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.

quarantine station, point nepean

Quarantine station

Quarantine Station

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.

point nepean cemetery

Point Nepean Cemetery

Gunners Cottage

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.

cheviot hill fortifications

Cheviot Hill

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.

echidna at fort pearce

Echidna on patrol

Fort Pearce

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.

cannons at fort nepean

Fort Nepean cannons

Fort Nepean

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.

More pictures

Observatory Point, Point Nepean national park

Observatory Point


It’s the Murray, darling

murray princess docked at murray bridge

Murray Princess docked at Murray Bridge

The Murray-Darling river system is the closest thing Australia’s got to the Mississippi, an inland highway paved with muddy water and boasting more chicanes than an F1 circuit. But she ain’t what she used to be. Not only is the river no longer a conduit for transporting people and supplies, but its very future is on the line. At the moment there’s a bunfight going on as four states who have an interest in that watery flow try to work out how they can all continue to profit without either sinking its dependent communities or totally destroying the imperilled environment they rely on. Fortunately, flooding rains that devastated some regions of those states earlier this year have bought the beancounters an extension by refuelling the river, removing the urgency that years of drought and dwindling water supplies had caused.

Last weekend, I got to take a float on a South Australian stretch of the Murray, churning our way by diesel-driven paddlewheeler — the largest in the southern hemisphere, the company boasts — from Mannum downstream to Murray Bridge, where we had a wander through the historic Round House, then upstream to the vicinity of Walker Flat before heading back down to Mannum.

The PS Murray Princess is operated by the Captain Cook line. It was a very pretty boat, built in 1986, with lots of dark timber interiors in its common areas. Our cabin was just big enough: a wardrobe, small ensuite in which I had to stork-bend to get under the shower head, a single bed on either side of the door that opened directly onto the deck, a heating vent in the bathroom that meant barely any blankets were needed, a wee window to let in some cool winter air. Twenty-four hour coffee and biscuits (Arnotts, a once-Australian icon, a little like the river in its riverboat heyday) and refills of drinking water were available in the lounge.

sunset on the murray

The lounge was a lovely space, two floors linked by spiral staircases in timber and brass, and a floor to ceiling window that showed the paddle doing its thing. When the sunlight was right, little rainbows would appear in the paddle’s spray. The ground floor had an unused bar and lots of tables and chairs; the upstairs mezzanine had a library and games box and more tables.

The bar was a small space at the nose, with the actual bar servicing both it and the adjacent dining room, the largest room on the boat. Its chief features were a timber strip down the centre for dancing and a two-sided breakfast bar.

Meals were safely Australian: various meats and veges, pasta and quiche and cheese platter with one lunch, buffet breakfast. Sensational seafood, including grilled barramundi.

The boat was at perhaps two thirds of its 120 passenger capacity and we were the youngest. The complimentary bus to and from Adelaide could’ve been mistaken for a retirement home outing, a veritable bowling alley of grey hair and bald spots when seen from the rear seats. We were surprised by the demographic but the cruise company had better insight: the entertainer was in his seventies, adept at clarinet and electric organ, spicing up the old-time tunes with a touch of Michael Buble and saxophone as the party lights rotated on the mostly vacant wooden dance floor into the early evening.

tree on the murray river

The river itself was the star attraction, usually showing one steep set of cliffs on one bank, the other flat land most often given over to agriculture but consistently dotted with towns and small outposts of rather fancy holiday shacks. Holiday houseboats were common, moored like mile markers in the reeds along the banks. At night, our boat would simply nudge its way into a berth and tie up to some handy gum trees — what magnificent specimens those river gums were. We went ashore a couple of times for a closer look. One stroll revealed a midden, canoe trees and the ongoing dysfunction the white middle class suffers in dealing with race relations. We walked away before the compulsion to jab the guide in his jaundiced eye became overwhelming.

The cliffs — they become more dramatic the farther upstream you travel, apparently — were vertical in places, with tenacious saplings sprouting along their bases. They were often dotted with bird nest holes, and circling hawks were common company for the duration of the journey. The birdlife was abundant — ducks, egrets, cormorants, pelicans downstream and black swans, a cheeky willy wagtail who might’ve been a fellow passenger, swallows. The birds were coming back, we were told, after the drought had forced them to relocate elsewhere. Many were still over at Lake Eyre enjoying the big wet.

library on the murray princess

We spent much of the voyage with our laptops and souvenir coffee mugs in the lounge or with a glass in the bar, where the prices were very fair indeed ($12 cocktails, $8.50 Coronas, wine about $8 a glass), making occasional dashes outside to photograph something gorgeous sliding by.

We were fortunate to have timed our flights in a window between the air traffic disruption of volcanic ash clouds drifting in from South America; a number of fellow passengers had brought the train across from Perth or Melbourne, praising the comfort and the food but a bit wary of the swaying motion. No such trouble on the Murray: it has a placid surface, though muddy and dotted with leafy detritus from the recent fresh. You can shower in it, but you wouldn’t want to drink it.

Three nights was probably enough time to spend largely constrained to the Princess’s decks and lounges, but it was a leisurely exploration that empowered laptop time and casual conversation and offered a glimpse of Australia’s history and geography. I’m glad I went, but I’m not checking All the Rivers Run out of the video store any time soon. Though I am tempted to jump ship and read Fevre Dream yet again!

  • More pictures.
  • clouds over the murray river

    Phillip Island, penguins and cool beach retreats

    phillip island beach

    A weekend sojourn to Phillip Island shows why the outcrop off the coast of Victoria is such as a popular destination for Melbournites looking to escape the big smoke.

    We hadn’t even reached the island, a mere 90-minute drive down the M1, before we were lured off a side-road at The Gurdies to sample local wine and cheese at Ramsay’s Vin Rose cellar door — quite presentable cab sav and pinot noir accompanied by mild brie and blue, amongst others.

    As if that wasn’t enough temptation, the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory lurks on the main road, just after you’ve crossed the bridge from the mainland, and it’s wares are very tasty indeed.

    We spent the night at the Banfields motel, a very tidy, very friendly and very quiet conference centre boasting the only cinema on the island, though alas we’d missed the Sunday matinee. Not that we had time. We were on a penguin mission! A stop to see Captain Grossard’s lonely cliffside grave — and feel the icy wind blowing in from the sea — was enlivened by the presence of two quite unconcerned cape barren geese as we made our way to the parks complex at the Nobbies.

    We arrived in plenty of time for our dusk penguin parade viewing. No pictures are allowed at the wildlife centre, a welcoming commerical building with oodles of duckboards to ferry the crowds to their stations. We forked out for Penguin Plus tickets, giving us a secluded, small stadium by the beach where the penguins have worn a wide track as they make their way from the sea to their burrows littering the foreshore and surrounding cliffs. There are some 60,000 of the little birds in the rookery — the last on the island. (The little penguins were once known as fairy penguins, but political correctness has apparently kicked in.)

    The penguins were awesome, coming up in waves. It was like something from the D-Day landings, with little penguins advancing in platoons, flankers and point men out, a little hesitant about entering our softly lit viewing area, then charging: some hobbling, some weaving, some tripping, others darting forward at a furious clip. Some went under our platform, others paused at the very edge, only metres away, to give us the beady eye. We had about an hour of viewing before having to make our leisurely stroll back along the boardwalk to the complex.

    Pino’s Trattoria, still open post-penguins on a Sunday night, provided the perfect remedy for the night chill, though the beachside viewing platform hadn’t been as windy nor as cold as we’d expected.

    On Monday, the breeze was still up, but we found it fell away to nothing on the lee side, offering very pleasant conditions for beachcombing — not a bad way to spend the day after our seal tour was cancelled only two hours from departure. We had time to only see a few of the parks and beaches, but it was enough to know we want to return and spend more time taking in the natural sights. Red rocks, black basalt formations, wild flowers, and some truly amazing waves got the cameras clicking.

    We topped up with a massive coffee at the Lil’ Honey Cafe at San Remo before cruising back to Melbourne.

    This was my first real sample of regional Victoria since moving to Melbourne, so it bodes well for further exploration. I can certainly see myself hitting the island again — but not at Grand Prix time!

    More Phillip Island pictures are on Flickr.

    Home again, home again, where is home again?

    It has been a hell of a month, this October. So huge it spilled into November! Here’s why it’s been ages, well, more than a month, since I wrote on this blog:
    We kicked off October on Bribie Island at our annual Edge Writers writing retreat, this year with Sean Williams and Alison Goodman as tutors. We were able to celebrate the news that our Paul Garrety has scored a two-book deal with HarperCollins, first one due out in 2011!

    And brickbats to the Queensland Government for its plan to close the State-run complex, although there is hope whoever picks up the tender for the centre will continue to make it available to groups such as us. For the third year running, I had a manuscript staked out in the sun to burn after it failed the worldbuilding test. On the bright side, I did finish a very rough novella set — surprise — on an island. This is my backup story, the one I write only on the island after all else has failed.

    court of two sisters

    dinner at court of two sisters, new orleans

    After Bribie, my beloved Kirstyn McDermott and I flew to New Orleans, where we had an awesome week. Highlights:

  • My old friend from Canada joining us for a long weekend of merriment
  • Lunch at the Green Goddess, where I’m very happy to report the ‘mezze of destruction‘ is still on the menu.
  • Dinner at Irene’s, where we were shouted a drink because of the length of our wait — the place is popular, and no wonder, given the excellent service and food.
  • A memorable dinner at my favourite restaurant, The Court of Two Sisters.
  • Hanging out over superb bloody marys at the Pirates Alley Cafe, where absinthe is a specialty.
  • Gospel brunch at the House of Blues.
  • Catching some sets with Big Al Carson at the Funky Pirate (and getting a shark attack from the Tropical Isle next door).
  • From New Orleans (more pictures here), we caught a Carnival cruise ship, the Fantasy, for a quick voyage to Progreso and Cozumel in Mexico. Out of Progreso we took a bus tour to Uxmal, a superb set of ruins I’d visited on a previous visit to Mexico. In Cozumel, where, very disappointingly a tour to Tulum wasn’t on offer (wonderful beachside ruins), we went snorkelling on three dive spots and saw lots of fish. Some pictures are here.

    I don’t mind cruising as a stress-free way of covering some miles and relaxing. It’s nice to be waited on once in a while, eh? Even though the focus on the casino and the bingo is a tad sad, and the buffets can be case studies of gluttony. I was impressed with the efficiency of embarkation — US domestic airlines could learn something there — and was happy to fork out for a behind-the-scenes tour of how the ship works, including tours of the galleys, bridge, engine control room and soforth.

    Back in New Orleans, we had time for a Lucky Dog and a bloody mary before heading to the airport and San Francisco.

    kirstyn and jason at golden gate bridge, san francisco

    at the golden gate bridge

    SF is a grand city, and while it doesn’t have the atmosphere of the French Quarter (where does?), it is a relaxed and pleasant city for visitors. We bought a week-long passport for the public transport system and hopped buses, cable cars and street cars all week, visiting Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, a Tutankhamun exhibit at deYoung and hitting the wharves. We also got out of town, hitching a bus to Muir Woods and arty Sausilito, and the Winchester Mystery House. The latter is well worth the effort, with its amazing staircases to nowhere, chimneys that don’t reach the roof, doors that open on to walls, and so on…

    We also saw a local musical about a zombie attack that used Ozzy Osbourne as a deus ex machina of sorts — brilliant — and saw the movie Zombieland (light, fun, flawed) and caught an awesomely fun gig by Emilie Autumn. Sadly, a trip to a bayside music venue resulted in an annoyingly smug performance by a semi-rockabilly dude (who did do a very fun, very fast version of Sweet Home Alabama that foxed those dancing to the Yankee classic) and a debilitating case of suspected food poisoning for Kirstyn.

    From San Francisco we caught the Caltrain, and what a sweet deal that is with its double-decker cabs, to San Jose, to attend the World Fantasy Convention. Aussie superstar Garth Nix, as far removed from acting like a superstar as you can get, was a guest of honour. I was chuffed to get to spread the good cheer that is Australian red wine amongst the guests at an Aussie party thrown by Garth and Sean Williams, with t-shirts designed by Cat Sparks. It was a fun bash, and I got to meet new faces and also renew some contacts made at last year’s WFC in Calgary.

    Other highlights of the con were seeing Jeff VanderMeer throw stuffed toys at his launch party, hear Garth and others read Poe’s The Raven, enjoy the wit of Tim Powers (whose Anubis Gates is right up there on the awesome reads list, and has landed some Pirates of the Caribbean action), and see Aussies Shaun Tan and Margo Lanagan score World Fantasy awards at the banquet where we enjoyed the company of our fellow Aussies. (Check out Deborah Biancotti’s take on it here, and see Cat’s pix here)

    flowers at bega cemetery

    flowers at bega cemetery

    Back in Australia, we picked up my car in Brisbane and drove highway 1 down the coast to Melbourne, taking five days including layovers with family. Driving highlights: Kiama’s foreshore, fish and chips at Bateman’s Bay, Lake’s Entrance, and the cemetery at Bega.

    And now we’re back in Melbourne — home becoming, for this recent arrival from interstate — where the weather is warm and the coffee very fine. There’s a pile of mail on the table, more holiday pictures hitting Flickr as the mood takes me, and a plan to get some words down, sometime soon.

    A quick w00t though: I got home to the news that the Federal Government has decided to retain the current copyright and import laws for books. Hurray!

    And editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow included my short story, “Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn”, from Dreaming Again, in her highly commended list that includes a bunch of Aussie talent. Happy dance!

    enter Gabriel

    sunlight on skyscraper

    sunlight on skyscraper

    It was — surprise — a foggy Melbourne morning as we sat in a hotel lobby, waiting for our adventure to begin,when we spied through the foyer window this enigmatic glow through the mist. For a brief moment, it seemed as if the trumpet had sounded, and I was cross, concerned at the deposit I’d paid and would never recoup, but then realised it wasn’t the open doorway to Armageddon shining above, but simply plate glass reflecting sunlight. The effect isn’t as angelic in the picture as it was to the eye, the reality obviously exposed, but at the time, it was rather cool.