I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published September 16th 2013
Touched by History
Sitting atop Cheviot Hill and overlooking the Point Nepean National Park it's difficult to imagine that this small area of land has played such a pivotal role in so many facets of Australian history.
Point Nepean NP is a narrow isthmus extending from just south of Portsea to the waters edge at The Rip
Just 560 hectares of scrub-covered sand and rock, but a microcosm of 200 years of history.
Looking west along Defence Road the landscape is strewn with derelict fortifications, gun emplacements and the remains of Fort Nepean teetering on the edge of The Rip.
To my left is Bass Strait, one day a mill pond, the next a seething cauldron. Today the surf pounds a rocky strip of coastline which long ago claimed the steamer SS CHEVIOT and, almost a century later, Prime Minister Harold Holt.
To my right far gentler waters lap the shores of Ticonderoga Bay, site of the old Quarantine Station and, more recently, the Army Officer Training School.
Remnants of the old livestock jetty remain on the Bay side of Point Nepean, not far from the Quarantine Station
The withdrawal of British troops from Australia in 1870 led to a report which recommended the fortification of Port Phillip Heads. Work on Point Nepean's defences began in 1882 and led to a formidable array of artillery combining with other nearby installations to earn for Port Phillip the title of the most heavily fortified port in the southern hemisphere.
Fort Nepean's guns weren't fired in anger until 5th August 1914, just minutes after the declaration of war, when they were ordered to fire on the German freighter SS PHALZ as she attempted to escape to the open sea. A single shot across her bow, the first Allied shot of WW1, forced the PHALZ to turn around and surrender at Portsea.
Now derelict Point Nepeans fortifications played a vital role in two World Wars
Forty-five years later, on 4th September 1939, another Point Nepean gun fired the first Australian shot of WW2 when a coastal freighter failed to identify herself correctly.
All operational units were withdrawn from Point Nepean in 1945.
On the evening of 19th October 1887 the steamer SS CHEVIOT, en-route from Melbourne to Sydney, had just passed through Port Phillip Heads when she lost all power and drifted helplessly towards the shore.
Her Captain ordered sails hoisted and anchors set, but to no avail. The ship was dashed onto the rocks with the loss of thirty-five passengers and crew.
Derelict gun emplacements and observation posts overlook the waters at Cheviot Beach which claimed the steamer CHEVIOT and Prime Minister Harold Holt
Cheviot Beach was named after Victoria's worst shipwreck but remained almost unknown until Sunday 17th December 1967 when Harold Edward Hold, Australia's seventeenth Prime Minister ignored the advice of friends and entered heavy surf at this, one of his favourite swimming spots.
Within seconds he disappeared from view. A massive search ensued but no trace of Holt has ever been found.
The Quarantine Station
In the early 1850's authorities were looking for a replacement site for Melbourne's Point Ormond quarantine station.
The Quarantine Station - 1300 passengers from one ship were housed here in 1912
Point Nepean, remote and almost uninhabited seemed ideal but, before work could begin an unfolding tragedy landed on the colonies doorstep.
The clipper TICONDERGOA departed Liverpool for Melbourne on 4th August 1852 carrying 795 passengers and forty-eight crew. Three months later she hove-too off Point Nepean, a death ship flying the yellow quarantine flag. In the ninety days since departure 93 passengers had died of typhus and a further 7 would die at anchor before being taken ashore. 443 more were ill with fever, diarrhoea and dysentery.
Sadly Point Nepean's Quarantine Station was not available for the arrival of the disease plagued TICONDEROGA in 1852
Point Nepean was totally unprepared to deal with the catastrophe, doing the best it could with temporary facilities.
Construction of the Quarantine Station began not long after the TICONDEROGA incident. On one occasion in 1912 almost 1,300 passengers from one ship were quarantined here and more than 125, 000, mostly soldiers returning from WW1 were tested for influenza during the 1918 to 1919 epidemic.
Army Officer Training School
With advances in modern medicine the need for the Quarantine Station declined and in 1952 the Department of Defence took over some of the buildings to establish the Australian Army Officer Training School (OTS) Portsea.
The Army OTS parade ground with the old Quarantine Station behind
In its 33 year history more than 3,000 young men and women trained here as career officers.
The oldest building on Point Nepean, a former shepherds hut, also served as the office of the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army Officer Training School, Portsea
Point Nepean NP is a 'must see' location for anyone even a little excited by history. For everyone else it is one of Victoria's most beautiful natural landscapes with stunning views to both Bass Strait and Port Phillip Bay.