The drive south to Narooma from Sydney is longer than I expected but it’s a beautiful drive once we clear the South Sydney traffic. As we arrive in Narooma at sunset, we’re all impressed by its beauty – the curve of the river and the rolling green hills behind. Yes even the kids appear to be impressed, but perhaps they’re just glad to finally get out of the car.
Our accommodation for our first night is at the Whale Motor Inn in Narooma. The kids have never stayed in a motel before and I’m surprised how excited they are; “It’s just like My Name is Earl!”. But it really isn’t – this is a 5-star motel. Our two bedroom suite is lovely, and looks out over the bay giving us panoramic views.
I’m a little worried about the trip out to the island – the weather’s not brilliant and I’ve already been warned about the difficulties getting past “the Break” – the small opening to the river formed by the harbour wall. But although a bit choppy, it’s a pleasant bouncy cruise out to the island, with the highlight of fur-seals swimming alongside us as we approach.
I’m immediately struck by the rather wild beauty of Montague Island. It looks at first like two islands, until you notice it’s joined at the centre by a narrow isthmus. The north half is remarkably different in appearance to the South, with its black volcanic rock. In contrast, the south is covered with large protruding granite boulders – some of which were quarried to build the lighthouse in 1878.
Our guide explains that both were formed by volcanic activity – outpourings of lava from an extinct volcano on the mainland now known as Gulaga, (or its European name: Mount Dromedary). The black rock was formed by the lava cooling quickly – as it hit the water, the light grey granite formed by a much slower cooling process.
Accommodation on the island is in the old lighthouse keepers’ quarters, a quant little whitewashed cottage. We spend our first morning here exploring the island and wildlife spotting.
The kids are all excited about the seals, having never seen them in the wild before. This is in fact a rather unique experience – how many kids get to see fur seals in the wild? For some reason in my mind I’ve got this tendency to think it’s unusual to see them anywhere at all outside Antarctica. Or the zoo. The island is home to over 1200 seals – both New Zealand and Australian fur seals.
Over 90 species of birds have been identified on Montague Island, including large populations of little penguins and mutton birds (or shearwaters as they are also known). It’s estimated over 6000 pairs of penguins next here in spring. It’s a safe haven for them, with no ferals and no snakes.
If you choose to take part in one of the volunteer programs here run by Conservation Volunteers Australia, you get to learn a great deal about our fragile environment. Before the lighthouse builders and keepers came along, Montague Island had a healthy covering of tall trees. The island is now bare, with only short scrub and grasses for coverage.
When the lighthouse keepers came with families in tow, they brought along goats, chickens, rabbits and horses. They planted kitchen gardens, shrubs and lawns. As a result the island is now choked with weeds causing a major threat to nesting penguins, which get caught in the tangle and are unable to free themselves.
Controlling the introduced kikuyu grass is a major task for the National Parks rangers and volunteers. There are two strategies. Number one: mow it, creating penguin pathways, enabling them to reach their nesting sites. The rangers have also erected a number of penguin houses to nest in to prevent them getting tangled in the kikuyu undergrowth. Number two: eradicate it, and replace with native flora. This is an ongoing major task, that volunteers are invited to help with.
Narooma is about five and a half hours drive south of Sydney. Our Toyota Prius was supplied by www.vroomvroom.com.au .
Where to Stay
On the island accommodation is available in the old Head Lighthouse Keepers Quarters with a choice of two to four nights.
The Whale Motor Inn
104 Wagonga Street (Princes Hwy), Narooma
Ph: 02 4476 2411
Ph: 0407 909 111
Wagonga Inlet Cruises
Ph: 02 4476 2040
National Parks and Wildlife Services
36 Princes Highway, Narooma
Ph: 02 4476 2881
Mogo Zoo and Old Mogo Town are nearby and worth a visit to see the beautiful white lions along with an impressive collection of big cats.
Nearby and definitely worth a visit is Central Tilba. It’s a beautiful and historic little village about 10 minutes drive from Narooma. Potter around the arts and craft shops, sample the absolutely delicious Tilba cheese at the ABC Cheese Factory and stop for a bite to eat at the gluten free Love at First Bite Café.
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