Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Phillip Island visit, the Age, 10th March, 1888

Last updated on 17-Nov-20

Christine Grayden gave a reading of “Phillip Island” from a series: “Picturesque Victoria” by Telemachus from the Age, 10th March 1888.


There are three visits which must be made on Phillip Island – one to the Pyramid, already made, another to Cape Woolamai, and the third to the Nobbies, at the other end of the island. And all that is worth seeing in each of the journeys these involve, for reaching the Pyramid its greatest breadth is crossed; it is indeed fairly divided by the Pyramid Road, and the halves are bisected by the road to the Capes. The hotels provide vehicles – stout and substantial wagonettes – with rather plough horned cattle, for the roads are heavy in places, and the packing of the carriages when a big party proposes to move out is a work of art.


The Nobbies Road lies nearest to the western shore, skirting a fine, round hill, the finest building site, I think, on the island, where Mr Richardson purposes to stay til he makes his last shift; and the township of Ventnor, which at present is nothing but a pleasant valley by the sea. Some wretched people have, I believe, been planning a township down there, with every acre subdivided into eight blocks, and streets and lanes laid out, and an evident intent to have a Prahran-like slum or suburb there. I do not think they succeeded very well. I hope they never will succeed. I think it should be enacted by law that outside the township of Cowes, and of Newhaven, perhaps, a less quantity of land than five acres should never be sold. One might imagine that nobody would be so foolish as to buy a quarter of an acre in such a place as Phillip Island, but it is hard to set a bound to the possible limits of human folly in the way of land speculation.


There is no forest, only a few stunted gums and honeysuckles, with the ti-tree in the hollows, making pleasant cover for the rabbits and hares, and the deer, which they say still remain, but are not easily seen. We mistook many dead boughs amongst the bushes for antler tips, but saw never a burst through the scrub. Yet accessible game was seen in one spot, which is known as the Green Lake. It is in appearance more of a swamp than a lake, and is better describes perhaps as a long serpentine lagoon lying amongst low hills a half mile from the Nobbies Road. A little money has been expended in building a dam, but something more is required in this way if it is seriously proposed to store large quantities of water. There are fine opportunities. The judicious expenditure of a thousand pounds would create, probably, a large and permanent fresh water lake. There is deep water now along the centre of the serpentine channel, and innumerable ducks and teal swimming there, not easily scared apparently, and within easy shooting distance


But we are nearing “the Nobbies”, another name which has at least one unfortunate repetition on the coast. Mariners will never recognise but one Australian headland as the Nobbies, and that is at Newcastle in New South Wales. These (Phillip Island) hillocks beyond the cape are appropriately named, of course. There is no difficulty in understanding the reason why. They are actual knobs of land left in the deep water, rounded hummocks with water-worn sides and grass-covered caps – remnants of a long unbroken cape which in some remote eld stretched far out into the sail-less seas. They are seen now distinct and apart, and apparently of another order of formation, just beyond the mainland, and we approach them under somewhat peculiar circumstances. A day or two ago a fire swept over the whole breadth of the inland cape, and left it black and bare and permanently blasted, it might well be supposed. For there is no timber growth out here, and the innumerable charred tussocks are like hearse-plumes. 


Wherever the shore is seen the rocks are black, and the whole surface of the sea is blackening, for the morning, which had broken sultry and close, the last of three days of northerly weather, is about to be purged with a “buster”. There is an ominous blackness out on the horizon, a moan rather than a roar in the waves, that surge about the caves. Two big steamships making down the coast, coal-up and head out a bit to get a safe offing. There is a blow coming, and rain with it probably, and the cape is bleak in a southerly and bad for picnicking. But the waves that even the coming of the wind seems to move, marvellously increase all the glory of the coastline, and looking eastward there is a half mile of coastline where rocks seem met as for torment far out in the waves. A dozen miniature capes of basalt running out from the cliff face, are washed, and frayed, and torn, and carved into innumerable fantastic forms. The indigo waves roll up to their outer feet now and break sullenly, and leap aloft in sheets of foam. In a quarter of an hour they will be coming in like squadrons at a charge, crested ridge upon ridge.


The big steamships are almost hidden in their own smoke clouds now, for the gale has not yet reached them. Inside their track a flock of mutton birds is seen skimming the water in swift, methodical flight. The mutton birds make their home on these rocks, but will have nought to do with any rock that is attached to the mainland. Penguins come here too. The Nobby cape, indeed, seems to be a natural home of the penguin. Poor, innocent, harmless creatures. Almost as foolish in their habits as the ostrich in his notions of concealment. They scratch out little holes beneath the tussocks or lumps of cushion bush, and roost and lay their eggs and incubate there, visible at times, and accessible to any cur or biped of curious instincts desirous of adding to his day’s outing a little meat of slaughter. It is pitiful to see the numbers of these poor creatures lying dead about the cape and the rocks; killed wantonly, ruthlessly, savagely dragged out of their holes and clubbed or hunted to death, just for “sport’s sake”. I wish some sportsman, who is also a gentleman and a bit of a Christian, and nature worshipper also, would write a little book on “what is sport and what is not”. It might do good in the world. Particularly if legislators would take it as an axiom that slaughter that is not sport is crime, and should be punished accordingly. 


But the storm is up now, and the ... smoke canopy is torn away from the ships, they begin to pitch through the white water, big combers come right up on the seal rocks, and strike the outer Nobby with hammer-like blows. The blowhole (it is but a cavern, no orifice on the cliff serving as a trumpet) answers to each shock with a hollow roar, and the driftwood fire roars furiously around the billy in the shelter of 10,000 ton blocks of basalt. The rain comes with a hiss but the projecting basalt shelters us and appetite is very keen, and picnic fare very good, only the driver is concerned a bit about the poor beggars of horses, tied to their nose-bags amongst the burnt tussocks atop of the cliff. We reach them alright, however, and they warm themselves rattling home; but it should be said that a storm at the Nobbies is not an ordinary or even a frequent event. Thirty-nine days out of forty a picnic party might go down in the morning and feed anemones and gather shells and look at the penguins and listen to the blowhole til evening, and then drive home in a mellow twilight without a fear of any chill. 


I stayed for a moment on the cliff and faced around at the fury of the storm. It was to notice a black channel between the two outer Nobbies, not more than fifty fathoms broad and about a third of a mile from the shore. It has an historic interest. On a wild day, of a bygone year, a Green’s ship was beating off this coast, and had got in far too close for safety. She would certainly indeed have left her bones on the rocks but for the pluck and luck of her skipper. He could not clear the outer rock and seeing the narrow channel of apparent bold water, through which, however, no ship had ever sailed before, sent her at it, his own hand on the wheel and every man on board waiting for the shock. But she found twenty fathoms of water beneath her, and came through gallantly into the open bight beyond, and got about there and made out to a fair offing and up to Sydney.


Mr McHaffie watched the passage from the cliffs. Mr McHaffie was squatter king, reigning alone here in early days. “Shall we drive down to the old homestead? It is near to the area.” We did, and chanced on one of the patches of Australian pathos there, which like the true Australian poetry, are happened on in strange places. The old homestead lies near to the sea, in a sheltered hollow. Pines have been set all about it, and (outside) the pines, she-oaks, and the wail of the one answers the sigh of the other now, and their shed needles mat all the ground beneath; a double row of yuccas within the pines and the remnant of lawns and flower beds and arbors and grottoes. Remains, also, of a fair old home of the old colonial sort, a long verandahed front, with a score of doors opening into as many rooms; remains of an aviary in one corner, of a fernery in another; remains, indeed, everywhere of a beautiful, cultured, artistic, secluded life; remains, relics, nothing but relics, the ruins of the old order which, so far as our colony is concerned, has utterly passed away. It has all been lived through here. There is the old wool shed and mustering yards and the stables. Squatters of the Geoffrey Hamlyn sort used to sit here under the verandah; good sort of people from town would come out and stay with them a while. A good lady, still resident in the district, but not in the island, tells me tales of a long-ago, when the worthy old Baron, who has reigned so long over our botanical departments, was very much down at that homestead on the island, and not on matters of purely scientific research. The garden was all fairly ordered then. It seems almost like resurrectionist work to try to re-people it now, to bring back the living and the dead, and imagine them here as they used to be.


“All are scattered now and fled; some are married, some are dead.”

So the oaks seem to say in their wailing, and the sea makes answer to them lapping on the shelly beach yonder. The old order has to change, of course, but I cannot see that any good whatever was wrought by the change which ruined the occupation of the one squatter of Phillip Island. The land was given up to selectors first, and their huts remain, and their tumble-down fences and the thistle-covered fields. They came and went, labouring much in vain, and making little profit for themselves or others, and the estate which was divided amongst them is again being consolidated by two proprietors, one of whom is well known in connection with sport while the other is not renowned for liberality or public speaking. It seems to me that the bulk of the island will never do more than keep 20,000 sheep and serve as a sanatorium for the city, and that farming, accept on a few exceptional patches, is folly and madness. It seems to me, also, that those in whose hands the disposal of the public lands and the settling of the people were placed should have seen this a quarter of a century ago. But it is a melancholy fact that nobody seems to have seen or heeded the order of our land settlement, that the most important, perhaps, of all our foundational concerns has been allowed throughout Australian history to run absolutely “amuck”. 


There is a house of another sort on the other side of the island – Woolomai House to wit, the residence of Mr John Cleeland, proprietor for many years of one of our good old Melbourne hostels and winner of a Melbourne Cup with his horse Woolomai some thirteen years ago. We can get round to that house and to the Cape beyond by the road across the other half of the island, or by the good little boat, Vixen, running round to Griffiths Point and calling at need at Rhyll and Newhaven. Griffith’s Point, another aspiring watering-place, is the cape of the mainland opposite Woolomai. It is the central township of the shire, the seat of government, indeed, and backed up by a good fattening and agricultural country, may become a village of some importance. Rhyll and Newhaven have also promise of a prosperous future, and have already suffered some assailments from the minute subdividers. They lie pleasantly to the sea, are backed by good sound building country, good enough for gardens and orchards, and healthy in all seasons of the year. 


Woolomai, the Cape, is high and bold and bleak, and practically cut off from the island by a sandy isthmus, across which travelling can never be very easy. As many another true lover of all sorts of good sport, I can never get away from the memory of that brave racehorse when standing by or thinking about that Woolomai Cape. Over there on the long sandy beach he was trained, pacing up and down, and listening on windy mornings to the roar of the waves, little thinking, probably, of that other roar which should one day greet him when the wave face on the Hill flashed round on his turn into the straight, and the ever-increasing shout swelled to his single name. 


Another place of interest on that coast is Churchill Island, but this is not a public resort. Mr Alderman Amess secured Churchill Island all to himself and has fixed his residence there, and lives a fine, free, hospitable life in as pleasant and healthful a situation as could be found in the world. The tide races past him down the eastern channel, fresh breezes from the ocean and shore bring him perpetual instalments of health, and no matter from what quarter a too fierce wind may come, one side of his island estate will always be sheltered. Only I should imagine if ever the Russians should come, these island homes would be at a discount.