provided at the house, it was occupied by three generations of Amesses, Samuel and his son and grandson, before being sold, passing through four other hands before the Government of Victoria purchased it in 1973.
As much as we wanted to take our time roaming around the heritage farm – even delighting in a picnic by the sprawling gardens, we had to ensure we had enough time to explore the Koala Conservation Center before heading down to the beach for the Penguin Parade. This is a very nice little park to enjoy the company of koalas and wallabies at leisure. Not only were the kids excited to roam by the boardwalk spotting wildlife, even the seniors were happy. It really was a novelty to be up close with these furry creatures in more or less natural surroundings. The center also featured a very informative exhibit about Koalas. We learned a lot of interesting trivia about them — Joaquin was particularly amused with one that portrayed sounds of how Koalas mate. It felt quite intrusive.
We had to be by the Penguin Parade Center an hour before sunset. There was really not much time to check out the exhibits in the visitor center as we had to rush to the viewing decks to ensure good seats. While waiting, we noticed a small group of tourists on special platforms with better views. These premium seats could be availed for almost double the regular price, but the regular seats were actually good enough (as long as you come early to get to the front) considering you’ll be sharing the same stage and have the same opportunity to watch them at the burrows on the way back to the center.
We were all anxiously waiting for the penguins arrival. Despite the hundreds of tourists, it was quiet as we all had to maintain silence, so as not to spook the penguins. Photography was strictly prohibited within the center’s grounds. The flash disturbs the penguins and could rattle them away so the guides were quite vigilant with those who attempted to sneak photos. We obediently complied as we didn’t want to be one of those who came all the way for the show only to be kicked out of the Finale. But I did get this panoramic shot before packing my phone away – my portrayal of texting while looking around dramatic effort. And just for the benefit of everyone, I am inserting some pics of what we saw to provide an idea of what commenced.
As we waited, we were regaled by our host’s enthusiasm who shared fond stories about these little penguins. They are only found in southern Australia and New Zealand. In Australia little penguin colonies are scattered around the coastline from near Perth on the west coast, to Sydney on the east coast, and around Tasmania. Phillip Island is home to a colony of about 32,000. Everyday, these little creatures leave their homes to fish. They arrive at dusk and waddle up the beach to the safety of their homes in the sand dunes.
Finally, the penguins emerged from the water. They were like little cautious people. They first gathered in groups in shallow water on the coast and moved in teams on the beach as a defensive measure. They were reluctant because of the Seagulls which were still present in small numbers then they trudged towards their burrows.
As they passed the beach, we were all allowed to make our way back to the Visitor’s Center, at the same time observe them as they waddled their way like little men in suits under the boardwalk. You could hear them socializing amongst themselves – as if walking downtown – rush hour after work. I felt as if I could understand what they were talking about. Fascinating!
It was also interesting to see that in the darkness and seeing that the burrows looked confusingly the same, they could remember their homes. Some burrows were even past the parking lots so we had to check under our cars before moving.
I thought seeing them was not going to be such a biggie. I didn’t have much expectations. But we all agreed that the experience was well worth it. Its not often you witness these birds – in colonies in their natural habitat. What was even more amazing was that you could relate to them as if they were humans.
Phillip Island was a great family adventure. It is an experience not to be missed when visiting Melbourne. For me, the drive was worth the trip not only to see the Penguins but also to indulge in the breathtaking sceneries and indigenous wildlife encounters. These moments are priceless… especially for the kids who learn more than what they have read.