It’s quite something to visit French Island without having to say “Bonjour”.
French Island is situated in Westernport Bay in Victoria. It is four times larger than its more popular neighbour, Phillip Island, but has only eighty permanent residents, no made roads, no council, no sewerage and no electricity. It was discovered in 1802 by the crew of the French ship ‘La Naturaliste’.
We visited the island during the week and travelled around on a tour provided by a fascinating lady by the name of Lois Airs. She conducts island tours in her blue 1970 Bedford Bus. She is a proud fourth generation islander whose Great Grandfather was a chicory farmer. Chicory is a vegetable crop that grows with a root that looks a little like a parsnip. In the 1950’s it was widely used a coffee substitute. I still remember my parents making ‘coffee’ from chicory essence which came in a tall brown bottle with a blue and red label that included a man wearing a turban.
I think that in many ways, this island is still stuck in the 1950’s. There is one shop that doubles as a general store, cafe, bar and post office which is currently up for sale. Most farms have more derelict vehicles than does a wreckers yard. All supplies are brought over to the island by barge, but only when the tide is suitable. Few cars on the island carry registration plates. It just seems to me to be a very isolated place, yet only a little over a hundred kilometres from Melbourne, one of the world’s major cities.
It turns out that Lois runs a very interesting tour. We were met at the wharf by this rather petite woman and she immediately engaged us with her description of almost every major event that the island had seen along with an insight into her family history. She seems to know everyone on the island, if not already being related to them (her mother was one of ten children). Although quite small, she wrestles the steering wheel of the bus as if it something to be conquered and drives it confidently. Her knowledge of everything to do with French Island is quite profound. At one time, we passed an interesting fence that I was sure that she would tell us was erected by her Uncle Henry in 1954. Every time that someone asked a question, Lois was able to extract a laminated sheet from her resource box that provided a detailed answer.
The island is an excellent place for walking and bicycle riding. It has a large population of Koalas. There are a number of accommodation places ranging from back packers establishments to deluxe B&Bs.It is not the place to visit, however, for those who like to eat out at night or live the ‘high life’.
Our final stop on Lois’ tour was at her family farm. The centre piece of this farm is her Great Grandfather’s chicory kiln. It has the most amazing collection of artefacts (junk?) ranging from the tail of a crashed Cessna, to a variety of old tools and a barred window from the island’s jail that closed in 1977. We had a delicious Devonshire Tea with scones, cream and jam as well as (you guessed it) coffee made from chicory essence.
Our day ended as we meandered back to the bus for a return to the Stoney Point Ferry through a landscape of abandoned vehicles, friendly farm animals, sheds and assorted memorabilia.