Digest>Archives> September 2000

Mutton Birds and Coast Watchers

Memoirs of Lighthouse Life

By Julie Falkner


When you imagine life at manned lighthouses, do you dream of the challenge of keeping the light shining, the tranquility of remote picnics, and the romantic isolation of such an environment? Allow me to introduce you to my grandmother, who will quickly dispel your utopian fantasies: “Our toilet tins had to be emptied and the men would try to choose a favorable wind, go to the cliff edge, empty and run.” Yet your dreams have caught a part of the truth, for Granny goes on to say, “I loved dear Mokohinau; those were the best and happiest years of my married life.” It was 1938 when my grandfather eagerly exchanged a Depression-era shovel for the adventure and self-sufficiency of lighthouse life on the rugged Mokohinau islands, about 100km northeast of Auckland. This lighthouse is one of the most distant from the mainland of New Zealand, and its isolation had been a source of difficulties ever since the oil-powered light was first lit in 1883. In 1908, for example, a resident lighthouse keeper was so desperate for supplies that he built a small tin boat and secured inside it three letters, each an urgent plea for assistance. When the wind was favorable, he sent off his metal envoy with a push and a prayer. Somehow it reached the mainland, and a few days later the longed-for supply boat arrived. With this history in mind my grandparents, Bob and Irma Naulls, arrived at Mokohinau laden with supplies ranging from mattresses and fishing gear to tongues and bully beef. They were warmly greeted by the principal keeper and his first assistant. Then they were shown to their house, which came with an ample supply of fuel for the coal range and kerosene lamps. While Irma busied herself with the unpacking, Bob began to learn about his new duties. One of his first tasks was to learn semaphore, the flag-based communication system which the keepers used to signal passing ships.

The light itself was a demanding responsibility which, in those pre-electricity days, required 24-hour care. The wick had to be kept trimmed, the lenses polished frequently, and the mechanism wound up regularly to keep the light revolving. In the light tower the on-duty keeper had a hard, uncomfortable chair to discourage him from sleeping.

If despite this measure he succumbed to the sandman, the penalty was severe indeed: instant dismissal if the light went out. When diesel-generated electricity came to the islands in 1939, the work became less onerous but now there were engines to maintain, and the new responsibility of sending in weather reports by radio.

While Bob devoted his energies to the light, Irma was responsible for feeding the family of four. To supplement the supply boat’s infrequent offerings, she kept cows and hens, grew vegetables, baked bread, went fishing, smoked cod and collected mushrooms. Nothing was wasted; she even gathered seagull eggs to enhance the diet of her baby chicks. In season, fresh mutton birds were a welcome addition to the menu.

These aptly-named birds were caught by the poke-and-dig method: Irma would poke a long flax stick into the burrow to confirm that it was inhabited, then dig down and pull out the plump young bird.

Food preservation was an essential skill. Sausages were stored partially cooked, with melted fat poured over as a protective coating, and eggs were preserved with a layer of a vaseline-like substance. Surplus butter was transformed into long-lasting ghee, which with its nutty flavour made fabulous fruit cakes. Storing food became easier after Bob and Irma acquired a kerosene fridge during their first vacation. They became the envy of the other Mokohinau families when they returned home with their prize.

When not catching mutton birds or preserving sausages, Irma had another role, that of teacher. She taught her son Douglas to read and supervised his correspondence-school lessons. These arrived fortnightly on the mail launch, weather permitting, and were returned with the next boat. The arrival of the mail was always an event. In addition to new lessons, there might be flower seeds from a well-wisher or a much-anticipated letter from family. At Christmas time, toys and books for the children would arrive, sent by kindly mainland benefactors.

Medical care was primarily a do-it-yourself affair and when Bob developed a toothache, he at first endured sleepless misery. Then the maintenance ship arrived, carrying a purser with a reputation for tooth-pulling. Another Mokohinau resident went first and when she returned, ashen-faced, Irma begged her to assure Bob that it had been a relatively mild experience. Somewhat unsteadily, she obliged. So Bob in his turn, fortified by a tot of rum, faced the amateur dentist. While the latter pulled like grim death, the former clutched the bunk viciously and finally their mutual goal was achieved. But this hard-pulled success was incomplete, for a second tooth was deserving of the same fate. Bob now begged shamelessly to be released, but his tormentor had not gained his reputation through mercy. Down went another tot of rum and the excruciating agony began once again. The grey ghost who arrived ashore greeted his wife with a most reproachful glare.

Of course, the maintenance ship was not normally at hand in a crisis, and so cool heads and a good supply of disinfectant had to suffice.

Neither Irma nor her daughter Dawn will ever forget the day when the little girl, eager to help dig the potatoes, had an encounter with a garden fork. There was no time for queasiness at the sight of the prong which had gone right through her tiny foot. Disinfectant, hot water, ointment and the placid kindliness of the principal keeper’s wife saved the day.

Dealing with the daily chores and crises on their isolated islands left Bob and Irma little time for concerns about the larger world beyond their shores. That is, until one night in June 1940 when a German raider stealthily transformed the nearby waters into a deadly minefield. A few days later, the distant war became a sudden, terrible reality when the lighthouse families woke to see lifeboats dotted on the ocean. The steamer Niagara had become the first victim of the unsuspected German mines. Its golden cargo, intended to help finance the British war effort, was now on the ocean floor and its passengers, relieved to be alive, were helplessly awaiting assistance. The keepers were shocked to learn that they may have played an unintentional role in this disaster: the German vessel had possibly used their light to determine the shipping access route and hence where to sow its deadly seeds. So in December 1940 the government decided to turn off the Mokohinau light, and it remained in darkness until after the war.

Minesweepers now became a regular sight and the Mokohinau population was swelled by the presence of coast watchers, ever vigilant for signs of an invading force. Douglas remembers them well, not for their military expertise but because occasionally they would offer the island boys a treasured gift: a bar of chocolate. Such a rare treat was worth more to these children than all the gold lost with the Niagara.

Mokohinau lighthouse life was often arduous, and yet there were also idyllic moments. Irma remembers with pleasure rowing to a tiny cove for peaceful picnics, and on chilly evenings “sitting knitting or writing letters with the [range] door open and my slippered feet resting on the oven floor.” Who needed access to a cinema when entertainment was provided by the restless energy of the blowhole, the awesome magnificence of the sunsets, the raucous cries of the seabirds, and the constant change of the sea?

It is nearly sixty years since Bob, Irma and the children left Mokohinau, and their house is long gone. The lighthouse was automated in 1980, and so the light which once demanded constant care and continual winding is now controlled by the click of a far-away mouse. Only the occasional maintenance worker or curious visitor now climbs up to the lonely lighthouse. And only a few of those who make the climb pause to remember the keepers and their families who once endured isolation, storms and tooth-pulling trials in the service of the light.

This story appeared in the September 2000 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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