freelance writer & editor

Portland is Victoria’s best-kept secret

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Australia’s Great Ocean Road is great and all, but venture about 100 kilometres beyond the last stop, and you’ll find a wild and peaceful place, devoid of tourists and associated tat. That place is Portland.

From the parapet of the Cape Nelson lighthouse, Australia appears to be on the verge of oblivion. If it isn’t swallowed whole by the fog, it might just slide into the sea.

Ahead of me, a sheer drop where the ocean collides with the immense edge of the continent. Behind, mist-concealed foliage yawns into yonder. Wind turbines stand scarcely visible on the horizon; lonely three-fingered smudges in the dark. Not another soul in sight. Except Gordon.

“Do you think this is cloud?” he ponders loudly, gazing into the gloom. “Or is this all mist? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?”

Gordon Stokes, a local of nearby Portland, the town I’m here to explore, has been leading tours of the handsomely-maintained 133-year-old lighthouse since 2008. The lighthouse warns sailors of the deceitful coastline, and helps guide them into (or away from) the troublesome Bass Strait, at the other end of which lies Melbourne, Australia’s busiest port.

Read the marketing spiel from Tourism Victoria and they’ll tell you that Portland is at once ‘the final frontier’, ‘the portal to the deep’, ‘the gift of ancient mariners’ and ‘not for the faint of heart.’

Situated on Australia’s southern coast almost halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, Portland, the so-called ‘Birthplace of Victoria’, is largely overlooked by road trippers and weekend warriors.

The Great Ocean Road­ – a huge drawcard for tourists from Melbourne – ends roughly 100 kilometres before Portland begins. So where the Great Ocean Road is overrun with tourists on any given day of the week, Portland largely escapes the crowds.

“D’ya want to go and see the gannets?” asks Gordon when we arrive, soggy, back at the lighthouse café post-tour. Point Danger, a 10-minute drive from Portland proper, is home to the only mainland gannet colony in Australia. As it transpires, the birds are close relatives of the blue and red-footed boobies that travellers pay thousands of dollars to visit in the Galapagos Islands. Paint their feet blue or red, and you’d hardly tell the difference.

I take my rental car and follow Gordon’s Saab through the fog and drizzle (The Fog and Drizzle would be an apt name for a local pub, I reckon). We pass Portland’s enormous, ominous aluminium smelter on the way – the one that employs 2,000 of the town’s 10,000 inhabitants. “It pollutes like all fuck, but it’s been good for the community,” Gordon tells me later.

It’s still pissing rain at Point Danger while Gordon and I stand and observe the gannets. One of them is in full flight, circling the flock. Round and round and round she goes. Gordon suspects it’s a juvenile that doesn’t know how to land. He’s having a lot of fun mimicking the amateur bird. As I stand in the rain with a 60-something-year-old man I’ve just met and laugh as he flaps his imaginary wings and coos out of his imaginary beak, I take a moment to appreciate the strange and wonderful turns life sometimes takes.

Gordon is wiry, bearded, eccentric and knowledgeable in equal parts: like the endlessly interesting uncle you never had. He was born in Portland and moved away for 30 years before returning. We leave the gannets and return to the car park, where Gordon, who’s essentially Portland’s unofficial tourist information centre (he’s even the point of contact for the town’s National Trust branch), draws a map for me in the gravel.

“This is my health food shop,” he says, marking an X in the dirt with his heel. “We make wraps and things. Here’s Mac’s – it’s a good pub and hotel. This is the main street, this is a good restaurant and here’s another pub…” Confident I have the lay of the land, Gordon and I part ways, but not before making plans to catch up tomorrow for a beer.

Read the marketing spiel from Tourism Victoria and they’ll tell you that Portland is at once “the final frontier”, “the portal to the deep”, “the gift of ancient mariners” and “not for the faint of heart” (interestingly, nowhere do they mention the fact that “it doesn’t have a beach”).

Where I’d usually be the first to baulk at such gaudy descriptions, the tourism board isn’t far off the mark on this one. It’s hard to deny Portland a beguiling grumpiness, particularly compared to the merry and much-visited Great Ocean Road towns like Anglesea, Lorne and Apollo Bay. If those towns are the Great Ocean Road’s hits, Portland is the deep cut.   

Spend a long weekend in any other Great Ocean Road town and you’ll be hard pressed to find the locals among the tourists. But in Portland, make no mistake, you’re outnumbered.

I could get back to Melbourne (where I live) and rave about Portland until the pies go cold (face-melting pies from the bakery in nearby Heywood, by the way), and still I’m positive that nobody would muster the energy required to visit. Portland is at once just a smidge too far for the convenience-driven weekender and a smidge too close to home for those with more time up their sleeves. As for international tourists, you can forget about it. And that’s half the appeal.

Anyone could arrive in Portland for a weekend and feel as though they were one of the first to ever visit as a tourist. And that’s not meant as a slight ­– the town is spectacularly unpretentious. Spend a long weekend in any other Great Ocean Road town and you’ll be hard pressed to find the locals among the tourists. But in Portland, make no mistake, you’re outnumbered.

The town itself is a typical Victorian coastal affair, allowing the addition of some handsome heritage buildings. Within two or three blocks, you’ll find a handful of pubs, pokies, the high street, a supermarket, cafes, charity shops, and fish and chipperies. One thing Gordon can’t wrap his head around is the amount of new restaurants opening up. “There’s a new one, Paris Marrakech,” he says. “Half French, half Moroccan. What’s that about?”

I take the rental car out to Cape Bridgewater, 20 kilometres out of town. The hilly, coastal landscape is speckled with hundreds more wind turbines. Just like at Cape Nelson, rather than detracting from the scene, the turbines add to it, making it all feel a bit like some strange, extra-terrestrial world (a world in which – thank fuck – there’s a beachfront café serving up peanut butter ice creams).

If, like me, you count yourself as a moderate fan of wild coastal landscapes, Cape Bridgewater will come as a pleasant surprise (or not so much of a surprise, if you’re reading this). There’s a sprawling, sandy cliff-flanked beach that, on a sunny day, would likely be world-class. Of course, it’s pissing rain the day I visit.

Around the corner from the beach are blowholes, a petrified forest, limestone caves, platforms on which you can ponder the gigantic ocean and your relative insignificance to it all, and, would you believe it, the only mainland fur seal colony in Australia.

I take a narrow coastal footpath and pay a man named Richard (or perhaps it was Roger?) $40 to take me out in his dinghy and visit these criminally unknown seals.

After a dash around the coast, we find hundreds of Australian and New Zealand fur seals (1,200, officially) frolicking in the shadow of some of the most brain-bending cliffs I’ve ever seen (and some of the highest in Victoria). There’s even a cage in which you can snorkel with the seals – the only seal diving cage in the world, as it happens. ­ Again, it all feels a bit more Galapagonian than Australian.

As I leave Cape Bridgewater and head back to Portland, the rain comes down again. My time here has been very much defined by the weather; haunted by drizzle, cloud and fog. As a visitor, Portland and the surrounding coast asks a little more of you, it asks you to dig a little deeper. It’s a testament ­– like the ones you sometimes find when traveling – to the benefits of putting your foot down when everyone else is pulling over, of seeing what lurks up around the next bend, of just standing in the rain and watching the birds.

“Portland’s got it all,” Gordon beams over a pot of beer at Mac’s that night. “Portland’s got it all.”