NATURE On a trip to Melbourne, ANUSHA PARTHASARATHY steps outside the city and finds penguins

Just when you think it’s going to be a warm, sunny day, Melbourne does a Murphy on you and it begins to rain. You grow suspicious of its sense of humour and arm yourself with a parka or woollen coat every time you step out, but the city and its weather still manage to surprise you every time.

There’s a lot to see for the tourist. You could do the usual museum watch, walk down St. Kilda’s pier, or visit Captain Cook’s cottage. But it’s when you step outside the city perimeters that you begin to experience a different side of the country.

A great drive

Our two-day tryst with Australia’s wild side begins with the Great Ocean Road. It’s hard to explain why a drive by the sea is talked about so much, even if, at the end of it, you get to see one of Australia’s most visited sites, the 12 Apostles. Perhaps it’s because you are suddenly thrown out of the concrete jungle into open land and follow the sea across 100-odd kilometres. The winding road at the edge of the mountain looks out on pristine waters, foamy waves crashing against the shore, mountainous rocks jutting against the ocean and natural piers extending precariously over the sea.

We stop at Kennett River to spot Koalas, Lorikeets and Parrots in the wild but since it’s still light, we only see furry grey bundles fast asleep on distant eucalyptus trees. At Otway’s Rainforest (or Mait’s Rest) we try to spot the carnivorous snail and take a board walk through a thick canopy of age-old eucalyptus and other indigenous trees. Finally, we’re ready to the see the Apostles. We expect heavy winds and wear our coats, ready to tackle the cold, but as we get off the bus we realise that the day is warm enough.

The Apostles are limestone cliffs that have broken away from the main land only to be stranded in the waters. There aren’t 12 together anymore, since some of them have been eaten away, but there are enough to take your breath away. Towering over the waters, they look like slivers of lemon cake with icing on top. There are bridges and viewpoints strewn across the area, as well as helicopter rides. We also visit Loch Ard Gorge, the site of an old shipwreck, and London Bridge (which has… erm… fallen down), a limestone structure with an arch that gives it the name.

Penguin place

The next afternoon, we head to Phillip Island, about 140 km from Melbourne. There’s lots to do here, like visiting the local zoo or heading to a chocolate factory nearby. But what puts this island on the map is a natural phenomenon that occurs at dusk each day, the Penguin Parade. Fairy Penguins, the smallest species of their kind, live in burrows around the sea. They spend the day gathering food in the water, but at dusk, when they aren’t at risk from predators in the sky, they venture out of the water and into their homes.

Tourists are allowed to watch the penguins go home but photography of any kind is strictly prohibited.

We read about the phenomenon at the information and tourist centre before venturing onto the beach. It gets colder as the sky darkens but the benches are full of hopeful onlookers pulling their jackets tighter around themselves.

Suddenly, little bobbing heads float to the shore and bunches of penguins waddle up in groups. They wait for the rest of their family and friends and together make a rush towards their burrows. Some get confused and stand in a corner wondering where to go. Everyone is cheering and following the little ones back to their homes.

The boardwalk back to the centre is dotted with burrows on either side and more often than not, you can see penguins waddling together right next to you. Some, like traffic cops, order groups towards a different direction. There are a few who stand to observe you while others saunter around in groups like little gentlemen out on a tea break. It’s a thrilling and touching experience.

It’s late when we drive back to Melbourne, and as we discuss the tiny penguins that are probably safe at home by now, we roll our windows down to observe a sky that’s now a deep purple and alight with a million stars.