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Meet dogs with a mis­sion on a Vic­to­rian coastal tour

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

Phil Root is Warrnambool’s chief Maremma wran­gler. We meet on a blus­tery day when his new­est sheep­dog charge is still all dan­gling legs and big brown eyes, and small enough to tuck un­der an arm. The wind has an edge that might have car­ried all the way from Antarc­tica.

Yet Avis, as she’s since been named via a pub­lic vote, ap­pears un­per­turbed. The breed is fa­mously self-re­liant, nat­u­rally pro­tec­tive and highly ter­ri­to­rial. And when Avis is old enough, she’ll be­come the lat­est pen­guin guardian on Mid­dle Is­land, over yon­der from Flagstaff Hill Mar­itime Vil­lage where the dogs are ken­nelled.

Avis and her fel­low Maremma, one-year-old Amor, will take over from in­cum­bents, sis­ters Eudy and Tula. “The sis­ters have been fight­ing so we’re hop­ing to have a dom­i­nant dog in the group,” says Root. The dogs’ un­usual names come from the sci­en­tific tag — Eudyp­tula mi­nor — for the crea­tures at the heart of this cre­ative res­cue ef­fort: the lit­tle pen­guin, the world’s small­est and Aus­tralia’s only na­tive of the species.

The story of Mid­dle Is­land’s frag­ile pen­guin pop­u­la­tion — and the in­ge­nious so­lu­tion of us­ing Marem­mas to guard them from ma­raud­ing foxes — has cap­tured the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion and also in­spired a movie. The 2015 com­edy Od­dball de­tails how lo­cal chicken farmer, Swampy Marsh, came up with the idea of us­ing the Ital­ian sheep­dogs to pro­tect the pen­guins. Foxes were sneak­ing over to the is­land, 75m off­shore, dur­ing the sum­mer months when the is­land is more ac­ces­si­ble at low tide. Their killing sprees re­duced the 600-strong pen­guin pop­u­la­tion to fewer than 10 birds.

Marsh was us­ing Marem­mas to pro­tect his free-range chick­ens from foxes and thought the dogs could do the same for pen­guins, rea­son­ing that they’re sim­ply “chooks in din­ner suits”. Od­dball (daugh­ter of Marsh’s Maremma, Ben) went to work on the is­land in 2006. To­day, it’s es­ti­mated that as many as 250 lit­tle pen­guins could be there.

The feel-good con­ser­va­tion story con­tin­ues to en­thral peo­ple, so much so that Flagstaff Hill’s Meet the Marem­mas is­land tours, which run from De­cem­ber to March, are booked out months in ad­vance. But it’s pos­si­ble to meet the dogs as part of a new Scenic coach tour that swings through some of re­gional Vic­to­ria’s most pho­to­genic sights. For Scenic, it’s a nos­tal­gic move — the now­global travel com­pany that’s ex­panded into river and ocean cruis­ing be­gan in 1986 when it of­fered Mel­bourne se­niors’ clubs coach trips along the Great Ocean Road to Warrnambool.

Be­fore the Vic­to­rian Dis­cov­ery tour launches in May, I’m ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sev­eral itin­er­ary high­lights. The tour trav­els via Gee­long’s Na­tional Wool Mu­seum, which cel­e­brates the golden era when the Aus­tralian econ­omy rode on the sheep’s back.

In­side the 19th-cen­tury blue­stone walls of the former wool store, once the heart of Gee­long’s in­ter­na­tional wool trade, are trea­sures in­clud­ing an op­er­a­tional Axmin­ster grip­per car­pet loom. Guests can lunch at the mu­seum’s evoca­tive din­ing space, Den­nys Ital­ian, which is all low light­ing, tar­tan car­pets, bur­nished floor­boards and sack­ing-up­hol­stered arm­chairs.

We overnight at Mantra Lorne, a sprawl­ing com­plex wedged be­tween the Ersk­ine River mouth and Lout­tit Bay where at least five ships came to grief in the 19th cen­tury. Lorne isn’t even part of western Vic­to­ria’s Ship­wreck Coast — the treach­er­ous stretch runs from Cape Ot­way, 70km fur­ther west, to Port Fairy past Warrnambool — but it hints at what’s to come.

Af­ter tak­ing an in­land route to Loch Ard Gorge (thanks to wild weather and land slip­pages, part of the coastal road is closed), we learn about one of Vic­to­ria’s worst ship­wreck tragedies. The gorge is named af­ter Loch Ard, a clip­per that sank in 1878, leav­ing just two 18year-old sur­vivors from the 54 passengers aboard. Ap­pren­tice sailor Tom Pearce scram­bled ashore first. When he heard cries, he re­turned to the wa­ter to drag pas­sen­ger Eva Carmichael, who couldn’t swim, ashore.

The story has all the mak­ings of a fairy­tale ro­mance but their story didn’t turn out the way you’d hope. Pearce went on to sur­vive an­other ship­wreck and mar­ried the sis­ter of a friend who died in the Loch Ard dis­as­ter. Two of his sons would also be lost at sea.

Eva and Tom ended up liv­ing in Eng­land, a mere 185km from each other, but didn’t stay in touch af­ter the dis­as­ter. At the top of the gorge, a wisp of a ceme­tery

Clock­wise from main: the Twelve Apos­tles; Loch Ard Gorge; Mantra Lorne; Avis, the Maremma pup be­ing trained to pro­tect pen­guins

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