Port Fairy is a cute little town on the Moyne River about 290 kilometres west of Melbourne. We are staying there for a few days.
Port Fairy was first settled by sealers and whalers in the early 19th century. Whaling continued until the 1840’s by when, stocks of coastal whales were depleted. Before the whaling station closed some of the workers had cleared land across the river and begun farming. Slowly the fertile land became settled and John Cox of Clarendon, Tasmania, built the first store on the banks of the Moyne River in 1839. In 1843 two entrepreneurs each bought 5,120 acres [2072 hectares] at a price of one pound an acre as part of a Special Survey by the government of New South Wales trying to encourage development of the Port Phillip District. They encouraged Irish immigrants to settle and the nearby area around Killarney was leased to Irish tenant farmers. The post office opened in 1837 as “Port Fairy” but was renamed “Belfast” in 1854 before reverting to the original name in 1887.
There are still a lot of Irish names around the area (Belfast, Killarney and Rosebrook ) and the area is a large potato growing region because of the fertile volcanic soil. Now, Port Fairy had a population of 3,340 but in summer this swells to about 14,000. The shops, hotels and restaurants do very well at this time of year. The town has one of the largest fishing fleets in Victoria and a pharmaceutical factory owned by Sun Pharma is located on the outskirts of the town. It makes opium based products from the large (legal) opium poppy growing fields in Tasmania.
Near the mouth of the Moyne River, the ocean beach is a popular surfing location with a surf break of between two and three metres. We stopped on the clifftop and watched the local surfers enjoying their rides.
I caught up with my friend Charles for coffee one morning. He and I both belong to the same Probus Club and Charles comes down here once a month to a house that he owns. After more than 20 years of involvement in Port Fairy, he has a lot of knowledge to share about the town’s history. We are both very impressed with the vibrance of the town. The electric cables in the main street, for instance, are all underground and the footpaths are nicely paved. There are many regular activities in the town – a very large annual folk music festival and a jazz festival as well. At the end of the main street is a small grassed square (Fiddlers Green) and there is an almost continuous set of activities taking place there. One morning, I was attracted to the sound of bagpipes as the Warrnambool Pipe Band were warming up for their march down the main street. They marched off preceded by an emergency services vehicle and followed by another.
Port Fairy has been able to retain many of its old historic buildings. There are over 50 properties in the town that have a National Trust historic rating. This certainly adds some charm to the town, even though it may place some limitations on what the locals may be able to do with some of their properties.
We soon found out that it is impossible to eat at a restaurant here at this time of year wiithout a reservation. We were lucky on our first night to get into the Merrijig Restaurant, located in an old hotel by the river.There is no fixed menu and the chef selects dishes from fresh ingredients that are available on the day. We had a beautiful meal – both of us having lamb. We couldn’t get into the restaurant in our hotel (which has two chefs hats) as it is closing in anther few weeks and is completely booked out. On another night we ate at the the Caledonian Hotel (the oldest continually licensed pub in Victoria) and also at the Lemongrass Thai Restaurant. All were good with their different types of food. One of the institutions in Port Fairy is Poco’s Ice-cream shop, just around the corner from our hotel. It is only open from 5.00 pm to 9.00 pm and there is always a queue outside the door. I have to say that the ice-creams are worth every minute of the wait in the queue. My Chilli Chocolate and Salted Caramel double cone was delicious.
On Saturday, it was a stinking hot day with the temperature reaching 41 C. We had pre-arranged to drive to Warrnambool to meet up with an old army mate of mine (Peter and his wife Jill). That wasn’t too bad as we were in an air conditioned car all the way and then in an air conditioned place for lunch. One of the outdoor stores (Kathmandu) was having a summer sale that finished on the next day so we stopped in at their local store to take advantage of the discounted prices. We bought Jill a padded down jacket for a trip that we will be doing soon to the USA where it may be very cold. How Ironic on a hot day!. We all enjoyed a long lunch together, chatting about old times, families and what we were all doing in our retirement. It wasn’t a very boozy lunch as Peter has recently donated one if his kidneys to his daughter who was very ill and we needed to be careful about our level of imbibing.
About half way between Warrnambool and Port Fairy is the extinct volcano, and National Park site, at Tower Hill. We stopped in on the way back from Warrnambool to see what bird life may have been visible in the lakes in the middle of the caldera. The place was deserted as I think everyone was avoiding the heat, even though a cool change had come through and the temperature had dropped about 20 degrees. There was plenty of bird life but taking into account the hot day, I hadn’t taken my camera. We stopped in during the following day to find the car parks jam packed with people and not a bird in sight!
On another much cooler day, we drove around to the west along the coast to the little town of Yambuk. There is an historic hotel and we remember a giant slippery slide in the middle of the sand dunes, but we couldn’t find any evidence of it anymore. There is an extensive wind farm along the coast that produces electricity. I couldn’t help but notice the contract between the old windmill and the modern ones.
Back in Port Fairy, we fell foul of the need for a restaurant reservation, so we bought a pizza at the local pizza shop and sauntered down to the park along by the river and ate it at one of the picnic tables in the park. It was a nice balmy night and we enjoyed a bottle of crisp white wine along with the pizza.
At sunset, we drove back along past the surfing location to a beautiful little beach called ‘Pea Soup’ and caught some magnificent views of the sunset.
On another day, we went inland to the little town of Koroit and explored some of the farming land that adjoins the coast. Koroit is billed as an historic Irish town but apart from a few interesting old buildings the town look as though its best days were sometime ago in the past.The farming land is flat and uninteresting. There really wasn’t much that caught our eye other than a few macro photographic opportunities where we stopped along the road. There was a lot of cow parsley in full flower and some white butterflies – one of which was soon to be devoured by a spider.
Back near Port Fairy, we collected some samples of grass that we found growing beside the road for some more macro photography.
ON our final day here, we took a drive around to Portland and then on to Cape Bridgewater. Portland is a large port town and was the centre of the controversial shipping of live stock to the Middle East. At the moment, it is exporting wood chips. There are acres of log storage by the port and large B-Double trucks are rolling up ever few minutes to unload chips onto the stockpile. We were intrigued as how they emptied these trucks – they drove on to huge ramps which were the tilted so that the woodchips fell out the back and onto a huge conveyer belt.
There was another big wind farm at Cape Bridgewater but the standout attraction was the beautiful long beach with white sand and azure water.
On the headland, we found a section of the 280 km Great South West Walking Track that follows the coast from Portland to Nelson near the South Australian border. Nearby was a section of ‘Petrified Forest’ which wasn’t really made of trees but of exposed limestone tubes.
This was a rugged coastal area and even the sea was relatively slight, the waves made an impressive display as the crashed into the basalt rocks on the cliff face. We were back well to Port Fairy well in time for a second dinner at the very nice Merrijig Restaurant.