GREATEST DRIVING TOURS AND HERITAGE TOWNS
French navigator and explorer Nicholas Baudin is credited as being the first European to sight various landmarks along Victoria’s rugged western coastline. With Baudin aboard Le Geographe in 1802 was naturalist Francois Peron, who wrote “continuing our journey along the coast we passed a conical peak; it received the name Pitou de Reconnaisance.”
That peak was most likely the extinct volcano known today as Tower Hill, clearly visible over twenty kilometres away on land and used as a navigational mark by seafarers from the earliest days of Australia’s colonisation. Sealers’ and whalers’ huts gave way to permanent settlement at Portland, Port Fairy and Warrnambool in the 1830s, then migrants came overland to the rich soils of the Western District.
Irish settlers – refugees from the potato famine - found the ruddy brown volcanic soil around Tower Hill perfect for potato growing. A patchwork of small holdings flourished on the rolling green slopes, with much of the produce being hauled overland through Stawell to diggers on the goldfields between Bendigo and Ballarat.
Before long, a town called Koroit settled on Tower Hill’s northern slopes, catering to the needs of farmers and carters. In those early years it was a bustling commercial centre larger than its neighbour, Warrnambool.
Koroit’s first public building was the Tower Hill Lake National School, constructed in 1858 of local stone at a cost of 750 pounds. The school is a replica of the Irish design with a central headmaster’s residence flanked by classrooms. Twenty years later it was bursting at the seams with 200 children and a schoolmaster with family of seven. Derelict for decades this century, almost demolished, the building has been restored.
Koroit Botanic Gardens features trees reputedly selected by famed botanist Baron von Mueller to the 1880 plan drawn by William Guilfoyle. Five conifers remain that can be dated to the original plan, and six trees are listed on the National Register: one of these, the dragon’s blood tree, is also included on the World Rare and Endangered list.
Today, Koroit is a small, quiet town with its architectural heritage largely intact and its connections to the once predominant Irish population still conspicuous. Significant buildings include an imposing two-storey bank, originally a doctor’s residence built in 1876, Koroit Hotel built in the early 1850s as a simple two-storey bluestone hotel - revealing an Art Nouveau facade added early this century. The court house, post office, library and many Irish style cottages can be found on the town’s heritage trail.
Iin the last few years many of Koroit's heritage buildings have been restored, and there is a very good bakery in the main street. Suddenly, Koroit seems alive again.
A few kilometres south, the volcanic cone of Tower Hill is famed for its crater island. Extinct for over five thousand years, stripped of its trees, just forty years ago the crater and island were barren grass covered hills devoid of plant or animal life. A revegetation program was based on an oil painting of Tower Hill by renowned artist Eugene von Guerard, which allowed individual species to be identified and replanted.
Declared the State’s first national park in 1892, the revegetation program has been successful. Today the park is a haven for kangaroos, koalas, emus and birds; there are walking tracks, picnic grounds and information centre. The peak lookout with far-ranging views shouldn’t be missed.
Koroit is located 280km west of Melbourne, just off Princes Highway past Warrnambool. It's a three and a half hour drive.
STAY THE WEEKEND AT THESE RECOMMENDED PLACES:
Aqua Ocean Apartments, Warrnambool: spacious, with the lot. opp Maritime Museum
M 0422 313 601
Quamby Homestead, Woolsthorpe. Heritage homestead in beautiful country. P 03 5569 2395
Oscar's Waterfront Boutique B&B classy accommodation at Port Fairy
Merton Manor, Warrnambool.
Hearns Beachside, Port Fairy. Oceanside at South Beach