Skull Rock, AKA Cleft Island, off Wilsons Promontory: New tour gets you up close

If you've ever been to Wilsons Promontory, the southernmost point of Australia's mainland, you may have been intrigued by a mysteriously-shaped and apparently hollow island that eerily stands out on the horizon.

The island, shaped like an oblong with a giant central cleft, hence its name - Cleft Island - is better known as Skull Rock, and what treasures lie within its vast cavern have been largely held secret, until now.

A new tour has allowed visitors to get up close with the island  via a purpose-built boat to tackle the swell of Bass Straight and navigate the national park's shores, which also gives passengers a fresh angle from which to view the park.

And it's not just the natural sights that are attracting attention, but the boat itself. The custom built, amphibious James Bond-esque vessel can cross land and sea, allowing passengers to hop on and off at Norman Beach,  where it four-wheel-drives across the Tidal River's mouth before verging into the sea.

The bright yellow vessel, the first of its kind in the world, was eight years in the making and is designed to have minimal environmental impact. It can seat about 30 passengers, who are provided with raincoats in case a rogue wave crashes over the boat, which the skipper tries - and succeeds - to avoid throughout our trip.

We have a sunny and warm autumn day for the journey, setting out before lunch for a two and a half hour ride. The first sea crossing involves a lot of thrilling, roller-coaster-like thumps into waves followed by sudden drops. Yet no-one gets wet, and no-one throws up, although you'd be well advised to chow down on seasickness tablets beforehand, because this ain't a smooth-sailing ride, no matter how calm the seas may actually be.

The first islands we reach are the Glennies and part of the Wilsons Prom Marine Reserve. The islands are known for their bird life and we see plenty of cheeky Cape Barren Geese, as well as New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves on rocks. But what is really surprising is the clear cobalt waters that surround the islands' rocky shores. The water is calm enough here for us to stop and move around the boat to take pictures, before resuming our seats for the next leg of the trip, to Skull Rock.

I gulp as I look over toward the hulking island, which still seems some distance away over the shipwreck-studded ocean floor and will involve a lot more of those thrilling bounces over the waves. But any fear of having to lurch over the boat's edge fades as the island and its gargantuan opening comes into clear view. Spanning 130 metres wide, 60 metres high and 60 metres deep, the Cleft is so big it could engulf the Sydney Opera House.

The mouth of the cave has a splendid carpet of green grass, which is being tended to by several Cape Barren Geese, according to our guide, and there's not a passenger among us who doesn't want to step inside for a closer look.

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However, only nine people have ever successfully made it into the cave. No boats can anchor here, so landings need to be made by chopper on the island's top, with a shimmy to the cavern's entrance via abseiling ropes - way too much work for the average human.

While I was disappointed to hear there was no treasure, what these nimble adventurers did find were old cannon balls left by passing ships practising their aim. There are also holes on the outside of the granite rock, which have been blamed on the Australian Defence Force.

We circle the rock's bumpy crown before zooming back towards the mainland to see the southernmost point of mainland Australia, South Point. And, because it's a calm day for Bass Strait, we continue along the eastern coast towards Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse and and its prehistoric granite rock formations, reminiscent of those found at Kangaroo Island's Remarkable Rocks.

We follow the coastline back to Norman Beach, taking in secluded, empty beaches, waterfalls tumbling over rock faces into the sea and seals frolicking in the water; viewing parts of the park that are only accessible on foot, returning eventually to Norman Beach, a little shaken, and definitely stirred.

THE DETAILS

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Tours depart at 11am daily. Cost: $135 for adults, $85 for children (three to 16 years), and $430 for families (2 adults, 3 children). See pennicottjourneys.com.au

STAY

The Church House, Fish Creek This spectacular and unique hilltop accommodation was built from the remains of a dismantled church. Now lovingly restored, it is filled with modern art and antiques and has been repurposed as luxury accommodation. The Church House has three self-contained rooms and includes breakfast, with an option to include dinner and wine pairings. From $495 per night. thechurchhouse.com.au

Inverloch Glamping Co Choose between cabins or tents at this hillside location out of Inverloch, near Bunurong Coastal Drive. The beautifully designed cabins, fitted with swinging seats, queen-size beds and potbelly fires have separate, private and spacious bathrooms. Outside, fire pits, hammocks and outdoor tubs to soak in sunsets and seaviews make this a truly unique experience. From $270 per night. theinverlochglampingco.com.au

Glenleith in Meeniyan Handily located in the buzzing town of Meeniyan, and in walking distance of its great restaurants and cafes, this new self-contained accommodation is roomy, with a kitchenette, lounge and dining area. It provides everything a guest would need for a weekend away, including Wi-Fi, parking and a breakfast hamper. The room (there is just one) from $165 a night. glenleithatmeeniyan.com.au

EAT

Meeniyan has some of the best restaurants in South Gippsland. Moos at Meeniyan is open for breakfast and lunch, with dinner Friday and Saturday nights. The menu includes great coffee, modern breakfasts and brunches, and lunches from hearty fish and chips to warming soups. Trulli is the region's best restaurant for dinner, with Italian-style fare and an excellent wine list. Both restaurants use the best produce from the region.

Closer to the 'Prom is the region's much-loved institution Gurney's Cider. As well as passionate producers of British-style ciders, they also offer tasty platters filled with local cheese, fruit, olives and meat - there's even a vegan option. Their location has unparalleled views across to Wilsons Prom. gurneyscider.com.au

If wine is more your thing, base yourself at Inverloch and head to Dirty Three Wines, where the drops are as good as the band they inherited the name from. Specialising in pinot noirs but also producing stellar chardonnay, the name also refers to the "three dirts" where their grapes are grown. The winery and cellar door has recently moved to Inverloch's industrial estate, and has become a local hangout, with live music, and platters of local produce. dirtythreewines.com.au.

A few minutes outside of Inverloch, Harman Wines was the family's former holiday house before they ditched their careers in Melbourne for the wine business and converted into a cellar door. In a spectacular rural setting, the vines have all been planted by hand from which they make sustainable, minimal intervention wines. This is a relaxed spot in which to enjoy their wines along with platters of local produce and wood-fired pizzas, which were an unexpected hit when they began delivering them during the state's lockdown in 2020. harmanwines.com.au

See also: Victoria's largest island has few visitors and even fewer residents

See also: Where to find Victoria's 'Grand Canyon'

The writer was a guest of Visit Gippsland

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