Wherever you travel around the coast of Australia, you’ll be able to visit a nearby lighthouse, and may be surprised at what you’ll find.
Scattered around the Australian coastline are hundreds of lighthouses, some dating back to when Australia was little more than a bunch of struggling outposts of a far-away power. In those days, the only lifeline of the colonies was a long and dangerous sea voyage made even more perilous as one got closer to the Great Southern Land. Poor charts and navigational aids, and ships that only answered to wind, tide and current, ensured that there were plenty of shipwrecks.
There are about 350 major lights around the Australian coast today and all have a story to tell. Over the years there have been quite a few books written on the subject and the lightkeepers who looked after them, the latter now consigned to history with all the lights be automated.
New South Wales
There are a number of spectacular lights in and around Sydney that you’ll be able to walk to with a latte on the way.
One of the most famous in the state, though, is on the most easterly point of the Australian mainland, at Cape Byron.
Perched high on the rounded dome of the cape, the light built in 1901 overlooks one of the best surf breaks, while just offshore a patch of rock makes for a fabulous scuba dive. For four-wheel-drivers, the Cape Byron Lighthouse is often the start, or the end, of an across-Australia adventure.
Down near Eden, there’s a fine example of a lighthouse and keepers’ quarters at Green Cape. The tallest classic light tower in NSW, it stands almost 20m above ground level and was built in 1883. Like many such places, the small cemetery nearby plays testimony to a shipwreck, in this case, the Ly-EE-Moon, which ran aground close by with the loss of over 75 people. Two of the assistant light keepers’ cottages have now been restored to offer pleasant accommodation. Bookings are essential, while a tour of the lighthouse is also available to guests.
Sunny Qld with its long stretches of beach and its Great Barrier Reef has many lights and lighthouses worth visiting.
One of the earliest lighthouses built anywhere in the reef region, in fact anywhere in Australian waters, was on tiny Raine Island off the north-east coast of Cape York. These days you are not even allowed to land on the sand as the place is deemed too important as a bird and turtle rookery. The tower built in 1844 was never meant to be a lighthouse but a beacon painted red on the south-east side, which marked the approach to a safe channel through the reef. However, quite a few ships were wrecked nearby, though the grave next to the tower is that of the mother of a guano mining operator.
On the other side of Cape York, north of Vrilya Point, is the wreck of an old lightship. There used to be a few of these around the coast, anchored on some distant reef, but many, like this one, were washed up on the beach after a storm. It’s an adventure just to get here, and the camping is great and the fishing fantastic.
In south-east Qld, a ferry ride and a long drive along the sand of the east coast of Fraser Island (surely one of the best beach drives anywhere in the world) brings you to Sandy Cape Lighthouse. The light was built in 1870 to help stop ships foundering on the tongue of the sand known as Breaksea Spit. There are self-guided tours of the station, although you can’t access the tower itself and it requires a steep walk up from the beach.
In the island state, six of the first dozen lights built in Australia still stand, the oldest being on Iron Pot Island in Storm Bay at the mouth of the Derwent River. Access is no easy, even with a boat.
On the most north-easterly point of the coast, in Mount William National Park, is Eddystone Point Lighthouse, built from local stone between 1887 and 1889. This delightful natural granite tower stretches more than 35m and overlooks a rocky section of reef-strewn water. A reasonable dirt road leads almost up to the old lightkeepers’ cottages, which are available for rent. Nearby, you can camp at the beachside Deep Creek campsite, also within the national park.
Sandy Cape Light lies at the end of an excellent but often hairy 4WD trip south along the beach from the small fishing village of Temma on the north-west coast. Built in 1953, the square concrete tower is only 6m high and you wouldn’t go there for the building’s beauty or its history. But the wilderness aspect of the place, and the driving, camping and snorkelling for crays and abalone are heard to beat!
South of Hobart, the Cape Bruny Lighthouse (1834-36) on the south-western tip of Bruny Island is the second-oldest lighthouse in Australia, and was staffed the longest until it was automated in 1996. The cottage accommodation here includes a tour.
On the northern coast of Tassie are some of the prettiest and most classical lighthouses, with those at Table Cape (1888) near Stanley and Mersey Bluff (1889) near Devonport being stand-out examples.
There are many interesting lights in Vic, from the historic bluestone light-cum-time-ball tower at Point Gelibrand (1849) at Williamstown across from Melbourne, to the graceful upward sweep of the lights at Point Hicks (1890) in the far east of the state, and Cape Nelson (1884) near Portland in the west.
At the mouth of Port Phillip Bay, especially on the Point Lonsdale (western) side, a cluster of lights help mark the treacherous and convoluted passage through the Heads. The Black Light built in 1863 was never painted and so retains its natural dark granite colour. In Queenscliff another two light towers and the Queenscliff Low Light can be found. Nearby at Point Lonsdale is the 1902 light carrying the name of the headland it stands on.
Further south-west on the Otway Coast, and along one of the best coastal drives in the country, is the lighthouse of Split Point. The “White Queen”, or “White Lady” as the light is often called, is regularly open to the public.
The oldest light in Vic is the one found at Cape Otway. After much effort the light was completed in 1848, and its record of service remained unbroken until decommissioning in 1994. Today there are tours of this light, while the keepers’ house can be rented.
South Australia has many lights scattered along its rugged coast, as well as the only inland lighthouse in Australia – in the Coorong region in the south-east of the state. Located at Point Malcolm and overlooking The Narrows that connects Lake Albert with the larger Lake Alexandrina, the light was built in 1878 to guide shipping using the waterways to and from Meningie. It was closed down in the 1930s but the lighthouse is in good condition, while the nearby keepers’ quarters are slowly falling into ruins.
Over on Kangaroo Island, the Cape de Couedic Lightstation (1858) on the north-west tip are both within the Flinders Chase National Park. They overlook some of the most spectacular coast in the country, which also provides good fishing, diving and surfing. The keepers’ quarters at both sites have been restored and are available for rent, and there’s pleasant camping nearby.
Up near the head of the Spencer Gulf, Lowly Point Light (1883) was the first light built to guide ships into Port Pirie and Port Augusta. Today it casts its beam over some of the best snapper and kingfish angling spots in the country, and the keepers’ quarters, which can be rented, are often the base for fishing groups chasing these delectable. Just to the north are a few spots where you can camp along the coast.
There’s a smattering of lights along the NT coast, but apart from a couple close to Darwin, most of them are situated on islands. One that is easily accessible by air and operates as a base for keen fishers is Cape Don (1916) on the north-west tip of Cooburg NP. Here you’ll find some great accommodation and some of the best fishing in the north.
Not far away and accessible by 4WD is the Smith Point beacon, just north of Black Point and close to the camping area. Built during the time of the Victorian settlement at Port Essington (1838-49), the beacon was going to be 9m high but today stands at about half that.
Overlooking the pristine waters of Ningaloo Reef in the west of the state, the Point Cloates Light can be accessed via a sandy 4WD track. Built in 1910, the light was always very remote and the living conditions cramped, while the keepers had to be self-reliant, often hunting game and trading supplies with the local Aboriginal people. It’s situated on Ningaloo Station and there’s some absolutely fantastic camping, fishing and snorkelling along the nearby coast. Worth the effort.
Further south near Shark Bay and marking the most westerly tip of the Australian mainland, is the Steep Point Light. Hardly glamorous or spectacular in itself, the current light, built in 1984, overlooks some great coast that offers spectacular land-based game fishing. The 4WD track that accesses this area is sandy and crosses some steep dunes but passes some wonderful camping spots in the process.
North-west of here, the Cape Inscription Lighthouse (1910) on the far northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island is only accessible via camping close by. The light overlooks one of the most historic bays in Australia. The Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed here in 1616 (the first recorded European landing on Australian soil) and his countryman Willem de Vlamingh arrived in 1697, followed a couple of years later by the English buccaneer William Dampier. In 1772 the Frenchman Francois-Alesno de St Alouarn arrived and claimed the whole of what was to become WA for France – just two years after Cook had claimed the eastern side of Australia for England.
Marking the boundary of the Indian and Southern oceans, the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse (1896) in the far south-west of the state is easily reached by a good dirt road, south of Augusta. The light and grounds are open for visitors.