Remembrance Day at Fort Nepean
Despair is too strong a word. It’s not as if I’ve been confined to a sailing shop in the ravaging grip of typhus, or stationed in a hovel with kerosene water to drink and nothing to fight but mosquitoes and each other. Still, after a day of too much sun and not enough coffee, the sight of my car vanishing behind us as the last transport of the day trundles out of the Point Nepean National Park is morale destroying. The thought of trudging 2km from the next stop to collect the vehicle is not high on my list of favourite things to do. Fortunately, a gentleman in our transporter cab overhears my plight and offers a lift from the information centre to collect my wheels: only a thermos could’ve been greeted with more effusiveness. For future reference: when the tractor stops at the road gate at Gunners Cottage, dismount and look lively about it.
Friday was Remembrance Day, and by fortunate happenstance I was at the Point Nepean National Park where war and sacrifice are enshrined in concrete. Despite our end-of-day setback with the transporter stop, the park is well worth the visit. No more than 90 minutes drive from Melbourne, there are several areas of historical interest inside the park, which occupies the toe of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. A self-guided tour is available and the mp3 audio tour is highly recommended — the historical broadcasts and first-person recollections more than outweigh the very occasional naffness.
About 50 buildings are set out around the former quarantine station, also used as a military training camp and, most recently, home to Kosovar refugees. Many of the buildings are closed to the public, but a couple have been turned into interpretative displays. The most striking is the fumigation building, where belongings were treated on arrival in massive steam boilers. Many of the buildings have been re-purposed over the years, but this one retains its original fittings, right down to the tram tracks that ferried the goods in. The quarantine area brings to life tales of disease and yellow flag ships, burials and resumptions, leprosy and typhus.
The cottage itself is devoted to ecology and junior ranger programs, but a short walk through the striking Moonah woodlands is the old livestock jetty and a view of Port Phillip Bay, and farther west, the cemetery, where some 300 lay interred, most without headstones. Those monuments that remain include several from the tragic diseased ship Ticonderoga. Gunners Cottage is the farthermost point to which you can drive; after this, you’re on Shanks pony to the other points of interest (or, you can hire a bicycle or buy a ticket for the people-moving tractor-pulled transporter). The Coles Track cuts through the scrub to Cheviot Hill.
The hill is the highest point in the park and retains several gunnery posts looking out to sea. Two searchlight shelters are located closer to the beach. The beach was the site of the wreck of the Cheviot, and also the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt. One look at the rocks and waves and it’s no surprise that someone could drown there.
Serious entrenchments here for naval guns, and a barracks on the landward side reduced to foundations. A highlight was an echidna nosing around the walls, apparently feasting on the black ants.
The centrepiece of the area’s fortifications, from which Australia’s first shots of both World War I and II were fired, to stop vessels from leaving after the declaration of war. This is an amazing set of buildings, wonderfully lit and illustrated with placards and recorded information including sound effects. The first we heard on our visit was a person whistling from somewhere in the depths …
The buildings reach down several floors inside the earth. It’s hard to imagine the tension in there as men worked to lift munitions from the depths to the cannons above. There remains the workings of a ‘disappearing gun’ and two of the long range six-inchers. The engineering shed still smells of diesel.
Alongside the road at one point is a rifle range, but it’s just one of several. Signs still warn of unexploded bombs in the scrub due to the army days. The other ranges, and also the Monash Light, a shipping beacon named after the Australian general, can be accessed via a walking track.
The buildings are stark, sombre reminders of not only Australia’s military history, but its foreign affairs and social evolution, with fortifications marking the fears of the populace and attitudes to the world wars. Information about the basic living conditions for servicemen and women also gives pause for thought.
Drinking fountains are placed only at Gunners Cottage and the quarantine station, and there are no food outlets inside the park. Toilets are available at Fort Nepean, Gunners Cottage and the quarantine station. Tractor tickets can be bought only at the information centre – one-way or returns. We spent from 10.30am till 4.30pm at the park and didn’t quite see everything; those entering by foot or bicycle can stay after the road gates are closed. The transporter makes its last run from Fort Nepean at 4.30pm.