THE landmark lighthouse at Seal Rocks is familiar to most Hunter Valley people. Officially it’s known as the Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse because of its location atop a cliff overlooking jagged rocks in a churning sea.
One of Australia’s greatest shipping disasters occurred off Sugarloaf Point in 1895 when the Catterthun was shipwrecked with the loss of 55 lives.
Because of the elevated site, its rendered 1875 brick tower is surprisingly not very tall, being only 15 metres high. Automated in 1987, it still has its original clockwork mechanism, involving old weights and a winding mechanism that once turned the coastal warning light of a huge crystal lantern.
But there’s another historic lighthouse with many similarities most folk may not be aware of because it’s on the other side of the country, about 3000 kilometres away in the southern part of Western Australia.
It’s the now automated Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, on a dangerous stretch of coast about 60 kilometres north of the Margaret River wine region. Because of maritime hazards, this was the last manned lighthouse on mainland Australia only 22 years ago.
Surrounded on three sides by ocean, this coastal safety beacon is still regarded as a category one light because of its key strategic position and the extremely dangerous coastline. Before the light was erected in 1903, there were 14 shipwrecks in the vicinity.
Sailing ships in the 19th century used the raging winds of the ‘roaring forties’ to make fast passages eastwards on the vast Indian Ocean towards the WA coast. Then the ships abruptly steered north, around the cape, then east into the shallower water of the enormous Geographe Bay to load hardwood cargoes for Britain at the long wharf at the nearest major town of Busselton, about 27 kilometres to the south east.
But the area is fraught with danger. From the tip of the cape, a granite reef stretches a surprising 30 kilometres out to sea making voyages difficult, with vessels urged to give the coast a wide berth. Meanwhile, about two kilometres directly south of the cape, down Sugarloaf Road from this wilderness lighthouse set within a national park, is another WA landmark. Just offshore, majestic Sugarloaf Rock is a granite, conical shaped feature, named after the old-fashioned sugarloaf. Today, the impressive rocky lump is a designated nature reserve. It’s also the world’s most southerly nesting site for the red-tailed tropic bird. Surrounded by an often hostile sea, the steep-sided Sugarloaf Rock is a refuge for birds from predators.
Wildlife experts say Sugarloaf Rock is the only regular breeding site for the birds outside of the tropics. Birds mate for life and return to the same nesting site each year. In the past, 30 birds usually arrived each September onwards looking for their mate. Now only a few pairs are using the rock regularly.
The lone ocean wanderers are attracted to Sugarloaf Rock because of the abundant marine life of the warm Leeuwin current that encourages them to breed this far south.
The waters surrounding Sugarloaf Rock sometimes have more in common with our Seal Rocks than you might think. Recently a whale carcass washed up on a WA beach close by, causing authorities to ban surfing and swimming because of the danger of being caught up in a shark feeding frenzy.
The nearby cape lighthouse is on a 100 metre high bluff, but unknown to casual visitors is that at the cliff’s base lives a permanent colony of fur seals that can offer a tasty meal to sharks.
But back to the lighthouse at picturesque Cape Naturaliste, which has an intriguing foreign history. The large, still remote wooded headland was named by the French explorer, Captain Nicolas Baudin, who should be as well known as his rival, Aussie navigator Matthew Flinders, but isn’t, possibly because he died early (in 1803) before he could fully capitalise on his South Sea discoveries.
Maritime explorer Baudin went quietly globetrotting with his French corvettes Geographe and Naturaliste exploring New Holland (Australia), first mapping WA’s west coast Capes region in 1801. Matthew Flinders finally caught up with Baudin in distant South Australia at the aptly named Encounter Bay.
But now, let’s turn to the details of the remote ocean sentinel at Cape Naturaliste. Thirteen kilometres from the town of Dunsborough, the lighthouse is open to the public daily. Officially the inland light is 120metres above sea level, but that includes the sea cliff height. Close up it must be one of Australia’s shortest lights, its tower just 20metres tall. As such, it’s smaller than the Norah Head light, at Toukley, at 27.5metres high. Both structures were built relatively late, in 1903.
The Cape Nat light is also at the end of a popular 135kilometre walking trail. This ‘Cape to Cape’ Track begins at the most southwest corner in Australia, Here, the Cape Leeuwn Lighthouse, built of sandstone in 1896 is famous for where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet.
By comparison, the Cape Leeuwin light at 39 metres high is regarded as the tallest on the Aussie mainland with its light being visible 48 kilometres out to sea. The Cape Naturaliste tower was built of limestone quarried from nearby Bunker Bay. Sitting inland on a 8ha reserve alongside the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park, the tower is a short distance above three whitewashed, former lighthouse keeper cottages.
The light was originally powered by a kerosene lamp and manually operated. Light keepers would top up the kerosene and wind up weights at the tower base each hour “like a grandfather clock”, seven days a week to keep the apparatus turning. It was a hard life for the isolated keepers and their families with the nearest school being 20 kilometres away by horse, or cart.
There was no electricity until 1978 and toxic fumes and soot threatened the health of keepers. No chairs were provided on the two tower levels to prevent workers sitting and going to sleep and halting the warning coastal light flashing every 10 seconds some 25 nautical miles out to sea.
The tower’s prize exhibit is the huge, rare prism lens made of lead crystal. Imported from the makers of ‘Big Ben’ in England in 1904, it is it today probably worth more than $8million. The last light keeper left in 1996.
Today, winds can gust to 120kmh on occasion, but in July 1907, there was wild weather for five days straight, followed by an electrical storm. Then a fireball hit the tower, twisting its lighting conductor beyond recognition.