Craig Tansley joins Great Ocean Ecolodge guests in the fight to save the tiger quoll.
There's an awful lot more talk about poo than you'd expect on a typical weekend away. Sure, they have a fancy name for it round here - scat - but regardless, it's the first time for me that scat has been the topic of conversation at a dinner table with strangers.
The guests aren't put off their dinners. In fact, they're hanging on every word. When you stay at Cape Otway's Great Ocean Ecolodge, enjoying the company of fellow travellers and the comfort of the cosy mudbrick lodge is just a tiny part of the experience. At the Great Ocean Ecolodge you're partly responsible for the resurrection of an Australian animal species from the brink of extinction; when was the last time you did that at a hotel?
If ever there was a match made in heaven, it surely was when Shayne and Lizzie Neal met: a zoologist and a natural-resource manager who shared a dream to help native animals in need and to create a sanctuary that nature-lovers from around the world could visit and help. They bought 67 hectares of coastal land, half of which had barely a tree on it (it was formerly an out-paddock for a dairy farm) bordering the Great Otway National Park, then spent the next 12 years revegetating it to become a sanctuary for native Australian animal species.
The organisation they set up - the Conservation Ecology Centre Cape Otway - includes a rehabilitation centre for sick and orphaned koalas, kangaroos and other local native species. It also undertakes research projects in which guests can be involved, or, at the very least, observe up close, to help threatened species in the region.
Their latest project is by far their most ambitious, with the couple attempting to resurrect the tiger quoll - the largest carnivorous marsupial on the Australian mainland. The trouble is, no one has had contact with one in more than a decade. The Neals have three tiger quolls whose behaviour is monitored and whose scat is used to train a team of dogs to learn the scent, so that next time there is a quoll sighting (and there have been several) the dogs may be able to track down the elusive tiger quoll. When one is found, the mysteries of the animal's disappearance may finally be solved.
House guests learn all about the centre's wildlife programs on guided walks with Shayne at dusk. They can go inside the quoll enclosure for an up-close visit with one of nature's most elusive creatures. Or, if they prefer, guests can get involved in the project, helping with a series of tasks in a tailored conservation experience.
All this probably says something about the types of guests the Neals try to attract to the ecolodge - the interest so far has predominantly been from overseas.
"We want our guests to own our projects with us," Shayne says. "The Parks Department has been looking for 10 years for any sign of a tiger quoll. We can find them.
"We're about helping nature fix itself. We're inspired by that and so are our guests."
If you're not an animal lover, just being here might fix that. From the orphaned baby koalas in the animal nursery behind the ecolodge to the cheeky young male kangaroos that box each other every morning outside your room, staying here is like having your face pressed up against the Discovery Channel. But it's the Neals' enthusiasm and their genuine excitement that are most intoxicating.
Right now, they're waiting on the results of possible tiger quoll scat found in Lorne. "We'll email you the minute we find out if it's a tiger quoll," Shayne says - and you know he will.
It's his and Lizzie's plan to make the tiger quoll a part of our national psyche. "I want them to be part of the 'big three' in the area," Shayne says. "Kangaroos, koalas and tiger quolls."
The lodge is surrounded by national park, with endless forests of manna gums that act like a magnet for koalas - it's the best place in Australia to see them - and it's just minutes from where Southern Ocean swells crash on to a craggy coastline punctuated by family-friendly bays.
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.
Take the Great Ocean Road past Apollo Bay and turn left at the Cape Otway turnoff.
Great Ocean Ecolodge has five guest rooms with en suites from $175 a person a night. Three- and six-day koala and tiger quoll conservation experiences are also available, phone 5237 9297, greatoceanecolodge.com.