Puffing Billy and Puffed out Penguins

Wednesday 1st March

March already!!!  Today our plan was an early evening arrival on Philip Island to see the famous Penguin Parade – so as the drive wasn’t too far and we had a bit of time we decided to be total tourists and take a trip on the restored steam train, the Puffing Billy, that runs through the Dandenong ranges.

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It’s so cute, the station at Belgrave is kitted out as it would have been and the staff, who mainly seem to be volunteers, are perfectly dressed in traditional gear as engineers, guardsmen and station masters so it feels like stepping back in time. The trains are lovingly restored steam engines and each of the carriages have seats along the middle so you sit facing out so not to miss any of the views across the ranges. 

You can even sit on the windowsills which the kids in our carriage (big and small hey Wayne?) loved, particularly when the train trundled over the rickety wooden viaduct and your feet hung over the drop. It was a really lovely journey, at every level crossing and at every station people waved to the kids on the train, and the scenery is stunning – just a lovely way to spend the morning.

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Back in the car we finished the drive cross-country towards Philip Island, crossing the bridge to Cape Woolamai before driving to our bed for the night in Cowes. We had a couple of hours to kill before the Penguin Parade, so had a potter on the beach at Cowes, a fish and chip supper before driving down to the tip of the island at the curiously named ‘The Nobbies’.

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Here you can walk around the headland on walkways which gives great views of the islands and of the nesting boxes scattered across the hills.  There were even nesting boxes with baby penguins (though large babies as it is the end of the nesting period) peering out, anxiously waiting for their folks to come back and feed them, and the odd one who had got tired of waiting in the box and was out on the hill shouting for his tea.

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These penguins, Eudyptula Minor, are the worlds smallest and every evening just after the sun goes down, they make a dash up the beach to their burrows in the sand dunes. The Penguin Parade is a specially constructed set of viewing platforms that allow you to sit and watch the little fellas come ashore. You can just see their white chests as they pop out of the sea, where they form a group (safety in numbers), pluck up the courage (there were a few that dashed back to the sea a couple of times) before charging up the beach as fast as their little legs will carry them.  There were some really cute moments where the odd penguin stopped to look at something, realised his group had moved on, gave a squawk of horror before putting on a sprint to join his pals.

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The staff count the number that come in during the first 50 minutes of sundown, and at some points along the headland the penguins cross a weighbridge that scans their tracker and weighs them – so you can see via an app how long they’ve been out at sea and how much heavier they are after a day’s fishing.  After 50 minutes they then turn off the lights and get rid of the gawking tourists to let the rest get on with it.

They always return to the same spot, and offspring nest within a few metres of where they were hatched – so the sensible ones are in nests close to the beach. Less sensible ones can be up to 1 km in shore, which when your legs are only 2 inches long must be a daily marathon. Wandering back from the viewing platform is via wooden boardwalks where you can watch them reunite with their young (aka get mobbed by 2 hungry fluffy monsters demanding food), chat with their neighbours or just stop half way for a rest looking totally puffed.

It’s nicely done, and no photographs are allowed as it can disorientate them – so you’ll just have to imagine how it looks!

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