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French Island, VIC

Unspoilt island in Western Port Bay with two thirds being a National Park

French Island is an island in Western Port Bay which is 18 km long and 12 km wide. It has a coastline of 144 km, covers an area of 16,900 ha and has a population of around 50 people. It has no permanent electricity or water and there is a single general store at Tankerton. Consequently the island has no significant development and two-thirds (11,100 ha) is covered by the French Island National Park with a further 2,800 ha on the northern shore being the French Island Marine National Park. The island's coastline is predominately salt marsh with mangrove-covered mudflats. The island's interior is predominantly heathland with impressive wildflower displays in spring. There are around 580 native plant species (including over 100 orchids) and over 230 species of birds, including the white-breasted sea eagle, shearwater (mutton birds), pelican and ibis rookeries. There are short-tailed shearwater colonies at Tankerton and Tortoise Head and diverse birdlife, including 33 species of waders, on the shoreline. The island is also home to Australia's largest koala community. The rare long-nosed potoroo also has found a home on the island. Parks Victoria have recorded that only about 6,000 people visit the island each year.

Location

French Island is located in Western Port Bay 80 km south-east of Melbourne. Access is via Stony Point which is 94 km via the M3.

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Origin of Name

In 1802 the island was first named Western Island by Lieutenant John Murray but later that year a French scientific expedition led by Nicholas Baudin explored Western Port and named the island Ile de France or Ile des Francais. This name was Anglicised to French Island.

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Things to See and Do

Access to French Island
There is only one way the general public can access French Island. A ferry service operates on a circular route which starts at Stony Point (on the Mornington Peninsula),  takes 15 minutes to cross to Tankerton on French Island, then takes another 15 minutes to cross from French Island to Cowes on Philip Island and then takes 30 minutes to cross from Cowes to Stony Point. There is also a regular service which crosses to Tankerton on French Island and then returns to Stony Point. During the week there are eight journeys each day and during the weekends there seven services. The up-to-date information is available at http://westernportferries.com.au/timetable. Or tel: (03) 5257 4565.
Three important points: (a) the ferries are not all weather and will not run if the weather and sea conditions are not suitable (b) cars are not allowed on the ferry. This means the only vehicles on the island are ones owned by the Parks Victoria rangers and the local residents. (c) there are coach tours and the island is ideal for cycling (you can bring your own or rent one). The other mode of transport is the ever-reliable walking.

French Island Tours
Naturaliste Tours - this is a three hour tour of the island which departs from Stony Point and explores the natural beauty and wildlife of the island. For more details check out http://naturalistetours.com.au or tel: (03) 5257 4570. It is currently the only available tour on the island.

French Island National Park
There is an excellent Visitor Guide produced by Parks Victoria (https://parkweb.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/725763/French-Island-Visitor-Guide.pdf) which can be downloaded. It has a useful map and lists four walks on the island.
* General Store Walk – 3 km, 1 hour one way - leaves from Tankerton Jetty and passes through the small town. It is possible on this walk to see koalas and local birdlife including Purple Moorhen, Swamp Harriers or Cape Barren Geese.
* Old Coast Road Track – 5 km, 1.5 hours one way - heads north from Tankerton Jetty, passes two lookouts which have views across saltmarsh and Western Port, and passes through heathland and messmate woodland. The walk includes wildflowers in spring and it is possible to see the distinctive White-bellied Sea Eagle.
* West Coast Wetlands Walking Track – 9.6 km, 3.2 hours return is the island's most substantial walk. It heads north up the coast to Fairhaven Campsite and then east along Pinnacles Track to the Pinnacles Lookout which offers impressive views across Western Port. Beyond the Pinnacles lie the island's wetlands - Deuchers, Heifer, Little Heifer, Pobblebonk and Punt Swamps.
* Fairhaven Northern Beach Walk – 4 km, 2 hours return, is a walk along the shoreline from Fairhaven Campsite at low tide. The area is characterised by salt marsh which attracts shorebirds and migratory waders.

Cycling on the Island
The island is ideal for cycling but the terrain is often wet and sandy so a mountain bike is most suitable. You can bring your own or hire one from the French Island General Store, tel: (03) 5980 1209. Note that fresh drinking water is scarce on the island so it is best to bring your own. There are descriptions of six cycle routes around the island at https://parkweb.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/725763/French-Island-Visitor-Guide.pdf.

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Other Attractions in the Area

A Personal Account
I went to French Island yesterday (this was in late 2019). Yes, I know, the vast majority of people reading this will never have heard of French Island. So here is a crash course.
* It is located in Western Port Bay which, as the name suggests, lies to the west of Port Phillip and is most famous for Phillip Island where the Little Penguin Parade is an internationally famous tourist attraction.
* French Island is the largest island off the coast of Victoria. It is 18 km long and 12 km wide and has 144 km of coastline. It covers around 16,900 hectares and has a population so small that the school currently has a student population of ten.
* There is no vehicle access to the island consequently all the roads are unsealed (and often quite bumpy and pot-holed) and the few cars on the island (taken across by barge) do not have to be registered with the state government.
* There is no permanent electricity or water with the few locals relying on generators, solar panels and rainwater.
* There is one general store which operates as the Post Office and has a number of bicycles (for rent) outside.
* About two thirds of the island is French Island National Park which employs three full time rangers and covers around 11,100 hectares.
* The island's coastline is predominately salt marsh with mangrove-covered mudflats. The island's interior is predominantly heathland with impressive wildflower displays in spring. There are around 580 native plant species (including over 100 orchids) and over 230 species of birds, including the white-breasted sea eagle, shearwater (mutton birds), pelican and ibis rookeries. There are short-tailed shearwater colonies on the island and diverse birdlife, including 33 species of waders, on the shoreline.
* The island is home to Australia's largest koala community and, contrary to the popular belief that they will only eat a certain kind of eucalypt leaf, they have been known to eat anything and everything.
* The rare long-nosed potoroo also has found a home on the island.
Now here’s the really interesting part of this story: this is basically a substantial area of untouched bushland which is quite close (a couple of hours) from the centre of Melbourne. Its primary appeal ... well, actually, its only appeal ... is that is a great place to go bushwalking (you will definitely see koalas, echidnas and plenty of birdlife – I did and I was only on the island for three hours) and it is pure bliss for twitchers ie bird watchers. Those crazy birds that fly south from Russia and Alaska come here to breed and they settle in colonies which are undisturbed because there are no indigenous predators on the island.
And here’s the bonus: there is only one ferry (and it can’t carry anything larger than a bicycle or a backpack) and it does a triangle from Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula across to Cowes on Phillip Island and then to French Island.
The ferry and the tour of the island is owned and operated by Westernport Ferries who also happen to own the ferry service across the mouth of Port Phillip Bay from Sorrento to Queenscliff. Now last year that ferry took over one million people (and that is not counting all the vehicles it can carry) across the bay.
Consider this (and I love it): I was the only person on the tour yesterday. Steve, the guide, did an excellent job, showed me the entire island, and then I was the only passenger on the ferry back to Cowes.
They run that service every day ... even when they are not making money ... and I can’t see how my very modest $99 for two ferry trips and a three hour tour of the island could possibly have been profitable.
Thanks Westernport Ferries. I am impressed by your commitment to this remarkable and unspoilt piece of paradise. And, yes, I did see lots of koalas, echidnas and Cape Barren geese and other birdlife.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans French Island was used periodically by the Boonwurrung Aboriginal people.

* In January, 1798 George Bass entered Western Port. He named it Western Port as it was, at the time, the most westerly known harbour on the coast. He did not land on French Island. He thought it was part of the mainland.

* Bass returned in October, 1798 with Matthew Flinders. They anchored off Phillip Island.

* Lieutenant James Grant made the first known passage through Bass Strait from the west in 1800.

* Grant returned in 1801 at the instruction of Governor King. Although the expedition didn't circumnavigate French Island they named it Western Island.

* Nicolas Baudin explored Western Port in April, 1802. He renamed it French Island.

* In 1804 John Oxley and Lieutenant Robbins investigated the island but found it had "no great advantages to render it an eligible place for settlement".

* In 1826 a French vessel, the Astrolabe under Dumont d'Urville, examined Western Port, arousing fears of French colonisation.

* In 1840 the explorer Paul Edmund de Strzelecki passed through Western Port on his journey from the Murrumbidgee River through Omeo to Melbourne.

* In 1842 G.H. Haydon was stranded on the island which he described as "a useless mass of scrub, with scarcity of water and barren soil".

* The island's mangroves were burned in the 1840s for reduction to barilla, a plant ash rich in soda and potassium which was used in the production of glass and soap.

* The first pastoral run was established around 1847 by John and William Gairdner.

* Two salt works were established in the 1860s.

* In 1867 the land was subdivided and 14 lots of 4,700 acres were defined on the south coast.

* By 1868 a regular ferry service between Hastings and Phillip Island was stopping at French Island.

* The first land sales took place in 1873.

* By 1889 there was a regular ferry service to Tankerton from Stony Point.

* A jetty was built at Tankerton in 1890.

* In 1893 settlers were given 20 acres and encouraged to settle on the island.

* During the 1890s depression the government oversaw the establishment of six settlements. Only one family made a success of it, growing chicory, a coffee additive which they roasted in kilns.

* From 1916 until 1975 the island was home to McLeod Prison and an associated farm. It housed over 100 inmates serving the last periods of their sentences and was noted for its golf course, and its basketball and tennis courts.

* In 1923 the first koalas were transferred off the island to be recolonised.

* By 1930 it was estimated there were over 5,000 koalas on the island.

* In 1933 the island's population was 204.

* In 1963 the Victorian Government approved Western Port as a site for a BP oil refinery.

* By the late 1960s BHP had purchased 2,000 acres on French Island with a plan to build a steelworks.

* In 1976 French Island was classified by the National Trust

* In 1977 the prison was taken over by the Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation as a recreation camp.

* In 1982 French Island State Park was established.

* An enlarged French Island National Park was proclaimed in 1997.

* Sheep and cattle graze on the island today although tourism is now the main support to the island's tiny population.

* The largely unspoilt ecosystem is an attraction for holiday-makers and nature lovers. 

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Visitor Information

There is no Visitor Information on the island. The Parks Victoria website is very helpful.

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Accommodation

The French Island Visitor Guide explains: "Camping is available at Fairhaven Campsite located 5 km from the Tankerton Jetty on the west coast foreshore. Fairhaven Campsite offers 20 individual sites for up to 2 people per site, with the opportunity to stay in an idyllic natural setting. Only basic toilet facilities and water supplies (purify or boil first) are provided and due to the highly combustible vegetation of the island, no open fires are permitted at any time. A portable gas stove, or similar, is essential. The General Store is approximately 7.5 km away. Campsites are free but must be booked online at www.parkstay.vic.gov.au or phone 13 1963.

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Useful Websites

The Parks Victoria website - https://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/french-island-national-park - is remarkably comprehensive and has access to the downloadable visitor guides.

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