Recently Rachel from Blind Sports and Recreation Victoria (BSRV) invited me to accompany her on a trip to Coolart Wetlands. The purpose of the trip was to check out the accessibility of the park trails before organising a sensory walk for people who are blind or visually impaired. As a person with lived experience and a recently appointed Ambassador for BSRV, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to provide input about possible hazards in the area. But it wasn’t all about ‘work’. There was so much to learn about the unique flora and fauna at Coolart.
Travelling to Coolart Wetlands
Coolart is about 70 km south-east of Melbourne on the Western Port coast of the Mornington Peninsula. The drive took about an hour, but the time went quickly because Rachel and I had lots to talk about even though this was the first time we had met in person. In no time, we turned off the main highway as the car bumped onto the crunchy unsealed road that led to the Coolart parking area.
It was a beautiful sunny day towards the end of summer. Annabel and Roger, a vibrant couple, met us at the Visitor’s Centre. They are members of Friends of Coolart, and Park Walk Volunteers, a community of volunteers who support Parks Victoria by guiding free walks for the public. The volunteers promote the parks and accompany groups on walks and impress them with their extensive knowledge of nature in the great Aussie outdoors. Lisa Ting, the Community Activation officer from Parks Victoria was also there to meet us. She coordinates the Park Walks program and is excited to be partnering with Blind Sports to make Park walks accessible to people with blindness or vision impairment.
The morning started with a history lesson
Coolart Wetlands were originally home to the Bunurong people of the Kulin nation for possibly thousands of years. British settlement changed everything when brothers, Alfred and Henry Meyrick took possession of the land in 1840 and used if for grazing. An imposing homestead was built on the land that still stands today. The exterior of the mansion remains in its original state. However, these days the mansion is closed for interior renovations.
Walking along the beach path
After a short discussion and a perusal of the map, the five of us set off towards Western Port Bay. The path is man- made from crushed gravel with very few inclinations. The gritty sensation underfoot makes the path safe and slip proof – for most of us anyway. In some places the path narrows slightly but the native grasses with their pointy tips tickle your legs as a warning that the edge is close.
The landscape was alive with the sounds of birds singing high up in the treetops. Every so often we’d stop to listen to a particular bird. Roger was in his element.
‘That’s a hoary-headed grebe’.
‘Did you hear the noisy minor?’
‘Oh, and that’s a chestnut teal.’
Occasionally Rachel interjected with ‘No, it’s definitely a red-capped plover’.
Rachel is certainly no slouch either when it comes to bird calls. As for me, I just know your usuals. Kookaburras, magpies and wattlebirds. Note to myself. I must study up on bird calls.
We continued until we got to an old wooden bridge that crosses the path. Standing on the bridge and listening to the large variety of birds singing and the occasional splash in the water below was an amazing experience. Roger increased our bird knowledge by sharing information about the migratory birds. I think this dude must have a PhD in ‘birdlife’. However, we didn’t stay too long on the bridge because there was a distinct odour of sulphur emanating from the inlet.
Change of landscape
Not far past the bridge, the gritty paths changed to soft sand. The aroma changed to the pleasant perfume of the ocean. Sounds of seabirds could be heard above the beating of the waves on the beach. The sun seemed hotter now that we were no longer under a canopy of trees as we had been on the first part of the walk. The ocean seemed inviting. I suddenly had the desire to run onto the sand and dive into the water to cool off. Reality check??? That’s not what I was here for.
A different direction
On the way back, we changed directions after crossing the bridge. The path was not as well maintained as the beach track. There was some debris that had to be moved such as small fallen branches and the path was uneven in some places. However, with careful guides giving verbal cues, the accessibility for blind and vision impaired people was still at a high level. And anyway, this is nature after all.
The secret hide
This trail led us to a hide, a structure that reminded me of a two-level wooden oversized hen-house. We climbed the stairs to the top-level viewing platform. The hide overlooked a large lake that was home to families of ducks and other water birds. It was so serene and peaceful listening to the birds singing and chatting to each other in their natural habitat. Occasionally you could hear a large bird glide and slide across the surface of the lake. I’m sure our feathered friends were unaware of any human presence, as we observed them from our secret location.
‘Work’ done – Time for a picnic
Rachel and I relaxed over a picnic lunch under the tall, leafy trees in front of the mansion before the long drive back to Melbourne. As I reflected on the beauty and diversity of the Australian landscape, I also considered the accessibility of Coolart Wetlands for people who are blind or vision impaired. In my opinion, it’s a safe haven with well- maintained walking tracks not to be missed.
Thanks so much to Rachel for adding some links and edits to this post. Also to Lisa for supplying the beautiful photos and not forgetting Roger and Annabel for sharing their knowledge and being so much fun.
We acknowledge the Bunurong People as the traditional custodians of Coolart lands and we pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and future.