Digest>Archives> December 2004

The Cape Otway Experience

By Amanda L. Southall


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The magnificent 60-foot sandstone Cape Otway ...

Ever since junior high no one had to shush me in a library somehow the atmosphere of bifocals and hard-backs

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Stuart Marriner; Copyright photo courtesy of ...

convinces me that nothing I have to say is worth corrupting the room’s silence. Malls make me tired, hospitals make me sad, and my sister’s apartment makes me gossipy. Sometimes just being in a place can determine one’s mood, and for some reason just being at the lighthouse in Cape Otway, Australia filled me with excitement. The weather was dreary and I’d been riding in a cramped car for four hours, but all of that melted away as I explored the history and beauty that is the Cape Otway Lighthouse.

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Cape Otway Lighthouse lights the western ...

Cape Otway is home to the oldest surviving lighthouse on Australia’s coast. After three attempts to reach the remote Cape by land and two years of construction the lighthouse was completed in 1848. It was in operation until 1994 when Global Satellite Positioning (GPS) was

introduced. The beacon was decommissioned and replaced by a low powered solar light. The new light is a 36-Watt, 12 Volt, Tungsten Halogen and has a range of 19 Nautical Miles (27 land miles).

The tower stands 91 meters above sea level and is constructed of sandstone quarried from a nearby river and transported Australian style to the Cape by “bullock drays,” the Australian version of a covered wagon pulled by ten oxen. The lighthouse came alive August 29, 1848, illuminating the Bass Straight that ships had been painstakingly, and often unsuccessfully, navigating for 50 years.

Only 135 miles of water separate the Southern coast of Victoria, Australia and King Island, Tasmania. This, the Bass Straight, became known to sailors as “The Eye of the Needle.” Sea captains would hug the coast of Victoria to avoid being blown into King Island in the event of a storm. This precautionary navigating often resulted in shipwrecks, and it is estimated that over 700 ships fell victim to the rugged coastline and turbulent weather of the Bass Straight. Over the next few decades

nineteen lighthouses were constructed on the southern coast of Australia to aid sea captains in their voyages; the first constructed and most integral in illuminating the passage was the lighthouse at Cape Otway.

Before reaching the lighthouse at Cape Otway, you reach its surroundings. The port is an hour’s drive from the main road, but the journey is hardly tedious. The landscape kept my traveling companions and me entertained with its thick vegetation that hung above the road, reminiscent of a fairy tale. We later learned that we were traveling on the edge of the Otway rainforest. Occasional koala sightings and furry ponies around every curve in the winding road fueled our excitement and made the journey as rewarding as

the destination.

Previously the rainforest was home to the Katabanut Aborginal people, who were prominent in the area. They navigated the Bass Straight in bark canoes until European explorers began to clear the land for pastures and sawmills in 1850. Extensive brushfires in the 1920’s further

challenged the life of the Katabanut Aboriginals.

Cape Otway’s remote location thrilled me, but it made

construction and operation of the lighthouse difficult. Supplies were delivered once every six to 12 months to the lighthouse keeper and his family and a road that was navigable by motor vehicles was not completed until 1930.

When I stepped out of the car I stood with my friends and looked around, took a deep breath and almost instantly spotted the path leading to the lighthouse. And we began to run. That was how electric the place was. The excitement started with our eyes and moved to our legs which quickly became too energized to walk or even trot. The only pace that would appease our eager limbs was a gallop to the coast. As we neared the lighthouse, signs of habitation left by former keepers started to come into sight. The first keeper was dismissed from Cape Otway after only three months for “interfering with the light”. He was replaced by former sea captain Henry Bayles Ford, who served as the light’s superintendent for 30 years.

Still reeling with excitement we burst on to a new scene, one that would not accommodate our high mood, but demanded

reverence and contemplation. Graveyards, particularly the ancient one we unrepentantly found ourselves standing in, always give rise to a sense of awe in me. The eight graves at Cape Otway are all well maintained and randomly situated around a clearing in the vegetation. The graves are of two assistant keepers, two infant children of keepers and four victims of shipwrecks.

Just before reaching the lighthouse we came to a community of buildings that all existed to allow the lighthouse to operate. The oldest structure was built in 1850 as assistants’ quarters. Since then the building has been used as emergency quarters for shipwreck victims, a workshop, an oil store room, stables and a schoolroom. The Head Keeper’s residence, constructed in 1847, would have been the oldest building onsite had it not been demolished in 1857 to be replaced by the existing sandstone structure. A telegraph

station built in 1859 that was used as an army station in World War II, a radio beacon and a radar room also occupies the cape.

As we neared the lighthouse, I realize that the excitement that was shoved aside for the sake of solemnness at the graveyard or inquisition at the historically preserved structures had not traveled far. I could feel it creeping into my lungs with every breath and I knew that my index finger was soon to succumb to the desire to snap photo after photo of the beacon.

Stuart Marriner, 85, wouldn’t question my enthusiasm. Marriner grew up in Hordemvale, near Cape Otway. He first spied the lighthouse at Cape Otway from his parents’ horse-drawn

carriage in 1928 when he was nine years old. “I had never seen

anything like that magnificent white tower,” Marriner said. He remembers nights when rockets were fired to alert ships when the fog was to heavy for the light to penetrate, and finding celebratory liquor bottles that were thrown ashore to mark a ship’s arrival home.

An anchor is displayed before the base of the beacon. It belonged to a clipper captained by the famous Viking Eric the Red that became shipwrecked on the Otway reef in 1880. The lighthouse itself overwhelmed me by its size and beauty once I approached the base. The unique thing about the beauty of a lighthouse is that it is as beautiful from a distance as it is up close. The beacon is 20 meters high and sandstone white, save a red fence around the light. Cape Otway’s lighthouse is the fortunate recipient of impeccable preservation.

The lighthouse provides the best view of the Otway Coastline and the rainforest. And now, being in the lighthouse, I found myself overtaken with a sense of contentment and security.

Today, the history and traditions of the lighthouse are

appreciated every day. The Light station is open from 9 am- 5 pm daily; admission is $6.50 a person.

Lighthouses are literal beacons of hope and symbolize strength, power and serenity. Perhaps, in the same way books hush me, the force of this lighthouse, just by being near it, galvanized me.

For more information on Cape Otway and other lighthouses in Australia please visit www.lighthouse.net.au

This story appeared in the December 2004 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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