Light duty: The lighthouses of Victoria

Blue skies over Cape Otway Lighthouse

Peter Hanlon

Posted March 05, 2018

Meet the keepers past and present who have called Victoria's lighthouses home.

Lighthouses are veritable candles rising from the frosting of the most delightful vistas, the star turns in jigsaw puzzles and children’s television shows, portals to a sense of solitude that seems as endless as the horizon.

For Max and Doug Huxley, the lighthouses of Victoria and Tasmania are part of their marrow. Many are places they once called home. “The peace and quiet,” Max Huxley, now in his mid-80s, says of what he loves most about these beacons from a simpler age. “And the freedom. I hate cities.”

Little wonder. Max and older brother Doug were the children of lighthouse keepers. Born on King Island, they spent their earliest days on Swan Island off Tasmania’s north-east tip, their pre-school years on Deal Island 75 kilometres south of Wilsons Promontory, then lived at Cape Schanck, Gabo Island and Cape Otway.

Their childhood memories are wound as tightly around lighthouses as the stripe around a barber’s pole.

On Deal Island a passing Tiger Moth would spasmodically drop bundles of newspapers and comics, a precious connection to a distant world. Doug remembers one comic in particular, a futuristic, space-age fantasy full of pointers to an unimaginable future that in many ways has been realised in his lifetime.

At Cape Schanck they clambered down the cliff face to fish and explore the beach and rocks below, rode their bikes 15 kilometres to school in Boneo, watched holidaymakers descend each Christmas before retreating weeks later to their bustling Melbourne lives, leaving a treasured tranquility in their wake.

On Gabo Island they caught the mail boat to school in Eden and Mallacoota, boarding with locals for months at a time.

At Cape Otway, where during World War II the air force had a radar station and a navy detail signalled passing ships, they would hitch a ride to Apollo Bay in a supply truck, spend the week at school, then bounce their way home each Friday afternoon. “The Great Ocean Road in that stretch was just a loggers’ track in those days,” Max recalls.

Sun rising over Cape Otway Lighthouse

Cape Otway Lighthouse

Yet the isolation could be perilous. Max remembers an accident on Deal Island that underscored how far removed they were from the everyday world. He and Doug had piled up rubbish, lit a bonfire, and were leaping over the flames.

Among the burning debris was an old umbrella. Max fell on it, and a rib impaled his groin. Dodgy radio reception and rough weather delayed a rescue mission, and it was 10 days before he reached hospital on Flinders Island. “It was a big, long drama,” he says.

It’s these stories, the deep connection with a rugged history, that have long captivated Australian Lighthouse Association president Ian Clifford. A broadcast engineer by trade, he lives on the New South Wales south coast at Kiama (which has a lighthouse, of course) and has a technical fascination that stretches back to his Byron Bay childhood, where the Cape Byron lighthouse was as much a part of life as surfing, fishing and swimming. 

“[The keeper] might take pity on you and give you a look inside,” Clifford says. “That left an imprint on me.

“The people history of lights is fascinating. They were small communities, and all sorts of things used to happen and go wrong – deaths of children, disease, illness. People inhabited some of those stations for over 100 years, you can’t not appreciate that history and have a feel for the lights.”

Lighthouses have signalled more than just looming danger – they’ve been markers of evolution. Acetaline gas replaced kerosene around the 1920s, and the electrifying of many lights a decade later began a long process of demanning lighthouses that was finally completed in 1996 when the keeper on Maatsuyker Island – Australia’s southern-most station off Tasmania – returned to the mainland. 

Through conversion to solar power most can still be lit, and incandescent globes have largely made way for LED in lights that now service recreational vessels rather than acting as a main waypoint for commercial shipping.

“As technology has changed over the years the role of the lighthouse isn’t as critical,” Clifford says. “They’re a marvellous visual confirmation of something that you would have already had confirmed electronically.”

Lookout with stars at Point Hicks

Point Hicks

That said, he insists they remain a highly effective navigational tool, aids which – unlike electronic displays that are susceptible to malfunction – are as reliable as their foundations. “There’s still somebody standing on a ship steering a course to lights. You don’t lose lighthouses.”

There are 23 in Victoria, many with attendant cottages that have been sub-leased by Parks Victoria for tourism and accommodation usage. Tony and Prue Sheers run a motel outside Ballarat, but for 20 years oversaw a tourism business at the Cape Schanck lighthouse.

They renovated the weatherboard and limestone cottages that once housed the Huxley family to the standard they were when the tower was first lit in 1859, and quickly understood their market. 

“We had a few who turned up and checked out straight away because it wasn’t glitz and glamour,” Tony Sheers says. “They didn’t appreciate the history, that it was exactly as it had been in 1859.” It saddens them that the buildings are now empty. 

Max Huxley lives at nearby Rosebud and still visits his childhood home, wandering across the grassy expanse where as a boy he lay terrified that he was about to be thrown off the face of the earth as a tremor shook all around him.

When it stopped, his father was greeted at the lighthouse door by a silver cascade of mercury pouring down the stairs. Cape Schanck is one of few lights that sits in a mercury bath.

Ian Clifford loves the subtle differences that distinguish one lighthouse from the next. From Point Hicks, which he helped relight for its 125th anniversary, to Cape Nelson near Portland with its red trim and whitewashed stone wall. To the South Channel Pile Light in Port Phillip Bay, to Queenscliff’s twin white and black towers, he sees beauty in them all.

Storm clouds above Cape Byron Lighthouse

Cape Byron Lighthouse

Step into my office

Every fortnight, Renata and Colin Musson leave their Southbank apartment and go back to work. After a few hours in the car, and a three-and-a-half kilometre trek to the southernmost tip of the Australian mainland, seeing their “office” again never fails to take their breath away.

“I can’t tell you how many photos I’ve taken of the same scene,” Renata says of the Wilsons Promontory Lightstation. “It’s just stunningly beautiful, jutting out there on the peninsula. It’s a real privilege to go to work.”

The Mussons are lighthouse caretakers, sharing the job via a seven-days-on, seven-days-off roster, responsible for the upkeep of the three cottages beneath the 1859 lighthouse which can house up to 22 guests.

They clean, garden and carry out basic maintenance, and delight in sharing the site’s history through tours of the tower and the work-in-progress museum housed in the old radar station.

“We had some lovely German tourists recently, they were so keen to see a wombat. I came across a mum and baby, some of our resident wombats, they come out during the day down there. There was a wallaby in the yard later on. They were just beside themselves.”

A white-bellied sea eagle hovered overhead as the Mussons farewelled the Germans the following morning. The annual migration of humpback whales, from June through to December, passes right beneath the lighthouse. “Literally hundreds of them,” Renata says. “It’s just extraordinary.”

The Mussons are widely travelled locally and abroad, yet Renata reckons that standing on the lighthouse balcony on a still day, gazing east and west with no other construction as far as the eye can see, is hard to top.