Port Fairy

CLAUDIA & CHRIS BOUMA — 10 December 2012

Note: Port Fairy is definitely in Victoria (last time we checked anyway), not in South Australia, as was accidentally mentioned in our Dec 12 newsletter. Sorry 'bout the mix up chaps. Thank you to our astute audience for quickly picking up on that one.

• Griffiths Island and the lighthouse
• Historic walk around Port Fairy
• Fish and chips on the wharf
• Canons and gun batteries on Battery Hill
• A walk along the beach, followed by a cuppa and some cake in a cosy coffee shop

The historic seaside village of Port Fairy can be found along the Victorian coastline known as the Shipwreck Coast. Conditions along this piece of coast are notoriously treacherous – the weather can change suddenly and huge swells can spring up with little warning. Many ships have been lost, and incredible stories of bravery and self-sacrifice have been recorded.

One of the most tragic shipwreck stories is the loss of the SS Casino. Over a period of almost 50 years, the SS Casino made about 2500 trips from Melbourne to the western ports, including Port Fairy. On July 10, 1932, the ship was damaged while trying to dock at Apollo Bay in a strong south-easterly gale. The captain made for the beach but the ship was rapidly taking on water. Several Apollo Bay residents on the shore attempted heroic rescues at great personal risk. Nine people were saved from the raging surf but 10 were lost, including a stewardess who had fitted life jackets to her passengers but did not have time to fit her own. The propeller and bell of the SS Casino now form a memorial at King George Square in Port Fairy. The ship’s wheel is displayed at the Apollo Bay Hotel.


Port Fairy’s history dates back to 1928 when Captain James Wishart, on a sealing expedition in his cutter Fairy, became caught in a dreadful storm. Luckily, he found shelter for the night in a little bay and at daybreak he discovered he was at the mouth of an excellent river. He named the bay Port Fairy in honour of his tiny ship.

Later, a bay whaling station was established on the island at the river mouth. Whales were harpooned in the bay and dragged up onto the island for processing. So many whales were taken that the supply was exhausted by the 1840s and the station closed. Fortunately, the whale population has recovered and in winter, southern right whales frequent the waters around Port Fairy to mate and calve. They can be spotted nursing their young, waving their fins in the air and playing in the waves.

In 1843, Irish immigrants were encouraged to settle and the township was renamed Belfast. A strong Celtic influence is still evident in the town. The population increased rapidly and by 1857, 2190 people lived in Belfast. By then, it had become one of the most flourishing towns in Victoria’s new colony. The town was renamed Port Fairy in 1887.

Like any typical seaside village, Port Fairy has a lighthouse. It is situated on Griffiths Island, and a two-hour walk will take you right around it. The island is home to swamp wallabies and a large colony of mutton birds.

Built around 1859 by Scottish stonemasons, the lighthouse features a stairway with a magnificent spiral sweep. With each course of stones, a long slab was inserted to protrude towards the centre, so the stairway is actually part of the wall.

Any lighthouse has its share of shipwreck stories, and this one is no exception. In November 1842, the Dusty Miller was caught in a gale and all but one passenger survived. Then, in May 1846, the Squatter came to grief on a reef after being battered by heavy weather, but fortunately no lives were lost.

Hugh Haldane was the lighthouse keeper on Griffiths Island in the early 1930s. He lived in one of the keepers’ cottages with his wife and two sons. Life was isolated, and big seas made it difficult to get in and out of the lighthouse, sometimes cutting off the island altogether. Hugh would get a year’s supply of firewood in one hit and only go into town for provisions once a month. Today, the lighthouse is still operational on wind and solar power. The light is visible 19km out to sea.

Locals describe Port Fairy as ‘magic’ and it’s easy to see why. The Norfolk pines and colonial buildings form a picturesque backdrop to the tranquil waters of the Moyne River. The many 19th century buildings are evidence of an era when business was thriving and the port was the second busiest in Australia. Wool, wheat and gold were loaded onto great sailing ships bound for England. The ships anchored in the bay, while goods and passengers were ferried back and forth from the wharf on smaller craft.

Tourism has now replaced fishing as the major economic activity but an active fishing fleet still operates out of the harbour. The wharf is a wonderful place to relax and, of course, enjoy lovely fish and chips.


For a bit of adventure, you can take the Mahogany Walking Track and try to solve the mystery of the Mahogany Ship. In 1836, two men reached the shore after their sealing boat capsized in the surf near the mouth of the Hopkins River. They walked back along the coast to Port Fairy and reportedly found the wreck of a vessel which they thought to be Spanish, because of the colour of the timber.

The discovery was reported to the harbour master, who took bearings of the wreck and alerted the authorities. This is just one of many sightings of the Mahogany Ship between 1836 and the early 1890s. But it is suspected that the wreck was covered by drifting sands, hence it has never been found. Some believe that the Mahogany Ship was a Portuguese caravel captained by Christopher de Mendonca, lost in the early 1500s. If this is the case, it may prove the theory that the Portuguese visited Victoria’s coastline 250 years before James Cook laid claim to the continent.

For a weekend of magic, pay a visit to Port Fairy. It is one of those quintessential country towns with an old pub on every corner still offering true hospitality. And if you do stumble upon the mysterious Mahogany Ship, let me know.


· Port Fairy is 28km west of Warrnambool, in south-western Victoria. Port Fairy is on the coast and is accessible via the Princes Highway.

· There are seven caravan parks in Port Fairy. Southcombe by the Sea Caravan Park is close to the ocean, with spacious and grassy campsites. It is open from December to April. Bookings are necessary during peak times. Email southcombe@portfairycaravanparks.com for more information.

· For more information, grab a copy of the Port Fairy & Surrounds Official Visitor’s Guide from the visitor information centre, email vic@moyne.vic.gov.au or visit www.moyne.vic.au.

Originally published in Caravan World #506, September 2012.


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