It seems strange to wish for bad weather on a trip, but I’m happy to see a squall heading my way. I am sitting on the back porch of the assistant lighthouse keeper’s cottage at Point Hicks in Gippsland. We are in the middle of a lighthouse road trip across the east of Victoria and the approaching inclement weather seems more in keeping with this epic slice of coastal real estate.
In my mind I am looking for the sea-swept lighthouses of fiction; wind and weather seem more in keeping with the harsh beauty of these places where land and sea collide and they make me think of the stoicism and isolation of the early lighthouse keepers. The truth is that modern lighthouses are mostly automated. GPS has essentially replaced the lighthouse keeper and the lights are solar-powered, plastic and many times dimmer than their predecessors – they now draw in tourists rather than repel wayward vessels. But what remains is the architectural wonder, the rich history and the rugged beauty of these ultimate waterfront properties. We started our road trip with two days at Gabo Island, one of the most remote lighthouse stays that is under the remit of Parks Victoria. We park the car at Mallacoota airport and take a plane from Merimbula Air Services to island, a precaution in case the sea is too rough for a boat. But we needn’t have worried, the sun is shining and the sea is calm. But that is not always the case. Gabo Island lightstation (the complex of lighthouse and accommodations) is located at a particularly dangerous spot where the Southern Ocean, Tasman Sea and Coral Sea all meet in a swirl of seawater that was perilous to early sailors. Ships were lost regularly until Gabo Island lighthouse was first lit in 1862, hewn from the pink granite rocks that now surround the lighthouse. Our home for the next two nights is the assistant lighthouse keeper’s cottage made from the same pink granite as the lighthouse. The three-bedroom house is decorated with seal skulls, feathers and ephemera that add to the wild feel of the island. We have the island to ourselves, save for a couple of daytrippers who have their own boats, and Parks Victoria’s Leo Op Den Brouw, the modern lighthouse guardian who has watched over the island for 20 years. “I think people like lighthouses because they are symbolic of security and a fixed place and coming home safely,” Op Den Brouw tells us on a tour of the lighthouse. “You know that what you are doing here is part of something bigger, you are connected to all those ships that are going past – though probably more so in the early days.” Gabo Island lighthouse at sunset sees the pink granite glow and the view from 47-metre-high tower is spectacular. In an era of disconnection it is good to remember there was a time when your safe passage along this dangerous coast was in the hands of a string on human beings manning these often lonely, and always labour-intensive, beacons of protection. The following morning I take my coffee out to the back deck and watch a group of Australian fur seals on the red rocks, eyeing off a rival New Zealand fur seal colony a few bays over, staring balefully at each other like Wallabies and All-Blacks fans at a match. Later we dip our toe in the same bay as the New Zealanders, walk the length of the island to swim at the private beach, and end the day as the lighthouse keepers did, sitting around the family dinner table playing card games. It’s still sunny when we arrive at Point Hicks, a few hours west of Gabo Island. This lighthouse has been helping sailors since 1890 and the cottage was built soon after made with wood that was salvaged from a shipwreck. There are two assistant keepers cottages – Eastwinds and Westwinds – plus the head keeper’s residence as in its heyday Point Hicks was a three-man job. The feature of Point Hicks is the spiral staircase that is bolted to the sides of the lighthouse walls, with no central column, meaning you can get a vertigo-inducing view straight down, or up, as you climb the 162 steps to the top. But it was hardly a plum posting, so remote was it that even lighthouse keepers considered it a demotion. But this isolation brings time to think, no phone, no wifi but plenty of wombats, dolphins, seals and a family of blue fairy wrens that welcome you to the property and rarely leave the back porch. The accommodation, which was only recently returned to Parks Victoria’s management, is homey and comfortable with a 180-degree horizon view from the sturdy furniture on the back porch – you may not be on an island here but, with the lighthouse wedged between the accommodation you feel more exposed at this stay, more at the whim of the elements. And that’s when our weather arrives. We get a glimpse of the weather that wrecked the SS Saros and the SS Kerangie the remains of which are a short walk from the cottage. It whips up the scrub on a wander through a series of middens left by the traditional owners. And it is the perfect setting for a ghost story from Parks Victoria Lightstation Office Paul Harper. The tale involves Kristofferson, a keeper from the 1940s. A keen crayfisherman Kristofferson went out to check the craypots one night and never returned. Soon after people started hearing loud footsteps in the lighthouse when no one was around to make them. “I’m not into ghosts but something was happening here,” Paul says. “We had a succession of nights where we kept turning the stairway lights off in the lighthouse and they would be turned back on.” Four years ago, Kristofferson’s younger sister died and her family called the lighthouse to tell them that on her deathbed she confessed suspicions her brother had been murdered after his wife was having an affair with the single assistant lighthouse keeper next door. Once this knowledge was public, Kristofferson, and his noisy boots, shuffled off. From Point Hicks, our lighthouse tour takes us to Cape Liptrap Coastal Park and its resident lighthouse and finally on to Cape Schanck lighthouse on the Mornington Peninsula built in 1859 from the surrounding local limestone. There were over 400 lights around Australia’s 36,000 kilometres of coastline and one of the best ways to experience this is to play keeper-for-a-day at these wild and wonderful places with Parks Victoria.