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Discovering the new in a favourite old coastal town

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You know when you think you really know a place and then someone comes along and tells you something completely new, something that you had no idea about a place? In our latest You’ve Been Where guest writer David Bruce (you might remember him from his family trip around Europe in the WINTER) takes us to Warrnambool and shares a beautiful story about the penguins of Middle Island…

Who are you and what do you do for a living?

My name is David Bruce. I work at a national research centre for natural hazards doing the communications, media liaison, public affairs, etc.

Our writer David and his wife, Alison.

Where is home?

Home is Melbourne, eastern suburbs.

Where have you been? When did you go?

Warrnambool, Victoria. It’s great to go overseas and have new experiences, but the familiarity of local travel fills in the gaps.

Who did you travel with?

We’ve been going to Warrnambool as a family for more than 20 years. We are still discovering new things.

Lady Bay, Warrnambool, at sunset.

Lady Bay at sunset.

What was a highlight of your trip?

The story of Middle Island.

It’s a pity you can’t go out there anymore but there’s a good reason Middle Island is now just for the birds. Penguin birds to be precise.

Many years ago, we – and many others – paddled across the small stretch of water at Stingray Bay in Warrnambool, climbed the steep rocks onto the top of Middle Island and waited till the sun disappeared way over in the west. Soon the ground around us erupted in baby penguin chirps. The paths we walked on filled with mama and dada penguins returning from a hard day’s fish catching. Dinner time for hundreds of penguin families was extraordinary to witness. And it happened night after night, year after year.

But you can’t see this anymore. And that’s a good thing. One night the mainland foxes made the same journey we did, and extended the dinner date well beyond its original intentions. Then came Oddball, the miraculous Maremma dog and his mates that kept the foxes away. Now Middle Island is off limits for anything foreign, including humans, except on specially arranged ranger tours. Just like it was for years and years, the island is now for the birds – a penguin sanctuary that is, despite a few setbacks, experiencing a healthy population rise since the dark days of the fox visits.

Sometimes the best views of a landmark are seen a few steps back – think Uluru, MCG, Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty. Step back and enjoy the wider view. And so it is now for visitors to Warrnambool. You can still can get a good view of Middle Island from the shore, with walking paths and a roadway allowing you to take it all in. It’s not as popular with the hordes as the better known whale viewpoints but can be just as spectacular.

Middle Island, Warrnambool, is now off limits to people (and foxes) to protect the penguins.

Middle Island, Warrnambool, is now off limits to people (and foxes) to protect the penguins.

Do you have any tips for people thinking of travelling here?

The walking paths all around this part of the coast draw you out of the car. The beach track from the Breakwater to the Hopkins River mouth is paved and gentle, while in the opposite direction the dirt track to Thunder Point and beyond is slightly more rugged. The relatively new trail to Port Fairy is a full day return trip on the bike – you need to factor in eating and shopping in Port Fairy, as well as the high likelihood of sun, rain, and the infamous late afternoon south-westerly gale. And flies. Lots of flies.

What did you least like about your trip?

The old-style town centre is a great place to shop and eat but the parking meters are a turn-off during business hours. There’s no wonder the two shopping malls on the fringe are thriving.

What were the locals like?

Like many regional towns, Warrnambool has had many lives over the years. Timber, sealing and whaling are long gone but the farming and dairy influence is still strong. Deakin University brings in many international students and that has added a distinct flavour to the town. Tourism is where the real growth now lies and the town has leapt to the task in recent years. The main restaurant strip in Liebig St now has good food choices across every conceivable cuisine, so much so that the food district has now spread well into surrounding CBD streets and down to the waterfront. The options are extensive.

What was the food like?

Here are some good eating options:

Bojangles – classic Italian fare and new menus

Simons on the Waterfront – spectacular surf views

The Warrnambool Hotel – quality pub grub

Standard Dave – New hipster bar with great food

Pavilion – breakfast and café culture and sunrise views

Flying Horse Brewery – fine beers on the fringe of town

Kermonds – Terrific take-away classic burgers

East Warrnambool Fish ‘n Chips – cooked just as they should

Would you recommend others travel here?

Warrnambool is just far enough away from Melbourne to make it difficult for a weekend getaway, but perfect for a three-night stay or longer. In summer, it attracts people from all over the Western Districts and the Mallee.

Warrnambool is 3.5-4 hours drive from Melbourne, via Geelong and then along with the Princes or Hamilton Highway. Or go the longer way on the Great Ocean Road, which technically finishes just before Warrnambool. Or catch the train.

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