Cape Naturaliste lighthouse: Saviour of the ships has a vivid history

Its night-time job ensures you keep your distance. Its day-time job draws you in, beckoning you closer. The pull of the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse is strong. 

The story of the lighthouse and those brave souls who tended it is fascinating.

Along the coast between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin, there are jagged reefs under the water’s surface, a danger to any ship coming too close. Jacques Hamelin’s ship Naturaliste may have seen them in 1801 but in 1803, Nicholas Baudin, aboard the Geographe, described them as a triangle running from north to south.

In the early colonial days, whaling ships would ply the coast and seek shelter in Geographe Bay. Rounding the northern cape and arriving at Busselton was not easy as the main navigation marker was a barrel on top of a 30-foot (9.1m) pole which stood on the beach near the town site. A lantern was hung on top at night to guide vessels to the landing. In 1873 this was replaced with a wooden structure that was later removed. 

At least 12 ships were wrecked along the coast until the lighthouse became operational in 1904. These ships included American whalers, a Danish ship loaded with jarrah and a Norwegian barque filled with karri.

The State  government at the time was strapped for cash. Regional infrastructure was a low priority and most monies were spent on Perth and Fremantle. However, when Ford and Bayley found gold in 1892, royalties began to fill  government coffers and money could at last be spent where it was desperately needed.

The lighthouse took 10 months to build from locally quarried limestone from Bunker Bay. 

At the same time, three lighthouse keepers’ cottages were built. These stone buildings, with fireplaces, large rooms, living quarters and an outhouse were luxurious for their day. One has been restored and shows what life was like for a worker and his family. 

Each man worked a four-hour shift in the lighthouse, and hearing about their working conditions it is quite remarkable that the longest stint for one keeper was 22 years — most averaging between five  and 10 years.

The light was powered by a kerosene flame, which had to be monitored closely to ensure it didn’t go out. The keeper had to climb in to the rotating light grille and pump the kerosene by hand to fill the tank. Soot from the flame would coat the lead crystal lenses so these had to be cleaned too. 

On climbing the stairs to the top you can see a few chips in some lenses. The  story goes one unnamed worker couldn’t undo a bolt and so threw his spanner in anger and then left as quietly as possible to avoid answering awkward questions.

Turning the four-tonne light was no easy feat either. The lens, manufactured in the West Midlands in England, was shipped to the cape in pieces — each piece “wrapped” in a bath of molasses to avoid scratches. 

Placed on a bed of mercury, the mechanism was attached to a central pulley. When wound, the counterweight would slowly descend through a central column and gears would turn the lens. 

The workers had to climb and descend the stairs several times during their shift to wind the weight back to the top. 

Of course, as the flame burned, soot would inevitably make its way into the mercury. This had to be strained and re-added by hand. With soot, fumes and toxic chemicals surrounding them for their four-hour shift, it’s a wonder the keepers stayed in the job for as long as they did.

Life was not easy for the keepers’ families. There were no weekends or annual leave, children were homeschooled, vegetables had to be grown,  cows milked and the nearest town was 20 miles (32km) away. 

Other supplies were collected every two weeks from Busselton and mail from Caves House weekly. When the light was electrified in 1924, the three keepers remained but with only a few less duties. The last keeper left in 1978.

Standing 19m high, the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse is the smallest on mainland Australia. Surrounded by dense bushland under a clear blue sky it has commanding presence — and a story to tell.

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