Tasman Light - My lovely lighthouse (Part 2)

The Tasman Island lighthouse.
Carl Hyland
Such was the positive response to the story by Paul Abbott last week, I have decided to do a follow-up with Paul and publish the remaining part of his story as a Lighthouse Keeper in Tasmania.

It was hardly surprising that weather forecasting was inexact, in those times, given the inexactitude of the recording. We did the best we could, conscientiously, with the tools we had, but sometimes we got it very wrong. For example, the wind blew almost constantly across the top of the island. I became accustomed to it fairly quickly. In fact it was so persistent that I sometimes arrived at the weather station wearing my heavy bluey against the apparent cold, stunned to find the current temperature was well into the 80s Fahrenheit. I recall I once estimated the wind at somewhere between 15 and 20 knots. Walking back to my house after that particular weather check, this so-called '20-knot' wind lifted me bodily up, complete with heavy jacket, and threw me over my back fence, which was a great deal higher than my waist. I am six foot four, and weighed about 13 stone then!

On another occasion I had just completed the weather sked to Bruny. It had included an assessment of the sea state as something like '1-2 metres (or it may still have been '3 to '6 feet'), south-westerly'. I looked out the radio shack window and noticed a vessel making heavy weather of it, just a little way out of the island. Grabbing the spyglass, I was amazed to see the Seaway King - a sizeable coastal freighter that ran between Hobart and the mainland - ploughing along with my estimated 1-2 metre seas busting over its deck and up against the wheelhouse!

Station maintenance duty wasn’t always just ordinary routine, either. One notable day the three of us blokes were halfway down the cliff, clearing stones and whatnot from the railway, when we were all suddenly moved to stop work. There was a sense of something in the air above us – it wasn’t a sound, so much as a feeling. As we straightened up and began to look about us, a Whooshing noise grew all around, and a shadow – you know those cartoons where the Coyote is about to be squashed by the boulder he set up to get the Roadrunner? – grew over us. A boulder the size of a Volkswagen car then screamed past, having toppled from somewhere high up on the cliff stack. It bounced once, just below us, and again a bit further down the cliff, before plunging into the ocean below, throwing up a vertical plume of white water an Olympic diver would have been proud of – but about a hundred feet into the air.

There was a flock of sheep on the island. They were communally owned, and provided meat for the keepers and their families. As with any other flock of sheep, they needed some attention from time to time. While I was there, it was crutching time. We went out one morning and somehow managed to round them all up, herd them into a yard near the houses, and set to work with the shears. This was the first time I had been close enough to even touch a sheep, let alone learning to prune great wads of crap-infested wool from around their nether ends. I guess plenty of people in Australia have experienced crutching sheep – but I bet not many have been introduced to this 'delightful' activity as part of their job as a lighthouse keeper!

There weren’t many pests on the island. Flies bred on the rubbish at the bottom of the crevice in the cliff, but somehow couldn’t make it up to the top of the island: I guess they couldn’t handle the altitude. Snakes, rats, mice and so on were non-existent. However, I did discover one night that there was one pest animal that was quite a nuisance.

I was on the dusk-to-10pm shift, and looked out at one stage and was alarmed to see a bright light, waving and flashing some way below. My first thought was: 'Hell, someone’s come to grief out there and managed to make it ashore at the bottom of the cliff, and is signalling with a flashlight!' I checked everything was OK to be left unattended, and rushed down the tower and out the door.

The light was coming not from the bottom of the cliff, but only just over the edge. I stumbled forward in the darkness, to find that the head keeper was there, with an Aldis signal lamp in one hand. Below the cliff edge at this point was an area where the ground had subsided and now a small mutton-bird rookery occupied the lower slope. The Head was shining the light over the slope, searching. At last it picked up a pair of golden-red embers: eyes of some animal, clearly. He asked me to hold the lamp and keep it trained on the eyes. He picked up a rifle that I hadn’t noticed on the ground beside him, aimed it at the eyes and squeezed off a shot. The eyes blinked, and started moving over the ground. I followed them assiduously with the lamp. We could dimly make out the form of the animal as it went, and he fired again but it kept moving. Then a third shot, and a fourth and a fifth until finally the animal stopped running, dropped and lay still.

Grimly he moved down over the lower slope, beckoning me to come with the light. The cat – for that’s what it was – was absolutely huge; the size of a spaniel dog. 'Bloody feral' he said. 'Pets of previous keepers, gone wild and bred. They make a mess of the birds.' He picked up the carcass. We could clearly make out four holes through its head. The first three hadn’t been enough to stop it: this had been one tough beast!

The weather in that place presented me with things I had not experienced before. Not only was the wind almost constant, it blew day and night, so that sitting up there on night duty you could feel the tower swaying and trembling: that took a bit of getting used to. Also, dawn was often awesome. There were mornings when a heavy sea fog was all about, yet from my vantage in the tower on the top of the cliff, I was looking out well above it. Then as the sun peeped up over the horizon, it was shining upwards towards me through the fog. I had seen pink, red and orange sunrises many times before, but I was intrigued here to see the morning sky coloured copper and brass and green.

The Tasman Light lens at the Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour.
Carl Hyland

I don’t recall it raining during the time I was there. I know that it must have done – there were occasionally rain-gauge readings to report in the weather sked - but not so much that it impressed itself on me. The homes were dependent on tank water collected from the roofs: all the other sheds had tanks, too: I guess that was to make sure every precious drop got collected. Which suggests to me that it didn’t, and doesn’t rain very much there.

Although on the island we were far too high above the ocean to really see any marine animal life, we did get a spectacular view of passing seabirds. Generally, they were seen from above, wheeling and soaring sometimes close to the surface, sometimes several hundred feet above it – but always, a long way beneath us. Most spectacular were the great Albatrosses – Shy, Sooty, and very occasionally the Wandering – that came gliding by on their great long outstretched wings. There were also White-bellied Sea Eagles, soaring and swooping around the cliffs, searching for prey, all the while looking downward and oblivious to our watching presence still higher above their heads.

When the time came for me to leave, I was torn. Glad to be heading home after two months away (and I admit, my first time away from home, other than occasional school holiday camps with the YMCA). Sorry to be leaving this awesome, dramatic spot. The relative solitude had not been a challenge – in fact, I loved it: the fact that our only contact with the outside world was a twice-daily radio call, and a fortnightly boat with supplies, was kind of romantic.

And the lifestyle was pretty attractive. Sure there was some solid physical work to do. Sure the changing watch shifts messed with your body clock a bit. Sure the few people stationed there were collectively responsible for their own welfare and well-being: there wasn’t a doctor anywhere near, and even helicopters couldn’t easily get there to pick you up if you were injured or ill. Nonetheless, you also got paid quite well for your services, and it was deposited in a bank that you couldn’t get to – so apart from the groceries, nothing came out of it. I accumulated quite a nice little nest-egg over that summer.

But, the time came to head back, to start another year at uni and get on with 'normal' life again. So I bade the keeper’s farewell, loaded the basket and sat on top, swung out once more over the heaving ocean and into the back of the boat, which motored away over the giant swells, away from Tasman Island and back to civilisation.

Ex lighthouse keeper, Paul Abbott
Carl Hyland