From her garret somewhere on the Bass Coast, Emma writes for WeekendNotes, travel publications, and plumbing websites of note. Read more at, www.clippings.me/emmawoodward or follow me on Instagram, @wordsfromawoodward
Published January 18th 2021
Take a detour on your way down the Bass Highway
How many times have I driven through The Gurdies, seen the picnic stop signs, and wondered what was there? There's really not much to see from the road. On a beautiful sunny day, heading down the Bass Highway to Phillip Island, there doesn't seem to be much reason to investigate this strange roadside pull-in; apparently just a couple of picnic tables on the side of the highway.
It was always enough to make me curious though. The bushland stretches beside the highway for a fair distance here, and there was clearly some reason for putting the picnic spot there, not somewhere else. Maybe there's more to this reserve, 100 km south-east of the Melbourne CBD, than that thin belt of trees? Maybe there's even a view of the water from the picnic tables?
After years of idly wondering, forgetting the place the second it was behind me, I eventually decided to investigate. Turns out there is more to The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve than can be seen from the road. A lot more.
This remnant patch of coastal forest is filled to the brim with birdlife and other native critters. Over 260 hectares of reserve are criss-crossed with walking and maintenance tracks.
Entering from the Bass Highway (there is another "official" entrance at the Dunbabbin Road Picnic Area, and a number of other "unofficial" entrances) I find a quaint little picnic spot, shaded by gum trees, and with glimpses of Western Port Bay across the road. The traffic is noisy, but other than that, I definitely don't feel like I am parked on the side of the highway.
There are three picnic tables, surrounded by grass and flowers, and an information sign that doesn't really give any information (other than telling me who woz 'ere, and that the toilet block is not here).
If you venture into the reserve, you will find a nice wide maintenance track to walk down, or, a few steps to the right, the creatively named Walking Track walking track. This thin path winds up the hill, and at the top, where it intersects with another maintenance track, you will find another sign with further directions. From this, you could be forgiven for thinking that you can follow these signs throughout the reserve. The sign at the top of the track cheerily promises you that the "signs show distances", while offering to guide you to pleasant destinations via the bushwalk loop tracks.
I have found these signs to be helpful markers when treated with caution. If you do find your way to the picnic area, then you will see that the sign was pointing in the right direction. But, this is only after guessing your way through many forks in the path that weren't marked at all.
If you have plenty of time, then it can be fun to spend a while getting lost in The Gurdies Reserve. But a safer option is probably to pick a path, walk for a bit, and then retrace your steps. This is where the signs come in handy because you can use them as markers of where you've been, so that you know when you are heading back in the right direction. "Ah, yes. There's that sign by the burnt tree, pointing towards the lookout that I couldn't find. I think I go left here."
Whichever track you take, it won't be an easy walk. The ground is rough, and it's never flat for long. Some parts are muddy, and flood after rain. Other areas are so sandy, it's like walking through the dunes at the beach.
The vegetation varies too. Lower down it's swampy, with tea tree and thick undergrowth. In other areas, the understorey thins out, and you have open grassy woodlands. Some spots are covered in wattles, others so thick with grass trees that you wouldn't be able to squeeze between them.
As I climb up into the reserve, the traffic noise fades, and the temperature cools as the trees rise higher. Kookaburras and magpies sing in the canopy, and a juvenile rosella flies to join its family. Wildflowers and weeds dot the ground with colour; a scrawny fox scampers off the path ahead of me. A scrawny teenager turns his bike to fly down the hill past me. The path levels out briefly, and I am enveloped in a fluttering cloud of monarch butterflies.
Everywhere, little paths branch off into the bush. Some are animal tracks. Some were animal tracks that have since been reappropriated by horse riders and mountain bikers. Some paths start out wide and promising - clearly made for vehicles - then stop abruptly, or peter out into nothing. These were probably used as various areas of the reserve were quarried, and you can see the deep scars and hollows that have been left behind.
Depending on where you wander in The Gurdies Reserve, you might come up against some current sand quarry sites, or overlook them in the distance from the higher points within the reserve. There are quarries right along this section of the Bass Highway, with plans to start mining new areas in and around Grantville. Looking at the deep pits and barren ground left behind in former sites, it's easy to see why the local community are concerned about further development. The Save Western Port's Coastal Forest organisation are campaigning against new quarries in nearby forest corridors, and some groups are lobbying for the creation of a larger reserve that links up The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve and the Grantville Nature Conservation Reserve with other reserves and areas of neighbouring land.
For now, you can appreciate this little wildlife corridor, shaded by trees that serve as a reminder of times when the Bass Coast and Gippsland's rolling pastures were once rolling Bunurong forests.
If you are planning on taking your horse into the reserve, then park at the Dunbabbin Road Picnic Area, down the end of Dunbabbin Road (dirt road). You will find plenty of room to park your float, and a nice wide path leading into the reserve.
If you are planning to explore on foot, then you can use any entrance (although the ones off the highway will be kinder to your car).
The main picnic area entrance is clearly signed, but if you miss it, then you can always turn in by the Grantville Cemetery. Drive around to the left behind the cemetery, and bush bash your way down a rough path until you come to "Bill's Gate". Turning right here will take you up into the higher parts of the reserve (towards Dunbabbin Road Picnic Area) with some great views down across rolling paddocks to the water, and past some magnificent stands of grass trees. Turning left will take you down beside the cemetery, and eventually around to the Bass Highway picnic area.
So, there you have it. That's what's behind that picnic spot on the highway. It's a great place to stop and stretch your legs when you next head down to Phillip Island, and for nature lovers, it's a destination in itself.