WHITE dunes stretch endlessly as kilometres of undulating sand hills blend into a horizon of sky and sea. With no clearly defined track ahead, I feel slightly unnerved. There’s not a car in sight and the thought crosses my mind that it wouldn’t take much to get lost out here.
“Just keep the ocean on your left” we’d been advised before leaving, “and look out for the green markers”. So, here we are, in the middle of what feels like the Sahara, and the only signs we’ve seen so far are a couple of ‘one way’ and ‘keep out’ signs. Where are these markers?
The wind is ferocious out on the dunes and at one stage, stepping out of the Colorado, I’m nearly blown away. In the distance, the wild spray of the Southern Ocean is visible, and, underfoot, the white sand is as pure as talc. It’s spectacular and we’re keen to explore; however, the wind has obliterated any tyre marks in the sand and there are no other cars in sight.
We’re in the middle of Discovery Bay Coastal Park, on the southwest coast of Victoria, on a vast complex of sand dunes; 1800 hectares of them that stretch all the way to the South Australian border. There are very few places in Victoria where you can legally drive on sand dunes, but here, tucked in behind Swan Lake Campground about 50km west of Portland, you’ll find some of the best dune driving in Australia.
This is a pretty special area to explore and test out your sand-driving skills; however, a permit and membership is required before you arrive. The dunes and adjoining campsite are managed by the Portland Dune Buggy Club, a club that was formed in 1969 and, by the mid-'70s, the area was officially declared a ‘designated dune buggy area’. Along with Parks Victoria, the Portland Dune Buggy Club is the sole regulator of vehicle activity here.
Coincidentally, our friends, who are part of a four-wheel drive club, were camped at Swan Lake that same weekend. We were camped nearby at Narrawong and had mentioned meeting up with them, but things don’t always go as planned.
We ventured to Swan Lake on the second day of our visit. It’s a large area that’s fairly exposed to the elements, with bore water, drop toilets and fire pits. The campsite has direct access to the dunes; however, when we arrive the place is virtually deserted. There are heaps of campers and trailers, but all the cars have gone.
Fortunately, we met Ron from the Portland Dune Buggy Club, who’s just walked one-and-a-half hours back to camp after his buggy broke down on the dunes. We spoke to him and discovered that both clubs had left earlier that morning. There’s no phone reception in the park, so we have no way of communicating with our friends who are now out of UHF range.
Ron points us in the direction of the flags which the dune buggy club provides. A sand flag is essential before you hit the dunes as you need to be easily visible out here. As the sign says at the start of the track, ‘no flag, no entry’.
We tell him we’re hoping to find, if not our mates, at least some other vehicles on the dunes. “You’re bound to find someone out there,” he says. He gives us the lowdown and tells us to stick to the green markers. “Keep the coast on your left,” he says, “and you’ll be right.” We lower our tyre pressures to 15psi, cable-tie the huge bamboo flagpole securely to our bullbar and set off.
4x4 explore: Simpson Desert
Out here in the middle of the dunes your driving skills are tested, not to mention your strategic skills with the shifting soft sand, the sharp descents and minimal track markings. These are the largest moving sand dunes in Victoria and they change constantly due to the prevailing winds which sculpt them.
It takes a bit of getting used to as, unlike a formed track, there’s nothing in front of you. There are no obstacles or trees to potentially hit and there are few, if any, landmarks. Instead, there are flows, dips and unexpected drop-offs.
There are only a certain number of cars allowed on the dunes at any one time; however, out here we couldn’t see even one of them. Where were those 30 other cars? And we still haven’t seen a green marker.
It feels like the Sahara, exciting but a tad unnerving. We drive for a while and tackle a few sand hills without venturing too far. Driving in soft sand is a challenge as it’s beautifully soft and smooth yet slippery and disconcerting at the same time. Hit the dunes straight and with the right momentum all is good, but things can get interesting if you take the dunes slightly at an angle.
Descending slowly down a couple of the sand dunes the Colorado is pressed to nearly red line as we crest the next hill, and some dunes are so high that, as we reach the top, all we can see is sky. There are no marked tracks and, at one stage, we take a crest and end up on the beach.
Driving on the beach is strictly prohibited, as is driving on vegetated areas, so we quickly do a U-turn and back-pedal. We have no intention of staying down there amidst a rising high tide and very little beach. The fines would have been the least of our concerns.
Eventually we spot a couple of other vehicles and join them. To our surprise, up the top of the dune where they stop, we meet up with Ron again. He’s back in his dune buggy, doing what he loves best.
Given we aren’t technically part of a convoy we’re thrilled when he offers to show us around, kind of a personalised tour of the dunes. He’s been part of the Portland Dune Buggy Club since its inception – nearly 50 years – and knows this place like the back of his hand.
Following a dune buggy is an exhilarating experience. They’re fast, furious, loud and exciting to be behind as we weave through the sand dunes. I had to remind Doug that the Colorado isn’t a dune buggy, but it was still clearly important to keep up the momentum. Seems that when driving on soft sand there are two main rules – more power and don’t brake – but rule number one is to keep the foot to the floor.
We finally see familiar cars as we’re exiting the access ramp. The timing is perfect as the sky darkens and we arrive back at Swan Lake Camp within minutes of a ferocious hailstorm that rips down awnings and has us all scrambling for cover. Within minutes, it passes and we’re able to adjust our tyre pressures, take down the flag and enjoy a well-earned drink before we shoot back to nearby Narrawong.
The momentum continues the next day out on the water, off nearby Cape Bridgewater, where the star attraction switches from sand dunes to seals. This place is home to a large colony of Australian and long-nosed fur seals, the only mainland breeding colony in Australia, and the best way to see them up close and personal is on a Seals by Sea boat tour.
Seals by Sea Tours are accessed by a walkway from the carpark near the café, which is the central point of the tiny town. From the café it’s about four kilometres to the blowholes, the Petrified Forest and lookouts of the Great South West Walk.
To walk around the cape takes about three hours, but this, like most of the Great South West Walk, which this area is renowned for, can be tackled in sections. The steep walk down to the rustic pier to access the Seals by Sea boat tour takes about 15 minutes and, down on the rocks as we wait, the excitement amongst our small group of seven is almost palpable.
Safely onboard and geared up, it’s a thrilling start as we speed out to the break. As we approach the rock platforms, we slow down and enjoy our first glimpse of the seals, ducking and diving in the water whilst others laze on the rocks, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
Our skipper Richard informs us their numbers have increased from 600 to 2500 in the 20 years the tour has been operating. At certain times of the year dolphins, blue whales, killer whales and penguins are all seen out here.
As we motor on beyond the rocks it’s hard not to feel miniscule as we gaze up at the towering cliffs. Above us, Stony Hill, the highest sea cliff in Victoria, rises 130 metres above sea level. “This was once the rim of an ancient volcano,” Richard chortles from the back of the boat. “You can see the crescent-like cliffs, they’re part of an ancient volcano that once shaped this place.”
Soon, we’re riding the waves again before eventually slowing down to enter the cave. Inside we can hear (and smell) the seals before we see them and, as our eyes adjust to the darkness, we marvel at the pink sedimentations of the cave. It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling feeling to be in their habitat.
The area around Cape Bridgewater and Discovery Bay might be slightly off the beaten track, but it offers plenty of adrenalin-packed adventure. Just remember to book your dune buggy membership before you head out to Swan Lake campground and, to make the most of the experience, come with a group.
Sand driving is no place for solo driving, unless you’re lucky enough to be escorted by a dune buggy. However, I can’t guarantee that Ron will be out there to guide you through these epic dunes, much as I’m sure he’d like to.
What a wonderful world, with 4x4 Explore
DISCOVERY Bay Coastal Park is approximately 420km from Melbourne via the Hamilton Highway, and 490km from Adelaide via the Riddoch Highway.
To get to Swan Lake Campground in Mt Richmond, travel west of Portland to Nelson for 30km. Here you’ll find the turnoff for Swan Lake Road and campground, a steep, loose-gravel road with a few sharp twists.
The site is on the Great South West Walk, 16km from Lake Monibeong. The site is accessible with 2WD but is 4WD essential beyond the campground.
Advanced bookings and payment required. Fire pits, toilets and bore water (though not suitable for drinking) are available. Campers need to be completely self-sufficient.
To drive on the dunes beyond the campsite requires a membership from the Portland Dune Buggy Club. A four-day temporary membership costs $50. It is essential to carry emergency gear and UHF radio. No motorcycles or quad bikes allowed on the dunes.
Portland Dune Buggy Club
Phone: (03) 5529 2468
There are two membership options available to enable you to drive on these dunes, either a 12-month membership, or a four-day temporary membership which is perfect for a long weekend and the most commonly organised. These are mainly used by four-wheel drive clubs but are also available to the general public and include camping fees at Swan Lake.
Seal the Deal
AS WELL as the Seals by Sea boat tour, you can also strap on a snorkel and mask and swim with the seals for the ultimate up-close encounter with these playful creatures. Sea kayaks will soon be available for hire, enabling seafaring adventurers to explore this protected part of Bridgewater Bay.
Back on dry land, the Bridgewater Café is the perfect place to sit back and drink in the views. The café decking practically merges with the white sand and is a great place to enjoy a delicious light meal and ale of choice with unsurpassed views, before you head back to camp at Swan Lake.
Seals by Sea Tours operates daily − weather and sea conditions permitting. Tours are closed over winter. Bookings are essential, with summer tours leaving almost every hour from 11am to 2pm. At other times a tour usually leaves around midday, but it’s recommended to phone ahead.
For more information phone (03) 5526 7247 or visit www.sealsbyseatours.com.au
Seal Tour prices: $40 Adult; $35 Concession; $25 Child (3-15 years); Free 2yo and under. All gear is supplied. Maximum of 11 people per tour. Snorkelling prices: $60 Adult; $30 Children (6-15 years).