‘The penguins are called ‘little penguins’. They don’t like to be called Fairy Penguins. If you call them Fairy penguins, they won’t talk to you.’ The nasally accent of our intrepid bus driver’s incessant chatter was interspersed with grinding of gears as we pulled away from the college and snaked through the streets of Carnegie up onto Dandenong Road and finally the freeway in the general direction of Phillip Island.
‘Seat belts. Seat belts, put ya seat belts on.’ He had said accompanied by the first grinding of the gears. Then there were more jokes that went over the heads of the students from the Language Centre sitting dutifully in their seats with much less noise than most school classes would have and obviously they did not understand the bad jokes because there were no catcalls or jeers. Instead of laughing at his own jokes, the driver just punished the gearbox of the bus a few more times with a vigor that was matched by his strident babble about nothing really of consequence. He told us the bit about the fairy penguins three more times before he realized that perhaps they did not understand or maybe it was not so funny after all.
Watching the back of his balding grey flecked scraggly mane as he bent over the wheel, I wondered how long he had been driving buses or whether his ineptitude in driving this morning was just a result of having a rough weekend on the juice bottle. I restrained myself from offering to swap places with him; I would drive the bus and he could relax in the seat behind. The only thing stopping me from offering was the lack of an articulated license. Having driven an International truck and an old World War II truck as a kid, I figured a bus could not be that difficult but the lack of appropriate legal qualifications and certificates could be a problem.
Down at San Remo, he did redeem himself by showing us where the Mantra rays were swimming around in the shallows near the pier. Great big black shadows just under the water swishing around in silent graceful arcs, their barbed tails swayed behind them. Phillip Island is surprisingly cold for early December. According to one of the camp staff at the camp site where we are staying, it is around two or three degrees cooler than Melbourne always and that is due to the winds coming off the Antarctica which is a few thousand kilometers to the south of here. The seas are decidedly chilly.
The penguins fluttering up the wet sand at dusk are a delight to behold. Walking up to the viewing station we were able to see a little penguin chick peeping out of his burrow. He or she was probably wondering about the craziness of herds of humans walking down to the sea chattering aimlessly, rugged up against the bitterly cold winds that tugged and pushed at jackets and parkas. Above the seated watchers on the cement benches at the beach, seagulls rose and fell - bits of confetti thrown in celebratory glee - they hovered just out of reach. Wings angled just so, they rode the drafts, soaring then swooping down to land on the sand and harass the penguins who they wanted to intimidate into regurgitating their fish so they could feed rather than the penguin chicks.
To be continued.