DIS­COV­ERY BAY COAST PARK, VIC

AT DIS­COV­ERY BAY AND DUNE-HOP­PING AN SAND AT SEAL-WATCH­ING PARK. VIC­TO­RIAN ICONIC

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - BLAKER MIRIAM PHO­TOS WORDS AND

WHITE dunes stretch end­lessly as kilo­me­tres of un­du­lat­ing sand hills blend into a hori­zon of sky and sea. With no clearly de­fined track ahead, I feel slightly un­nerved. There’s not a car in sight and the thought crosses my mind that it wouldn’t take much to get lost out here.

“Just keep the ocean on your left” we’d been ad­vised be­fore leav­ing, “and look out for the green mark­ers”. So, here we are, in the mid­dle of what feels like the Sa­hara, and the only signs we’ve seen so far are a cou­ple of ‘one way’ and ‘keep out’ signs. Where are these mark­ers?

The wind is fe­ro­cious out on the dunes and at one stage, step­ping out of the Colorado, I’m nearly blown away. In the dis­tance, the wild spray of the South­ern Ocean is vis­i­ble, and, un­der­foot, the white sand is as pure as talc. It’s spec­tac­u­lar and we’re keen to explore; how­ever, the wind has oblit­er­ated any tyre marks in the sand and there are no other cars in sight.

We’re in the mid­dle of Dis­cov­ery Bay Coastal Park, on the south­west coast of Vic­to­ria, on a vast com­plex of sand dunes; 1800 hectares of them that stretch all the way to the South Aus­tralian bor­der. There are very few places in Vic­to­ria where you can legally drive on sand dunes, but here, tucked in be­hind Swan Lake Camp­ground about 50km west of Port­land, you’ll find some of the best dune driv­ing in Aus­tralia.

This is a pretty spe­cial area to explore and test out your sand-driv­ing skills; how­ever, a per­mit and mem­ber­ship is re­quired be­fore you ar­rive. The dunes and ad­join­ing camp­site are man­aged by the Port­land Dune Buggy Club, a club that was formed in 1969 and, by the mid-'70s, the area was of­fi­cially de­clared a ‘des­ig­nated dune buggy

area’. Along with Parks Vic­to­ria, the Port­land Dune Buggy Club is the sole reg­u­la­tor of ve­hi­cle ac­tiv­ity here.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, our friends, who are part of a four-wheel drive club, were camped at Swan Lake that same week­end. We were camped nearby at Nar­ra­wong and had men­tioned meet­ing up with them, but things don’t al­ways go as planned. We ven­tured to Swan Lake on the sec­ond day of our visit. It’s a large area that’s fairly ex­posed to the el­e­ments, with bore wa­ter, drop toi­lets and fire pits. The camp­site has di­rect ac­cess to the dunes; how­ever, when we ar­rive the place is vir­tu­ally de­serted. There are heaps of cam­pers and trail­ers, but all the cars have gone.

For­tu­nately, we met Ron from the Port­land Dune Buggy Club, who’s just walked one-and-a-half hours back to camp af­ter his buggy broke down on the dunes. We spoke to him and dis­cov­ered that both clubs had left ear­lier that morn­ing. There’s no phone re­cep­tion in the park, so we have no way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with our friends who are now out of UHF

THE DUNES AND AD­JOIN­ING CAMP­SITE ARE MAN­AGED BY THE PORT­LAND DUNE BUGGY CLUB

range. Ron points us in the di­rec­tion of the flags which the dune buggy club pro­vides. A sand flag is es­sen­tial be­fore you hit the dunes as you need to be eas­ily vis­i­ble out here. As the sign says at the start of the track, ‘no flag, no en­try’.

We tell him we’re hop­ing to find, if not our mates, at least some other ve­hi­cles on the dunes. “You’re bound to find some­one out there,” he says. He gives us the low­down and tells us to stick to the green mark­ers. “Keep the coast on your left,” he says, “and you’ll be right.” We lower our tyre pres­sures to 15psi, ca­ble-tie the huge bam­boo flag­pole se­curely to our bull­bar and set off.

Out here in the mid­dle of the dunes your driv­ing skills are tested, not to men­tion your strate­gic skills with the shift­ing soft sand, the sharp des­cents and min­i­mal track mark­ings. These are the largest mov­ing sand dunes in Vic­to­ria and they change con­stantly due to the pre­vail­ing winds which sculpt them. It takes a bit of get­ting used to as, un­like a formed track, there’s noth­ing in front of you. There are no ob­sta­cles or trees to po­ten­tially hit and there are few, if any, land­marks. In­stead, there are flows, dips and un­ex­pected drop-offs.

There are only a cer­tain num­ber of cars al­lowed on the dunes at any one time; how­ever, out here we couldn’t see even one of them. Where were those 30 other cars? And we still haven’t seen a green marker.

It feels like the Sa­hara, ex­cit­ing but a tad un­nerv­ing. We drive for a while and tackle a few sand hills with­out ven­tur­ing too far. Driv­ing in soft sand is a chal­lenge as it’s beau­ti­fully soft and smooth yet slip­pery and dis­con­cert­ing at the same time. Hit the dunes straight and with the right mo­men­tum all is good, but things can get in­ter­est­ing if you take the dunes slightly at an an­gle.

De­scend­ing slowly down a cou­ple of the sand dunes the Colorado is pressed to nearly red line as we crest the next hill, and some dunes are so high that, as we reach the top, all we can see is sky. There are no marked tracks and, at one stage, we take a crest and end up on the beach. Driv­ing on the beach is strictly pro­hib­ited, as is driv­ing on veg­e­tated ar­eas, so we quickly do a U-turn and back-pedal. We have no in­ten­tion of stay­ing down

there amidst a ris­ing high tide and very lit­tle beach. The fines would have been the least of our con­cerns.

Even­tu­ally we spot a cou­ple of other ve­hi­cles and join them. To our sur­prise, up the top of the dune where they stop, we meet up with Ron again. He’s back in his dune buggy, do­ing what he loves best. Given we aren’t tech­ni­cally part of a con­voy we’re thrilled when he of­fers to show us around, kind of a per­son­alised tour of the dunes. He’s been part of the Port­land Dune Buggy Club since its in­cep­tion – nearly 50 years – and knows this place like the back of his hand.

Fol­low­ing a dune buggy is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. They’re fast, fu­ri­ous, loud and ex­cit­ing to be be­hind as we weave through the sand dunes. I had to re­mind Doug that the Colorado isn’t a dune buggy, but it was still clearly im­por­tant to keep up the mo­men­tum. Seems that when driv­ing on soft sand there are two main rules – more power and don’t brake – but rule num­ber one is to keep the foot to the floor.

We fi­nally see fa­mil­iar cars as we’re ex­it­ing the ac­cess ramp. The tim­ing is per­fect as the sky dark­ens and we ar­rive back at Swan Lake Camp within min­utes of a fe­ro­cious hail­storm that rips down awnings and has us all scram­bling for cover. Within min­utes, it passes and we’re able to ad­just our tyre pres­sures, take down the flag and en­joy a well-earned drink be­fore we shoot back to nearby Nar­ra­wong.

The mo­men­tum con­tin­ues the next day out on the wa­ter, off nearby Cape Bridge­wa­ter, where the star at­trac­tion switches from sand dunes to seals. This place is home to a large colony of Aus­tralian and long-nosed fur seals, the only main­land breed­ing colony in Aus­tralia, and the best way to see them up close and per­sonal is on a Seals by Sea boat tour.

Seals by Sea Tours are ac­cessed by a walk­way from the carpark near the café, which is the cen­tral point of the tiny town. From the café it’s about four kilo­me­tres to the blow­holes, the Pet­ri­fied For­est and look­outs of the Great South West Walk. To walk around the cape takes about three hours, but this, like most of the Great South West Walk, which this area is renowned for, can be tack­led in sec­tions. The steep walk down to the rus­tic pier to ac­cess the Seals by Sea boat tour takes about 15 min­utes and, down on the rocks as we wait, the ex­cite­ment amongst our small group of seven is al­most pal­pa­ble.

IT’S HARD NOT TO FEEL MINISCULE GAZ­ING UP AT THE TOW­ER­ING CLIFFS

Safely on­board and geared up, it’s a thrilling start as we speed out to the break. As we ap­proach the rock plat­forms, we slow down and en­joy our first glimpse of the seals, duck­ing and div­ing in the wa­ter whilst oth­ers laze on the rocks, seem­ingly obliv­i­ous to our pres­ence. Our skip­per Richard in­forms us their num­bers have in­creased from 600 to 2500 in the 20 years the tour has been oper­at­ing. At cer­tain times of the year dol­phins, blue whales, killer whales and pen­guins are all seen out here.

As we mo­tor on beyond the rocks it’s hard not to feel miniscule as we gaze up at the tow­er­ing cliffs. Above us, Stony Hill, the high­est sea cliff in Vic­to­ria, rises 130 me­tres above sea level. “This was once the rim of an an­cient vol­cano,” Richard chor­tles from the back of the boat. “You can see the cres­cent-like cliffs, they’re part of an an­cient vol­cano that once shaped this place.”

Soon, we’re rid­ing the waves again be­fore even­tu­ally slow­ing down to en­ter the cave. In­side we can hear (and smell) the seals be­fore we see them and, as our eyes ad­just to the dark­ness, we mar­vel at the pink sed­i­men­ta­tions of the cave. It’s an awein­spir­ing and hum­bling feel­ing to be in their habi­tat.

The area around Cape Bridge­wa­ter and Dis­cov­ery Bay might be slightly off the beaten track, but it of­fers plenty of adrenal­in­packed ad­ven­ture. Just re­mem­ber to book your dune buggy mem­ber­ship be­fore you head out to Swan Lake camp­ground and, to make the most of the ex­pe­ri­ence, come with a group. Sand driv­ing is no place for solo driv­ing, un­less you’re lucky enough to be es­corted by a dune buggy. How­ever, I can’t guar­an­tee that Ron will be out there to guide you through these epic dunes, much as I’m sure he’d like to.

Swan Bay Camp­ground. On the Great South West Walk. Heed the signs. Big, tall flags are manda­tory. A steep drop-off roller coaster ride awaits.

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