With nothing on my travel calendar until next year’s cruises, it was time for another mini break. This time I headed west to Portland, on the coast 350km from Melbourne.
What is now Portland was for thousands of years the home of the Gunditjmara people, then from around 1800 it became a whaling port. In 1834, the year before Melbourne was founded, the Hentys, a sheep-farming family originally from Sussex, moved across from Tasmania and Portland became the first European settlement in Victoria. By 1845 their holdings extended over 70,000 acres.
Through the nineteenth century the township grew, helped by the arrival of the railway in 1877. The now freight-only line (the last passenger train to Portland ran in 1981) was converted from broad gauge to standard gauge in 1995. Harbour trade was limited until the construction of a massive new breakwater during the 1950s. In 1952 when construction began, 21 vessels called at Portland to transfer 45,000 tonnes of petroleum products and 6,513 tonnes of food. By 1960 trade had reached 200,000 tonnes.
Today trade has grown to 7.6 million tonnes per year primarily comprising woodchips which are exported to China and Japan. They arrive on a seemingly non-stop procession of B-double trucks. It takes around 1,000 truckloads of chips to fill a ship. The trucks are driven on to ramps which then tilt them to about 45 degrees, the chips then falling out under gravity – watching the trucks unloading engaged me for a good while, as did watching a ship laden with wind turbine parts being brought into the harbour assisted by the harbour tugs.
But there’s more to Portland than the port. The town is home to dozens of well-preserved 19C buildings. One key attraction is the Portland Cable Tram, opened in 2002 – it’s not actually a cable tram; propulsion is by means of a diesel engine. The two grip cars are replicas of ones that ran in Melbourne until 1940. The two saloon cars in service began life in Melbourne in 1886.
The tram runs from the depot which houses an interesting museum, past the Botanic Gardens and port, along the foreshore past the Maritime Discovery Centre on to the 25 metre-high water tower which also serves as a lookout and museum to World War II. It then reverses to return to the depot. Amazingly, given that Portland is a town of only 10,000 people, the tram is operated seven days a week by a team of 60 volunteers.
Also run by volunteers and open every day is the Powerhouse Motor and Car Museum. I’ve been to many classic car museums but the interest never wanes. Lots to see: the cars themselves, vintage signs, a collection of stationary farm engines, a diesel tractor, penny farthings, pedal cars, old tools, model cars and much else. My visit fortuitously coincided with a short but heavy storm.
I’ve already mentioned the Maritime Museum which also houses the visitor centre. History House (the original town hall) tells the story of the area and is but one of several dozen mid-Victorian stone buildings.
I stayed at the much more recent Comfort Inn which did me well, dining each night at the 1856 Mac’s Hotel which I can thoroughly recommend for reasonably price bistro-style meals.
All in all a good if short break.