By Shelby Brooks
IT would be safe to assume not many people have laid their eyes upon the Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse.
Accessible only by a 19km hike from the nearest township of Tidal River, the 161-year-old lighthouse is an isolated treasure.
Located on South East Point of Wilsons Promontory, the lighthouse sits atop a rocky bluff that juts out into Bass Strait and has guided ships through the rough waters since 1859 when the first light was shone.
Wilsons Promontory is traditionally referred to as Wamoon by the Brataualung people, the first occupiers of the land.
British explorer George Bass was the first European to sight Wamoon in 1798 and the name Wilsons Promontory was eventually suggested by Matthew Flinders.
The lighthouse was constructed as part of a network of lighthouses assisting mariners travelling Bass Strait as a direct route from Britain to colonies in Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and New Zealand.
It was designed by colonial architect Charles Mapleston, who – as part of the Victorian Public Work Works Department – had designed and supervised the construction of all Victorian lighthouses from 1857 to 1861.
It was made from local granite and timber from the nearby sawmill at Sealers Cove.
For many years, the lighthouse was manned by a head lightkeeper, two assistant lightkeepers and their families.
During the Second World War, Wilsons Promontory National Park was used as a training ground for small naval contingent and commando units and therefore closed to the public.
The men stationed at Wilsons Prom were housed in corrugated iron huts at a radar station which was built near the lighthouse grounds.
Regular operation was resumed at the end of WWII.
Source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse Heritage Management Plan – 2020.
Willing hikers can stay overnight at the Wilsons Promontory Lightstation in a cabin on the grounds.
Cape Paterson’s Carol Christensen hiked to the lighthouse in October last year, 10 months after knee surgery, and stayed in the cabins.
“You have to be a serious walker,” Carol said.
She estimated it took around six and a half hours to walk each way but said it was well worth the sore feet.
“Standing on top of the lighthouse, you see whales every 20 minutes or so – that’s part of why it’s so gorgeous,” she said.
Although a few other people were staying in the cabin that night as well, Carol said the lighthouse and surrounding areas were serene and calm, except for the occasional roar of a bull seal.
For seven years, Renata and Colin Musson have been part of the team that maintained and cared for the Wilsons Promontory Lightstation.
“It’s pretty special. It’s well and truly a well-kept secret for people, even for locals down there,” Renata said.
The couple usually spends about a week at a time at the lighthouse, hosting guests, conducting tours, maintaining equipment, gardening and cleaning.
“Because it is in such an exposed environment, it does need a lot of love to keep it intact,” Renata said.
“We’re surrounded by 330 degrees of water- we’ve had winds up to 165km/h and often horizontally sheeting rain is the norm down there… the salt air just abrades everything.
“We do a lot of painting and filling of rot holes in shingle work.”
How, you might wonder, did a couple based in Southbank end up working at the southernmost settlement on the Australian mainland?
“We simply answered an ad,” Renata explained.
Renata had mused with husband Colin – when leaving their last job in outback Queensland – what it might be like to work at a lighthouse and serendipitously, she came across the ad not long after.
“I had no idea what they did at a lighthouse, of course,” she said.
“It’s all been uphill from there, quite literally!”
Renata and Colin don’t have to do the entire 19km hike every time they go to work, instead, they can drive a vehicle down a management vehicle track and walk the remaining 3.5km to the lighthouse, with their food supplies for the week on their backs.
In a normal season, the lighthouse regularly hosts overnight guests and hikers call-in during the day.
But due to COVID-19, and Wilsons Promontory being closed for some time, Renata and Colin have been even more isolated on their rocky outcrop.
“We don’t mind the isolation at all [but] it’s quite strange not to see anyone for the moment,” Renata said.
“We miss our wonderful guests but it’s such an extraordinary place, there’s a real privilege in having it all to ourselves.”
The park has reopened for limited camping, but the lighthouse is not yet taking guests as there is shared accommodation, though Renata’s looking forward to seeing some smiling, albeit sweaty faces soon.
“Send your readers down to see us. We’ll all be happy to see them,” Renata said.
The Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse is not just a historical piece of architecture, but also still serves as an important navigational tool for ships.
The lighthouse is regarded by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) as a category one lighthouse, which means if the light was to stop, they would come out to fix it within 24 hours.
The light is used as a significant navigational aid and back-up to GPS technology.
In December 2019, the lighting mechanism was updated for only the sixth time in the lighthouse’s history.
AMSA installed a fully automated LED light to help guide the east to west ships passing through the Bass Strait in front of the lighthouse.