Sidetrips - Montague Island and Mt Dromedary

Montague Island / Barunguba

Nine kilometres by boat from Narooma lies Montague Island, a low rocky outcrop close to the edge of the continental shelf and start of the great abyss. For the past few days its distant presence had dominated the ocean horizon as we walked, and now we were going to visit it.

Accompanied by Liz and two friends from Canberra, Trish and Mike, we joined a group of people on a tour boat at the Narooma wharf, headed out though the imposing walls of the breakwater and powered over the big ocean swells to the island. As it is a declared Nature Reserve, only management staff, scientists and people on tours such as ours run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service can land on Montague. The surrounding waters, though, are a favourite place for fishermen and a many boats of varying size and shape bobbed about in the swell as we neared the island. From the clusters of boats, it was obvious where the fish were biting.

The lighthouse on Montague Island

The narrow gap between the northern and
southern ends of the island

Montague Island profile

As we circled the island, we spotted a small group of Australian fur seals basking on the rocks. Several entered the water and frolicked around the boat as we watched. A short distance on, a lone New Zealand fur seal barely deigned to raise its head as we passed. Apparently the level of sociality is one distinguishing feature between these two species.

Australian fur seals basking on the rocks

Australian fur seal

Life's good

Solitary New Zealand fur seal

Disembarking on the island landing, Dean, our ranger guide, commenced his explanation of the geology, biology and history of Montague. Perhaps I should say Barunguba, as this was its name for thousands of years before a European renamed it after his rich English patron. Once part of the massive Dromedary volcano, the island is the remnant of a secondary volcanic cone that was once linked to the mainland. It was a fertile hunting ground for the local aboriginal tribes and they would journey to this spot to collect seabirds and their eggs, as well as for ceremonial purposes. Even after the seas rose at the end of the last great ice age and cut Barunguba off from the mainland, they continued to make this voyage in bark canoes. Their legends explain how Barunguba did not heed the call to return of his mother, Gulaga, or Mount Dromedary, the imposing mountain on the landward horizon, and remained forever separated from her by the sea.

Gulaga looking across the sea to Barunguba

The light house

Europeans, with a more practical bent, saw the island as an important link for a series of lighthouses to protect shipping lanes along the South Coast and built the lighthouse and attached keepers' cottages from local granite in 1881. Unfortunately, human habitation also led to the introduction of exotic weeds, the control of which remains an ongoing problem for the reserve managers.

Head keeper's cottage

Storage shed with a view

Seabird breeding habitat

Pretty but unwelcome! Kikuyu and convolvulus,
two of the weeds on the island


Farewell to Barunguba

The ranger-guided tour was excellent - giving an overview of the life of lighthouse keepers, a chance to visit the lighthouse and cottages, a tour through areas where fairy penguins, silver gulls and shearwaters breed in summer, and a demonstration of some of the management issues with weeds and the preservation of seabird breeding sites. The island is an important seabird rookery and management currently centres around protecting these. Thanks, Dean.

As we returned to the mainland, we reflected on what we had learnt about Barunguba. We felt that we knew our companion of the past few days much better.

Climbing Gulaga

At 807 m high, the mountain that we call Dromedary dominates the landscape like no other landmark on the South Coast. It is no wonder that it is a place of great spiritual significance to the Yuin people, the original inhabitants of this region; walking along the beaches and headlands its presence has been tangible. To the Yuin people, this mountain is Gulaga and, just as a trip to Rome would be incomplete without visiting St Peter's Cathedral, this walk would seem incomplete without climbing Gulaga.

Pam's Store - Tilba Tilba

It was a clear sunny day when Liz dropped us off at the head of the track, Pam's Store in Tilba Tilba. We set off along a dirt road through the green paddocks of Tilba on the 5.5 km long 750 m climb to the top of Gulaga, passing by weatherboard farm buildings and grazing cows, the forest clad slopes of Gulaga beckoning ahead of us. A pair of wedge-tailed eagles circled lazily in a thermal above us.

After 1 km we reached the start of Gulaga National Park and found ourselves in tall eucalypt forest; the path narrowed and steepened as it headed unrelentingly upwards.

The track leading to Gulaga

View back over Little Dromedary and Tilba Tilba

As we gained height, the forest became more humid and tree ferns started to appear along the route. Midway we passed a spot where park rangers were working on a track to some abandoned gold diggings. In the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, a gold rush turned Gulaga into a mini-industrial site and the consequent erosion and timber cutting left deep scars on the mountain. Fortunately, the gold ran out and the mountain healed itself, leaving some rusting equipment and ruins as the sole reminder of "progress".

Drier forest on the lower slopes


We reached a saddle at the head of a four wheel drive track coming in from the north - Umbarra, an aboriginal cultural centre brings tours up this way to explain the significance of sacred sites on the mountain. After the saddle the path narrowed and we continued our steady climb through a cool green corridor of ferns and mossy rocks; more and more rainforest plants appeared as the canopy closed in over us. Finally, the track turned steeply upward once more, taking us through a superb patch of cloud forest just below the summit; a low light filtered through a canopy of massive pinkwood and sassafras trees revealing their lichen-covered trunks and scattered ferns amongst the exposed moss-covered rocks on the forest floor.

Tree fern lined track on the middle slopes

Fungus covered trunk

In the cloud forest of the upper slopes


Moss-covered rocks on the forest floor

A massive pinkwood trunk

Giant sassafras

Emerging at the top, the vegetation reverted to a thick scrub with pockets of distant coastline visible between the gaps. Thirty years earlier, I had been here and the summit was a boulder-strewn with a few trees giving unobscured views along 200 km of coastline from this point. Today, Gulaga chooses to hide them, perhaps to focus on the spirituality of the mountain rather than being a glorified viewing platform.

View over Tilba Tilba Lake from the top of Gulaga

Descending to the saddle, we walked out along a spur topped with a series of incredibly shaped granite tors. This was one of the sacred sites and we were fortunate to meet Greg, a park ranger, who was explaining the significance of the site to a small group. The tors were used for the life education of boys and girls, their shapes illustrating different aspects of growth and development. Other tors represented animal totems of the Yuin and yet others were devoted to women's business, which obviously remained a secret to Greg. Thanks, Greg, your explanations have certainly given the mountain more significance for us.

Before commencing their instruction,
the Yuin would place their hand on this
rock to clear their minds in preparation

These massive granite tors are symbolic stones that were used for the life education of Yuin children

With a cold wind blowing and the weather changing behind us, we descended quickly to Tilba Tilba, where Liz picked us up and drove to nearby Central Tilba, a lovely heritage town with streets lined with delightful weatherboard buildings. Here we warmed up with a cappuccino and delicious cake at the Rose and Sparrow, a café run by a school friend of Nello and Liz, Anne, and her husband, Chris. As with Barunguba, we have looked at Gulaga as a travelling companion on this part of our trip; one that we now knew a lot better.

Pink weatherboard exterior of the Dromedary Hotel Central Tilba

The changing mood of Gulaga