A walk or cycle in splendid isolation awaits on a French Island day trip from Melbourne. For somewhere so accessible from the city, the island’s vast expanse of trees and scrubland feel a million miles away. 70% of the island is a national park, with the remainder sparsely populated. One of the main reasons that we decided to visit the island was because of its large koala population. In 2014 it was reported that the island was home to about 3000 Koalas.¹
The ferry to the island leaves from Stony Point and takes only fifteen minutes. Best of all, Stony Point itself is connected to the city by train, so a car is not even necessary to get there. Passengers coming from Melbourne will need to change to the diesel-powered Stony Point line at Frankston. If you do have a car, the drive from the centre of Melbourne takes just over an hour.
The ferry costs A$26 for an adult ($13 each way). 7 or 8 ferries make the return journey daily, depending on the day of the week. Some continue on to Philip Island. The full ferry timetable can be found on the Western Port Ferries website. We visited on a public holiday and the ferry was very busy but most people were going to Philip Island. Once we started walking on French Island we only saw a handful of other people all day.
What to bring to the Island
Sunscreen and a hat
There is not much shade on parts of the island.
The weather can be quite changeable. Also useful as a parasol on sunny days.
The flies are annoying (in summer at least) and the mosquitos are bitey.
Plenty of food & water
The general store is pretty much the only place to buy food and water on the island.
A camera (preferably with a telephoto zoom lens) and/or binoculars
For looking at and taking photos of koalas high up in the trees. You may also see some lower down but it’s worth being prepared.
The significance of koalas on French Island
The koalas of French Island have a fascinating history. Although they seem very much at home now, they were actually introduced to the island in the 1890s. Meanwhile, hunting koalas for fur in South Australia and Victoria was very common. It had the effect of nearly wiping them out across the rest of Victoria and actually making them locally extinct in South Australia. The koala population on French Island however, thrived, and was later used to repopulate areas of the 2 states.²
According to a sign with information about the French Island National Park near the Tankerton Jetty, French Island koalas are still used to repopulate other areas because the population of koalas on French Island are completely free from chlamydia, a disease both common and devastating in other koala populations. Chlamydia in koalas can cause blindness, infertility and infections that can lead to death.³
The ferry from Stony Point goes straight to Tankerton Jetty on French Island. From there, there are a number of options for exploring the island. Walking is what we did, but cycling is also an option. If you are cycling you will need to either bring a bike with you on the ferry ($8 extra return) or hire one from the French Island General Store. Mountain bikes are recommended as none of the roads or trails are paved.
There are also tours of the island available. They are run by “enthusiastic 4th generation Islander Lois Airs” of frenchislandtours.com.au. You will need to book ahead and will be met at the jetty. I haven’t done the tour but from some of the reviews I’ve read it sounds like it is a good way to see the island and learn about its history, especially if walking or cycling don’t appeal to you.
French Island General Store
The rustic General Store is 3 kilometres from Tankerton Jetty but does run a complimentary shuttle bus on weekends and public holidays for people hiring bikes or eating at their cafe.Walking to the store takes about 35 minutes. The French Island General Store, or Figs, is the only shop and post office on the island. It also has limited accommodation options. Their website has more information.
Old Coast Road walking track
Walking north from the jetty you will see a bridge leading to Coast Road. Further along this road is a turn off to the old coast road, which is now a path that snakes along beside the straight new Coast Road. It takes a little longer than the new Coast Road but it is a much nicer route to walk along.
The Pinnacles Track and Lookout
Not long after the Old Coast Road rejoins the Coast Road you will see a turn-off up a slight hill to the right. This is the start of the Pinnacles Track which leads up to the Pinnacles Lookout. Further along the Pinnacles track there are a lot of gum trees where koalas may be spotted so keep an eye on the forks in the trees.
It took an hour and 20 minutes to reach the Pinnacles Lookout from the start of the Pinnacles Track, including some time to stop and take photos. The lookout is not not particularly high up, but the surrounding area is mostly flat so you can see for quite a distance. The Pinnacles Lookout is the second highest point on this low-lying island.
From the Pinnacles lookout it is possible to keep going down to a track that leads to Clump Road which in turn leads to Tankerton Road and back to the general store. Walking there took us about an hour and 50 minutes. Along the way saw a few more koalas and this time they were very close to the ground.