Digest>Archives> August 2009

Cape Leeuwin

By Zoie Clift


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The impressive Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse on the ...
Photo by: Zoie Clift

It can be said that Cape Leeuwin is a resilient lighthouse comfortable with extremes. At 39 meters to the top, it is the tallest lighthouse on the Australian mainland. It is situated at the extreme south- west corner of the continent where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. And it is located on one of the three most treacherous coastlines in the southern hemisphere.

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Australia’s Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse looks pretty ...
Photo by: Zoie Clift

"At the Cape we get people of all ages, nationalities and personalities," said caretaker-supervisor Paul Sofiilas "I feel that for many people, lighthouses, because they are in rugged but beautiful places, represent a bastion of civilization pitted against the elements. Man against nature so to speak."

According to Sofilas, lighthouses represent a past where people in isolated places carried on a life of far reaching ranges: self- sufficiency, maritime safety (operation of the lighthouses) weather recording, and communication between shipping and coastal communities and the authorities.

"There is also the aspect of shipwrecks and the often extreme conditions that prevail at such outposts," said Sofilas. "So today they evoke that feeling for visitors, as well as being structures that were built to withstand such extreme weather."

Visitors get a chance to experience the grounds in pretty much the same condition as the first keepers. The lighthouse, which was built in 1896, is still operational and has the original Chance Bros. first order lens in operation. The site around is pristine with the original keepers cottages intact and the view back to the mainland is National Park with very little man made influence obvious.

The lighthouse was built using local limestone and required extensive excavation for footings that are over 22 feet deep. The tower has a solid base but sways about 1 cm at the top during gale force winds. Quarters for three keepers and their families were also built on the site with a fourth constructed a few years later. The last keeper to live in a cottage there did so until 1998. There have been a total of 23 shipwrecks at the Cape; twenty-two of these occurred before the installation of the lighthouse and one afterwards.

Until 2000, the lighthouse grounds were under the control of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. The grounds and houses were then given to the State Government to be vested with National Parks. In 2004 The Augusta Margaret River Tourism Association signed a 25-year lease to manage the site and conduct restoration works on the structures (other than the lighthouse).

Sofilas said it is important to convey to people that lighthouses are still important navigational aids. "At the Cape we have a weather station which has records going back 113 years (initially done by keepers- now automatic)," he said. " With climate change being a big issue this is an important part of our interpretation here. Since this job was done at most lighthouse around the globe it would be an aspect relevant to other lighthouses too."

Sofilas added that a misunderstood aspect of lighthouses is that they are neither needed nor operational. He said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority-the Government body that maintains and operates the tower- recently installed an AIS (Automatic Identification System) at the lighthouse. All ships over 70 tones must now emit a signal that identifies them. It is picked up by 2 small antenna on top of the lighthouse which then relays a message to authorities that identifies the ship and tracks it's movement up to 300 kms out to sea. This is for safety, security and environmental reasons. "So in fact they have reintroduced one of the jobs the keeper's used to do," he said.

According to Sofilas, who has served as caretaker for 8 years, around 100,000 people visit the site each year and around 25,000 do the tours in the lighthouse. He said a highlight of his work is organizing International lighthouse celebrations and experiencing the extremes of weather found here. "Due to the Leeuwin current we don't have frosts in winter," he said. "We have a micro climate here and the ocean is warmer in winter than in summer. We see humpback whales migrating north (May-Sept) then heading south (Oct-Nov) from the precinct or tower at times. So it really is a special place."

This story appeared in the August 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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