Looking for a special getaway? You could do worse than take a trip to historic Gabo Island, off Victoria, Australia’s easternmost tip. The body that runs it, Parks Victoria, says it is a maritime lover’s dream escape. It’s certainly different. By Jeremy Torr.
Victoria. Australia. 1 November 2018. Tired of always-on internet, having to do a guided tour to see wild animals, constant background noise and having to wake to another working day? Treat yourself with a trip to the 2.5km long by 1km wide Gabo Island, just off the tip of Victoria’s wreck-strewn south-eastern coast. Only a couple of hundred kilometres south of Sydney, Gabo is world away from city life.
The main reason for it being a notable spot is its lighthouse, built in 1862 following a series of fatal shipwrecks. That means there is still a working jetty, that takes boats from nearby (13 kilometres) Mallacoota, about a half hour from the mainland. It’s the perfect place to take a picnic, sit on a sand dune and enjoy views of the ocean and the wildlife.
And there is plenty of that – it is home to the world's largest colony of Little Penguins (Eudyptula_minor), and the seas around the island regularly feature whales, seals, dolphins and a whole spotters book full of marine birds. There are even birds of prey that fly over from the mainland in search of tasty young morsels in the dunes and among the burrows.
There are plenty of walking tracks (no vehicles) on Gabo Island, and if it’s warm enough, you can splash in the clear water of Santa Barbara Bay or just relax on the white sandy beach whilst taking in the views of the mainland’s Croajingolong Park. The island’s crystal waters feature amazing underwater fauna and fauna including a multitude of fish species, sea stars and sea anemones. In spring, keep your eyes peeled for massive humpback whales, as well as the usual dolphins and seals. And don’t forget to go down to the dunes after dark, to watch the penguins waddle their comic way to their burrows on the sand.
Apart from all the fresh outdoor air (it’s often pretty windy; this is Sydney to Hobart territory) and wildlife, you can also check out the local Gabo Island history. A walk around the island offers a look at the quarry that supplied the pink stone for the local buildings, as well as several significant old Melbourne buildings such as the Immigration Museum and the Melbourne General Post Office. There’s a cemetery that holds the graves of people that managed to survive the harsh conditions on the island; possibly some of those hardworking quarrymen.
There is also a sombre monument to the ship Monumental City that sank with the loss of 33 lives in 1853, prompting the construction of the wonderful pink granite lighthouse. If you like diving, the Monumental City is an excellent wreck to explore.
If you are interested in the story of the lighthouse, you can arrange for the resident keeper to give you a look around the tower, along with a history of the place. They will give you some idea of the isolated lifestyles of the old-time keepers as they kept the light burning to avoid further wrecks on the rocky reefs. During the eras of sail and steamships plying between Sydney and Port Phillip Bay, that was life or death work.
The first permanent lighthouse on the island was constructed in 1862 following the Monumental City disaster. There was a wooden one before that, but it was not rugged enough to stand up to the Bass Strait winters. The original pink granite tower is still operational today, and remains the only operational island lighthouse in Victoria. It’s pretty tall too; in fact the second tallest in Australia at 47m (240 steps to the top) high. The views out of the ocean make the climb worthwhile – but take a windproof coat as it gets pretty windy up there.
Getting to Gabo is either by the boat from Mallacoota, or a few minutes out of Merimbula on a light plane that lands on a grass strip. Either way, you can return the same day, or better still, book up for a few nights in the Assistant Light Keeper’s cottage.
The low stone cottage offers three cosy bedrooms, a fully stocked and equipped kitchen, laundry and bathroom with all linen provided, plus a tranquil sea-view verandah. At night, all that will disturb you is the sound of the waves and the occasional bird. You can guarantee your phone won’t ring, either. Bliss.
You will need to book up your stay with Parks Victoria, and take your own supplies as there are no shops or anything that needs money on the island. And take all your rubbish back to the mainland too; there is no rubbish collection on Gabo. The cottage caters for up to eight people and bookings are required for a minimum of two nights.
If you are thinking of going somewhere that the crowd doesn’t go and that allows you do disconnect from the everyday rush, Gabo must be among the top places on anybody’s list.