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Meet dogs with a mission on a Victorian coastal tour
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