Travelling Australia - Journal 2014
March 2014

Port Albert
Port Albert is a small town (population 248 in the 2006 census) south of Yarram with a varied history. The appearance of the town reflects this history.

The town site was discovered by accident in 1841 when the paddle-steamer Clonmel enroute from Sydney to Melbourne ran aground at night along the coast of then unknown Gippsland. Passengers and crew got ashore and a small boat was rowed/sailed to Melbourne for assistance. One of the rescue party looked around the area and reported favourably on it a potential settlement.

In the same year (1841) Angus McMillan pioneered an overland route from the Monaro (in New South Wales) over the Alps to the Gippsland coast.

A settlement (known as Old Port) was established on the Albert River but in 1843 this was moved to the present site where a port and town were laid out. A timber pier 250 metres long was built to accommodate trading vessels in the tidal estuary and, as the only trade outlet for the growing Gippsland area, Port Albert flourished. Ships left there carrying live cattle to Van Diemen's Land and New Zealand and wool to Sydney, as well as butter, cheese and wattlebark to other Australian ports. Imports were everything needed by the settlers. Port Albert became an official entry port for new arrivals.

The discovery of gold in Gippsland (Omeo in 1851, Walhalla in 1862 and Crooked River north of Dargo in the 1850s) attracted gold diggers and increased the number of passengers through Port Albert. These goldfields are in the mountains of the Great Dividing Range and prospective diggers arriving at Port Albert still had many kilometres to walk to the goldfields.

In an interesting twist to the history of Port Albert, recent excavations have confirmed the existence of a Chinese operated site (at Chinaman's Point) where locally caught fish were salted then sun dried. Dried fish could be transported long distances without deterioration and were an important Chinese food item. It appears the fish drying operation became a substantial user of fish caught by Port Albert boats. The site operator paid fares from China for his workers and required them to work off the debt (plus interest) drying fish for him before they were allowed to set off for the goldfields.

Heavy machinery used in the gold fields was delivered to Port Albert then had to carried by bullock dray to the goldfields many kilometres inland

Gold from the goldfields was transported to Port Albert under armed escort and stored in the vault of the Bank of Victoria (now the Maritime Museum) before being loaded onto a suitable ship. By November 1861 1,000 ounces of gold a week were passing through Port Albert. At that date that gold most probably came from Omeo.

Port Albert thrived while it was the only available port into Gippsland and while land communications from Melbourne remained poor. But this situation could not last.

Once the Gippsland Lakes were opened up by steam driven vessels and ports established there Port Albert lost its advantage. By 1870 Lakes Entrance had developed to the stage that a post office opened there and a post office opened at the site of future Paynesville in 1879 indicating that both these Lakes ports were competing with Port Albert.

More significantly, the railway line was being built from Melbourne to Gippsland. Between 1877 and 1879 the line was built to Sale and was extended to Bairnsdale in 1888. Also in 1888, regular steam-ship services were introduced between Sale, Paynesville and Lakes Entrance. Now the railway was the main communication while the steam-ship was local transport on the lakes.

Trade through Port Albert went elsewhere and the town once described as the "capital of Gippsland" was reduced to a fishing village. To complete the transition, the railway line from Melbourne reached Port Albert in 1892.

Port Albert - page 2
Graphic of SS Clonmel outside the Port Albert Maritime Museum. No illustration of the vessel survives and this is an estimate of her appearance.  
maritime museum
Port Albert Maritime Museum was formerly the Bank of Victoria where gold from the Gippsland goldfields was stored before being loaded in ships.  
general store
General Store built in 1856, when Port Albert was a flourishing trading centre, is one of the few buildings remaining from that era.  
Port Albert - page 3
Port Albert became a commercial fishing port. In the 1930s shark fishing was introduced in Bass Strait and boats from Port Albert were part of that fishery. By 1965 there were 33 commercial fishing boats operating from Port Albert but that number has declined to a handful now.

Now (2014) Port Albert sees a new role for itself as a recreational fishing port and as a tourist venue based on access to nearby National Parks, many of which are best explored by boat. A role is also envisaged as a focal point for Gippsland's heritage.

How much of this is achievable remains to be seen and a future as an access point for national parks remains uncertain. In our years of travelling I have visited many national parks and reserves around Australia; I am usually the only visitor (occasionally one of two or three) and must conclude that Australians and overseas visitors do not swarm into national parks. Claims at the planning stage for large visitor numbers to a national park or reserve should be treated as optimistic guesswork until proven otherwise. The long-term exception to this is if fishing is available.

But many of the other goals expressed for Port Albert are already available. Having more than a dozen boat trailers parked near the boat ramp on a weekday indicates that Port Albert is a recreational fishing venue already and the excellent Maritime Museum presents Gippsland's maritime heritage very well. Much work has already been done to attract caravans and motor homes with a public dump point and signs advising that free camping for 24 hours is permitted. As well, information signage around the town is useful and well designed and Port Albert presents itself as welcoming travellers.

mud flats
Extensive tidal mud flats at Port Albert limit shipping movements.  
mud flats
Boats at Port Albert.  
Port Albert - page 4
fish and chips
Fishing boats alongside near the restaurant and sea-food take-away.  
sleeping swans
A couple of swans sleeping while waiting for the tide to return.  
great cormorant
The Great Cormorant is not a rare bird although it does tend to avoid people and is not often seen in the numbers present around the Gippsland Lakes.  
Port Albert - page 5
white faced heron
The White-faced Heron is usually a solitary hunter prowling shallow water.