Tour de Prom

Wilsons Promontory has over 400,000 visitor days a year. In summer the coastline around Tidal River has crowds more reminiscent of a Melbourne beach than a wilderness area. While it is a wonderful thing for so many to enjoy this natural wonderland, is this use compatible with the wilderness values of the area and indeed can it remain a wilderness with this sort of patronage? I have been to ‘The Prom’ many times over the years and walked almost every track, but when an unexpected opportunity arose to spend a week there in the January ‘peak’ this year, I thought I’d try out some of the ‘other’ routes that I’ve contemplated over the years. My plan was to link the southern and northern sections of The Prom together in one mega circuit by traversing the rocks around ‘The Cathedral’, the mountain that dissects Sealers Cove from Five Mile Beach. In addition to this I wanted to stick to the coastline as much as practical, explore a waterfall I’d found on an old map, visit sites of historical significance and see how the bush was regenerating from the April 2005 bushfires. Wilsons Prom: untamed wilderness or tourist Mecca? I was about to find out.

Arriving at the Prom early in the day I decided to explore Leonard Point before I walked out to Oberon Bay that night. The Point proved somewhat more robust than I anticipated and chewed up my first roll of film and six hours of my day before I knew it. It does however, hide some wonderful coastline that the casual visitor would never see. Unfortunately in my excitement of leaving the big smoke and getting ‘out there’ I neglected to pack the sunscreen and my envisaged quick walk ended up leaving me extremely sunburnt. My punishment was long pants and top during the next two days of sweltering heat. On the walk to Oberon Bay I enjoyed a chance meeting with an old friend and explored the dunes behind Oberon Bay just as the sun set. The Frasers Creek campsite was very busy.

The next day on my way to ‘Roaring Meg’ I stopped to take some pictures of a small and beautiful flower with my SLR and tripod when a couple walked up. “Ah, we have a botanist I see,” the guy said. “No, just a lover of beautiful things,” I replied. “That’s a ‘scientificus complicatedie namus’ or feather flower,” he informed me. A short but cordial conversation ensued which brings me to another aspect I love about hiking, there is usually camaraderie between walkers. In the city it’s almost a social taboo to say hello to strangers, but in the bush it’s standard fare to greet everyone, which is another re-humanising aspect of getting back to nature.

Wilsons Prom is not known for its waterfalls but on an old map I’d noticed that there was a waterfall dropping into Fenwick Bite. I’d never seen any photos of it or heard anyone referring to it so I figured it couldn’t be very good but I thought I’d check it out anyway. Soon enough I was there, standing motionless at the top of the falls. I was stunned… Below me a gigantic granite chasm dropped away into the indescribably blue and turbulent waters of Fenwick Bight. The falls, although not sheer, were huge and cascaded all the way to the ocean far below. To top it off, Rodondo Island was perfectly framed between the walls of the ravine. This was the most incredible view I’d ever come across down here, and coupled with my sense of discovery, I was elated.

For me this is what bush walking is about, leaving the busyness of everyday life and unwinding physically, mentally and spiritually by communing with nature. But there is also a part of me that loves to explore. Lately this has been combined with an increasingly strong desire to capture photogenic landscapes on film. This spot was the embodiment of all these factors and knowing of no one else who had been here, my sense of appreciation was heightened indeed. My incessant pouring over maps, dreaming up new trips, had paid off.

I continued down the chasm and then made my way around the cliffs to South Point, which was as beautiful as I remembered it. In 1940 a German ship laid mines in this stretch of water sinking a British steamer. Inland the army took over the Prom as a commando training ground, building the road through to Tidal River and setting up barracks there. Trainee commandos reportedly shot anything that moved and this in combination with grazing, a drought, rabbits and the devastating fires of 1951 left the Prom as a shadow of its former self. The legacy of war reached even here. By the time I got back to Roaring Meg it was five o’clock and I needed to get to Little Waterloo Bay that night to set myself up for the tides for the next day’s walk. I arrived at a crowded campsite after dark and after eating, slept the sleep of the exhausted.

Rising early to catch the sunrise I continued in the BIG day tradition of my trip. The journey to Sealers via Refuge Cove was much the same as the many other trips I’d done along this stretch. This time, however, my perceptions had been altered by some recent reading I had done on the history of the Prom. Refuge Cove’s huge composting toilet is an unfortunate but necessary evil. This intrusion however is nothing compared to what used to stand here. In the 1840’s there were whaling huts situated on this spot followed by a quarry a decade later. At about the same time, the now relatively pristine Sealers Cove supported a logging population in excess of 60 people exporting huge quantities of timber. Even after the National Park was gazetted in 1898 logging commenced here again in the early 1900’s with 16 buildings and a 270m jetty being constructed. Considering this exploitation, the present state of this area is heavenly.

Throughout my journey to Sealers Cove it had been drizzling on and off, which concerned me greatly as my time frame didn’t allow for rest days to wait out bad weather. Normally, of course, a little rain is no problem, but on my coastal traverse of The Cathedral everything had to be right, as it could potentially be very dangerous if it wasn’t. Fortunately the rain stopped and the swell was very mild when I reached Sealers Cove, so I decided to proceed with my planned traverse. I left at the lowest ebb of the tide passing cliffs, wildflowers and lichen covered rock formations. At one point I disappeared into a wet and slippery cave on the waterline hoping a freak wave wouldn’t take me out. Passing some magical torrs rising from the ocean I proceeded to struggle along the rocks, the day was now very humid and I was sweating bucket loads.

The ‘walking’ or should I say climbing was extremely physical, constantly climbing, leaping, balancing, descending and occasionally scrub bashing with my pack over the convoluted mess of huge boulders and cliffs. With the constant menace of the surf at my side, I found it very wearing but enjoyable. It certainly drew on the skills I’d developed over many years of rock-climbing and gorge walking. As the hours wore on without any respite I found myself descending into a battle-like mentality, fighting my way along the coast. Shortly, after passing the only reliable water source and potential camping spot, I rounded another headland and could see Five Mile Beach a few hundred meters away. A few steps further on while descending yet another gully a rock dislodged under me and I found myself thrown headlong down it. I let out an embarrassingly panicked shriek as the consequences of having a broken limb out here flashed before my eyes. Fortunately, I received only minor abrasions for my trouble but I was a little shaken; The Cathedral was fighting back.

By this time I’d been rock hopping for over six hours and the tide had come in a long way, further complicating matters. Although my goal stood tantalisingly close, it remained for the moment out of reach making my current progress seem even slower and more difficult. Near the end I was forced once again into the dreaded scrub above the rocks. Finally there were only a few meters of boulders to pass between before the beach. The route, however, was guarded by dense clouds of midgies, too tired to go around I held my breath and ran, passing through three solid clouds before finally running onto the sand in a victory howl of relief, victory and midgie inspired disgust. I was rewarded with a gorgeous sunset over Freshwater Lake and the Vereker range followed next morning by an ocean sunrise to die for. This is truly a remote and beautiful place.

The gorgeous sunrise necessitated another early photographic session, madly trying to capture everything in the magic oh so short minutes of glorious light. Soon after this, I was trudging along the soft sand of high tide in the morning heat. With my goal always in view, it felt like I’d been walking for an eternity without actually getting anywhere. Eventually, however, I did arrive and relaxed for an hour and a half while the tide receded to a more acceptable place for my traverse around the rocks. On previous occasions I had taken the scrubby inland route between Five Mile and Johnny Souey, but in keeping with my desire to explore the new, I kept to the coast. Miranda Bay (named after a ship that sank there), Rabbit Rock, Monkey Point, Rabbit Island and Johnny Souey Point were most enjoyable and while not as difficult a traverse as the previous day, still supplied plenty to keep me excited. I arrived at a deserted Johnny Souey Cove at 3:00pm and after collecting some much needed water from its perennially reliable water supply, had a relaxing skinny dip in the surf, followed by a fresh water rinse in the river. Life is good.

The stillness of the next morning saw the shutter clicking merrily at the perfect reflections on Johnny Souey Creek. I finally broke camp at 10:30 with a huge day in front of me; if I’d known how huge, I would have left much earlier. I rock-hopped around the headland to the broad, flat and hard Three Mile Beach. The beaches here are home to millions of soldier crabs that all scuttle out of the way burying themselves in the sand as you approach.

At Lighthouse Point I passed into another region I hadn’t explored before. Hunter Bay impressed me immediately with its aesthetic vistas, but the surprise section was near Entrance Point. The northern tip of the prom is in the process of rearranging itself into some new islands. A lot of bunyan, tea tree and banksia’s are falling off into the sea making for some very intriguing scenes of twisted and tortured wood succumbing to the powers of the deep. Once again I spent way too much time taking pictures of the interplay between gnarled wood, coral, seaweed and old fishing nets.

At Biddies Cove came the bit I was worried about, I knew from my previous trip to Tin Mine Cove to expect rocky headlands around Mount Singapore. What I didn’t know was how rocky and precipitous they would be. The site that greeted me was quite intimidating; this traverse would be very different from The Cathedral. On the positive side there were no waves to speak of but the cliffs themselves were far less broken, generally steeper, or vertical, and more slabby. If I went for a slide there would be nothing to stop me and ending up in deep water with a pack on could be very serious. Should I retrace my steps or try the cliffs? The view of the Toora wind farms prompted me to try my mobile and in the end this added safety factor decided my course. In any case, my water was low and it was getting late so I had to commit to one way or the other. If the worst came to the worst I could always bush bash around the impassable bits if necessary. A quick call to my wife to fill her in and I was off.

What followed was the most difficult, enjoyable and beautiful walking I had yet done at the Prom. The sun was low in the sky producing beautiful colours in the water. It felt like no one had ever set foot here before. I certainly could see no sign of any land passage although there was some seaborne rubbish. The high passes over many of the precipitous headlands were difficult, but offered great vantage points compared to the sea level rock hopping. At Shelter Cove the setting sun forced me to unpack my camera despite my need for haste. After a few great shots I picked my way around White Dog Point to Freshwater Cove.

By Freshwater Cove it was completely dark and in my thirst for water I rushed up the dry creek bed by torchlight instead of checking the map that showed the ‘spring’ to be at the other end of the beach. The ‘spring’ ended up being two tiny puddles the size of bread plates. Initial attempts to get water resulted in me stirring up the bottom and infusing the water with bits. My subsequent attempt with a tablespoon in the second shallower puddle proved painfully slow but much more satisfactory. After getting a drink I rang my wife back, had dinner and contemplated my surroundings. Camping here on what must be the most remote section of the Prom coastline (on foot), it is hard to believe that a hotel once stood on this spot and that a township would have stood here but for the bank crash of 1873. The fact that this particular spot is wilderness is due more to luck rather than any political determination. Even after the national park was formed, this area was excluded so I am indeed thankful that history turned out as it did.

Next morning after three extremely pleasant hours (the previous days rock hopping took four hours) I arrived at Tin Mine Cove travelling via the beautiful and remote Chinaman Beach, Shallow Bight and Tin Mine Point. Over this section the tide was in all the way but, being easier, this didn’t present much of a problem. The water and pit toilet at Tin Mine Cove were a welcome convenience. This cove gets its name from a failed attempt at mining Tin from Mt Hunter in the 1920’s. On the point to the south of the cove a pumping station once stood that pumped seawater for sluicing over on Mt Hunter.

Corner Inlet, Chinaman Long Beach and the Lower Barry Creek track have their own flavour and beauty. In many places you’re following the idea of a track rather than the reality of one. Despite being a bit scratchy I enjoyed this part of the walk for its variety. The part near Chinaman Creek is a button grass plain, very similar to ones I’ve walked in Tassie and the only button grass plains I know of in Victoria. The banksia forest part of the walk is also distinct. The Chinaman Creek crossing was thankfully dry (depths of 1.5m aren’t unknown). After another huge and mostly wet day I made my camp in the Vereker Track fire break near the Millers Landing car park. I had not seen a soul in three days.

As wonderful as my trip had been I was now in the home straight and was looking forward to seeing my wife and kids and the comforts of home. My feelings regarding the last day was that it would be a formality of familiar tourist beaches to get back to the car at Tidal River. I was presently surprised. The wildlife along the firebreaks is the most prolific of the Prom, and after seeing many kangaroos, emus and even a deer; I reached Cotters Lake (dry) and Cotters Beach. The generally ignored Cotters and Darby Beach’s were great. Breaking the beach up were numerous headlands of a completely different geology to the rest of the Prom and the high cliffs and dunes at Darby River were very picturesque. I had lunch near the foundations of the old Darby River Chalet (1922-1949) contemplating what it must have been like in 1938 when my Grandparents honeymooned here.

The combination of sea level traverses, rain and scrub over the last two days had kept my feet in a permanently wet state and they were now feeling very sore with blisters and painful mega-wrinkles developing in my softened epidermis. I felt very over-dressed walking next to sunbakers on Whisky, Picnic and Squeaky beaches but by this stage I just wanted to get to Tidal River so my waterlogged boots could be removed from my aching feet. While walking the final stretch to Tidal River across Pillar Point I was reminded of another Prom proposal.

In 1960 permission was sought to build a resort complex on Pillar Point. This was to include accommodation for 600, halls, tennis courts, bowling alley, gymnasium, cinema, pool and housing for 200 staff. In 1965 the National Parks Authority signed an agreement with the syndicate for 10 acres. The lessee however was oblivious to the conservation aspects of the proposal and negotiations were protracted; the lease was cancelled in 1967. At Norman Beach I went for a swim in the crowded surf, thankful that trees not buildings ringed the bay.

On the way home I contemplated my trip and the history of Wilsons Promontory. Obviously there has been a lot of exploitation over the years and with the current visitor numbers some would argue that this continues to this day. During my eight day, 150km trip, I saw every area of the Prom from crowded beaches to former logging and mining areas. While some regions show obvious signs of man’s presence the overwhelming majority is an untamed wilderness. Even skirting the coastal edges of this wilderness is a challenge; the inland scrub itself is practically impenetrable. These tracts of wilderness exist because of the hard work and foresight of conservationists. Victoria’s oldest National Park is their legacy.
Travis Easton 29/1/2006

To see some of the pictures I took on this trip check out my Tour de Prom gallery.

Tour de Prom

Travis Easton

Boronia, Australia

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Artist's Description

This is the first written work I’ve posted and is an article I wrote for WILD magazine, Australia’s premier rucksack sports mag. It is rather long (over 3,000 words) article about a circumnavigation I did of my favourite place, Wilsons Promontory National Park. It was originally in issue 104, Apr/Jun 2007 of WILD magazine.

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