The Mornington Peninsula in southeast Australia is a magical place, especially in the southern winter. Eucalyptus and Mediterranean scrub harbor wombats, wallabies, kookaburras and parrots. Nearly all the peninsula is protected within Wilsons Promontory National Park, 125,000 acres of forests, estuaries, windswept beaches, and half a dozen massive rock domes rising 1500 feet or more above the coastal plain.
Along the beach you push through thick scrub to reach numerous small estuaries where wildlife congregates. Walk across a nearly abandoned air strip, and dozens of eastern gray kangaroos – Australia’s second largest – will rise cautiously and stare at you. If you approach slowly, you’ll get within a few feet of the various family groups before they bound away. Climb up through the scrub forest and you’ll find mountain ash, the tallest broad leaf tree on the planet at over 300 feet (the wind and salt spray keep these particular trees below the species maximum). Occasionally a red wallaby will hop silently by, either unaware of or unconcerned by your presence.
But the best part of the peninsula at this time of year is the solitude. Even in the summer, when all the cabins and car camping spaces are full, you can walk a few miles in any direction and feel like no one else is there. In the winter, you don’t have to walk anywhere to get this sense because, in fact, no one else is there. Stop by any beach, and you’ll be alone.
If you’re walking the beach at sunset, you may even be lucky enough to see the Little Penguin – the world’s smallest at 11 inches – waddle out of the southern ocean and make an awkward headlong dash for its burrow up in the coastal scrub.
But why leave this to chance? A few hours drive to the west, on Phillip Island, you can visit a place where you’re guaranteed to see dozens of adorable Little Penguins making the mad dash for home. Of course you’ll be joined by hundreds of people, all sitting in stadium seating, with floodlights and “park rangers” imploring the hoards of tourists not to take flash pictures or chase the penguins as they make their short sprint to safety.
You’ve arrived at the Penguin Parade, one of numerous private wildlife concessions in Australia. The parking lot full of tourist buses is your fist tip that this is no Mornington Peninsula. The entrance to the Penguin Parade looks a little like an amusement park, with a ticket booth explaining the basic, sky-box, and ultimate penguin packages that start at $20 and top out at $86 for your own private beach experience. Enter the main building and you’re faced with a sprawling souvenir shop, two restaurants and hundreds of jostling tourists. A small diorama display demonstrates the various dangers that Little Penguins face in their journeys through the southern ocean and onto land – sharks, birds of prey, introduced foxes (no mention of amusement parks).
Walk through the main building and out to a long boardwalk that takes you to the beach, and sit in the stadium seats, and just after sunset you’ll see small groups of penguins pop out of the surf, survey the beach, and do their waddle across the floodlit sand. Loudspeakers urge tourists – in English, Mandarin and Japanese – not to take pictures or make sudden movements. Most people honor this request, but a few large tour groups from Japan ignore this completely, and rush back and forth toward the highest concentration of penguins. The park rangers – more like security guards – have their hands full keeping these rogue tourists in check.
As soon as the penguins are off the beach and waddling toward their burrows, it’s time to make your own mad dash – for the parking lot, to beat the tour buses out of the Penguin Parade, and try to forget that this operation even exists.
So here’s the question / problem: Why is the sublime Wilson’s Promontory National Park – where you can see penguins with a bit of effort – nearly deserted, while the depressing Penguin Parade is packed? We’re back to Chris Hedges’ thesis, that we want bread and circuses, even when the circuses are manifestly awful. But on a bright note, at least the world has places like Wilsons Promontory, if you look for them.