Those in the habit of meticulously preparing travel itineraries will need to set aside ample time for the surprising wildlife discoveries inside Croajingolong National Park. At almost every turn, a tale of the unexpected unfolds.
Without fanfare, pelicans convene and preen beside Mallacoota's shores at sunset, waddling lace monitors (two-metre-long goannas) forage close to secluded campsites, eastern grey kangaroos graze beneath a pair of squawking glossy black cockatoos, and a Gippsland water dragon nonchalantly drops from a tree's bough into the river below.
Mallacoota is nestled 24km off the Princes Highway linking Melbourne and Sydney. The closest main airport is Canberra, but you should still allow more than three hours to get from door to door. Put aside around 12 hours for a Melbourne to Sydney car journey. Canberra-Mallacoota: 247km; Melbourne-Mallacoota: 542km; Sydney-Mallacoota: 570km.
Nearer the coastline, white-bellied sea eagles hover, almost motionless, over granite cliff-faces. Out to sea, humpback whales and Australian fur seals periodically come up for air. As a bystander, there's no need to stress if the camera's not on hand: the Croajingolong wildlife parade is a daily show, tickets free.
Close to halfway between Melbourne and Sydney on the coastal margins of the Princes Highway, Croajingolong National Park stretches 87,500 hectares. The largest town in the area is Mallacoota, a sleepy village framing a picture-perfect lakeside and coastline. During summer, the town's population swells from 1000 to more than 10,000. Croajingolong's charm appeals most when you're prepared to risk five-star comfort for five-star adventure.
- Classified a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1977, the park is home to 315 animal species.
- Croajingolong is best explored from September to May when most wildlife is out and about. Springtime is a riot of colour when almost 1000 native plant species begin to blossom. Whale watchers are rewarded from June to October
- Correct pronunciation does take some practice Cro-a-jing-o-long. The name is derived from a local Aboriginal clan, Kruaetungalung, meaning "men of the east".
- Bairnsdale: "The Gateway to East Gippsland", Bairnsdale is around 285km east of Melbourne. Set on the banks of the Mitchell River it is a relaxed place with some first-class attractions and makes a perfect "base camp" for exploring the Gippsland and surrounds.
- Lakes Entrance: Between Bairnsdale and Mallacoota, Lakes Entrance links Bass Strait and the Tasman Sea with 400 square km of inland waterways the Gippsland Lakes. This network of waterways offers something for everyone surfing, boating, fishing, swimming and foodies will love the freshest of seafood!
Slipping out of Mallacoota into the park's heart, Wingan Inlet is a top spot to take stock. Bearings sorted at Wingan's basic camp ground, paddle a kayak 400 metres offshore to a collection of small islets known as the Skerries. Your voyage won't be solo: the Skerries play host to a lively fur seal population. Almost culled out of existence in the 1800s, today dozens of these inquisitive creatures bob in and out of the water, sometimes at arm's length from your kayak! Bear in mind, though, that seals have been known to attract sharks, so kayakers should keep the usual eye out as they would in other waters.
Those with 4WD access should consider moving camp to Thurra River along the Cicada Trail. This shady shortcut can slash more than an hour off the regular travelling time, even allowing for the occasional toppled tree to slow your progress just a tad. Once at Thurra River, the main attraction is the Dunes Walk. The tallest of the dunes measures a vertigoinducing 100 metres, and thrill-seekers tumble into the waiting Thurra River below, prior to wading back to camp.
Nearby lies all 162 spiral steps of mainland Australia's tallest lighthouse at Point Hicks. In 1770, this area was the first piece of Australia sighted by Captain Cook's Endeavour before they pushed north to Botany Bay. From the lighthouse's post, humpback whales round the point as foamy surf crashes over sculpted granite in the foreground. The good Captain couldn't have chosen a more handsome launching pad if he tried. Now, it's time to claim it as your own.
Must see it … must do it
Go on, make a splash: Mallacoota's lakes attract a significant flotilla over summer. Once out on the water, keep an eye out for cormorants and herons through raised binoculars. Feeling fit? Hire a kayak or canoe and practice technique. Feeling confident? Upgrade to the cascading Wingan Rapids.
Wing it: for a different perspective, take a scenic flight. The jagged coastline shines at altitude.
Take a hike: the Wilderness Coast Walk extends over 100km from Sydenham Inlet in Croajingolong National Park, to Wonboyn in the Nadgee Nature Reserve in NSW that's a whole lot of footsteps! Sandy beaches lead into headlands, estuaries, and heathlands. Bushwalkers must apply for a permit from Parks Victoria. Be warned, though, this one's for the experienced hiker only.
Take a walk: it's a short stroll from Point Hicks Lighthouse to where you'll discover the remains of the SS Saros. Shipwrecked in 1937, strong winds and seas have washed the bow onto rocks. You'll also appreciate the golden banksia and the Aboriginal shell middens in the dunes.
Where to stay
Mallacoota has a range of accommodation options to suit all budgets and requirements. More details at www.visitmallacoota.com.au. For information about campsites and bookings go to www.parkweb.vic.gov.au. Alternatively, the Point Hicks Lighthouse has two heritage-listed cottages that sleep up to 20 people. See www.lighthouse.net.au for details.
Tourism in the area is seasonal, so always ring to confirm details and times. The reptilian giant of Croajingolong, the two-metre-long Lace Monitor, hibernates throughout winter. A warm summer's day is the best time to watch these impressive creatures in their natural habitat as they catch rays on hunks of warm granite.
head to picturesque Bastion Point at sunrise and you'll see the abalone divers the Formula One drivers of the sea set sail. Surfers also enjoy the gentle, consistent break.
Something fishy: anglers should set out for Gipsy Point, around 15 minutes from Mallacoota, where they'll find the perfect spot for bream fishing. Spend a lazy day on a boat or drop a line from the jetty (a Victorian fishing licence is required).
The high life: you don't have to be a mountaineer to scale Genoa Peak, but at 489 metres, it's still moderately challenging. It's the highest point in the park and when you reach the top, you'll be rewarded with 360-degree panoramic views of Bass Strait, Gabo Island, the lakes and the thousands of treetops in between. It's a photo opportunity that can't be missed.
Along the trail: the Cicada Trail, a narrow track for fully equipped four-wheel drives, winds through rainforest one minute, then onto a landscape of black and ochre, scorched by recent ecological burns both are beautiful and surreal.
Feathered friends: windswept Gabo Island sits 14km offshore from Mallacoota, a short plane or boat trip away. The island boasts the largest breeding colony of little penguins in the world. Lighthouse accommodation for up to eight is available.