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Monthly Bulletin
May/June 2005 - Vol 8 No. 3


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Kangaroo Island Lighthouses - Part 1 : Cape du Couedic

by Denise Shultz, LoA President & Prism Editor

The Cape du Couedic Lighthouse and oil shed
Until 1957, the stone oil shed was used to house kerosene for the lamp, and was originally bare stone like the tower.

There is a saying in Czech which roughly translates to "You could never cross the same river twice, you never come back to the same place", meaning that even when you return to a place you have been before, the experience and memories will not be the same.

I returned to Kangaroo Island this Christmas holiday after 12 years. I was there twice before with my family, but this time, it was different. The girls - all grown up now - stayed at home and Paul and I decided to concentrate on the island’s famous lighthouses. Luckily, it is now possible to explore them in as much detail as anyone wants, because three of them offer accommodation in their keeper’s cottages. We organised to stay for two nights at each of them between 8th and 13th of January. Cape du Couedic was our first stop, then we moved north to Cape Borda and at last Cape Willoughby at the eastern end of Kangaroo Island. The plan was to get to know the feeling of those three lighthouses, bound together by sharing the same isolated piece of land, but yet being so different. We discovered far more that we expected.

The Cape Jervis Lighthouse
Cape Jervis lighthouse defies gravity with its design. The modern tower dates from 1972, and replaced the much smaller original lighthouse which was manned until 1927. The base of the original tower was preserved and can be seen in the foreground.

Photograph: Kristie Eggleston

Though average tourists probably overlook it as they focus their attention on their place of destination, a pharophile inevitably notices the first lighthouse right before boarding the Kangaroo Island ferry.

Around 300m east of Cape Jervis ferry terminal stands an unusual three-cornered star shaped tower of Cape Jervis lighthouse. It is the mainland’s western marker to Backstairs Passage and also a day mark and a harbour light for the Kangaroo Island ferries. Elegant and modernistic, it is a twin to the Robe lighthouse, which marks the other (eastern) side of the Backstairs Passage. Contrary to normal lighthouse design, the tower widens upside down. While only 3.5m at the bottom, the top is 5m wide. Through the narrow windows fitted to the slits in the sides of the star, I could see inside the tower. There were no stairs, just series of ladders leading up to the lamp room. Both Cape Jervis and Robe lighthouses were built in 1972. Cape Jervis’ lighthouse concrete panels have recently been painted white.

Some 20m in front of the new tower is the remnant of the original 1871 light. Nothing but its circular base remains of this old lighthouse.

I only had about 20 minutes to look around and photograph this interesting lighthouse, the ferry was not going to wait for me and I did not want to swim the 18 km to the island on my own. Needless to say, the vessel was so packed with cars that there was barely enough room for the drivers to squeeze out through the car door open only to the minimum. We even shared the boat with a truck full of cows and sheep. I was glad that they were not being transported the other way, as to my knowledge, there is no abattoir on Kangaroo Island.

Flinders Chase National Park
Flinders Chase National Park is an enormous expanse of wilderness at the south-western end of Kangaroo Island.

Photograph: Kristie Eggleston

On the other side of the strait we disembarked in Penneshaw. Formerly called Hog Bay, it is the first town every visitor arriving by sea encounters. It has a supermarket, restaurants and cafès, museum and a newly built information centre well equipped with books, brochures and postcards. 

We have made a few last minute purchases of fresh supplies and headed 100km or so west, towards Flinders Chase National Park along the well trodden and now fully sealed Southern Coast Road. The improvement in the road condition was not the only change we noticed. The Flinders Chase National Park headquarters, where every tourist seeking accommodation at Cape du Couedic has to report first, were no longer housed in a modest timber shack with a sole tap water in front of it. Now, there was a substantial architect designed curved building with the rangers’ office, interpretative centre, souvenir shop and a café. The formerly rugged campground has been shifted well away from the tall trees and equipped with improved facilities. The grass expanse before the former headquarters had been transformed into a carpark.

The lighthouse as seen from the back of the three keepers' cottages
It was not a straightforward walk to the lighthouse from the cottages. The original, well-trodden path was being revegetated and a detour was necessary.

I know that change is inevitable and understand that ever increasing number of visitors demand improved facilities, but I could not help being disappointed. A unique place where the campers could feel free, close to nature and interact with the prolific wildlife, changed into something comfortable and safe, but sterile. Formalities over, we could not wait to get out of there, hoping to escape from the crowds at Cape du Couedic.

It did not look very promising when we drove the 14 km down to the cape, waiting for the road to revert back to the gravel, as we remembered it. This never happened and we arrived dust free to the lightstation to find we were pleasantly surprised. The road that carries all the traffic further down to Admiral’s Arch and observation spots for the seal colony was diverted, and now completely bypassed the lightstation. 

Troubridge Cottage at Cape du Couedic
Troubridge Cottage at Cape du Couedic
Equality rules at Cape du Couedic - the three keepers' cottages were built the same, unlike at other lighthouses, where the Headkeeper's cottage is invariably larger and more grand than the others.

I did not know it then but, despite being so close to all those very popular tourist attractions, we were to experience the isolation and solitude after all. Of all the island’s lightstations, this one proved to be the most private one. As there are no caretakers on site and all three cottages are used as accommodation for the tourists, there was absolutely no one to talk to. The day visitors stayed well away from the cottages and although the other houses were also occupied most of the time we stayed there, their inhabitants did not show any inclination of wanting to communicate with us. Perhaps, they were also seeking solitude?

The unusual and intricate stone work around the windows in the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse

We moved into a cottage that was called Karatta after a pioneer supply ship. The other cottages are called Parndana and Troubridge. From the outside, they looked exactly the same and as I found out later, when I sneaked inside the other one after its occupants have left, apart from a few details, they were the same inside as well. The front door opened to a long corridor with three bedrooms on the left and the lounge room and the kitchen on the right. Polished timber floors throughout the cottage lent it an old fashioned, yet luxury touch. A large attached area in the back of the house had room for stores of wood and also contained laundry equipped with modern washing machine as well as original copper for boiling the washings. The bathroom with the toilet was separate at the end of the lean-to.

Cooking on the cast iron woodstove
I felt right at home cooking dinner on an old-fashioned wood burning stove No. 2 made in Adelaide.

What impressed me the most was the kitchen, though equipped with all the modern appliances like fridge, microwave and gas stove, it also featured a genuine cast iron kitchen woodstove, already prepared for the fire to be lit. All I needed to do was to strike a match. Memories of my childhood came rushing back to me; the cosy sound of crackling fire, the faint smell of smoke and the light dancing on the kitchen ceiling. How could I resist!

The lounge room
The lounge room featured a fireplace and sideboard, above which a picture of Samuel Dixon, a founder of Flinders Chase National Park, was hung.

The cottages have been beautifully restored inside and out. In 2000, the slate roof replaced the corrugated iron one to match the cottages' original look and while the interior offers all the appliances the spoilt holidaymaker wants, they still retain the aura of early 20th century. The furniture had an antique look but was still very comfortable. It was easy to pretend that the time stood still and that we found ourselves back in 1910.

Weir's Cove ruins
The ruins of the store room and stables at Weir's Cove, where the supplies were landed before the road to the lighthouse was built.

We spent the two days that we stayed at Cape du Couedic roaming around the beautiful surroundings, walking through the maze of trails cut through the thick scrub. Weir’s Cove, where the supplies for the lighthouse were hauled up the steep cliff still shows the scar in the cliff face, visible from as far away as Remarkable Rocks. The ruins of the stable and the store room are slowly deteriorating, roofless and exposed to the elements. When the access road was built from the inland in 1940s, the store room was no longer useful and was abandoned. 

The steep cliff at Weir's Cove
This is all that remains of the jetty, flying fox and cutting that was made to winch supplies up the cliff to the lighthouse.

Living at Cape du Couedic, we had a chance to observe the seals, the three species of them, sunning themselves around Admiral’s Arch so close, that we could almost touch them. Better still, we could do it in the morning before about 9 o’clock, and have the usually crowded area all for ourselves. At West Bay, we tried to find the grave of the sole sailor, whose decomposed body was found after the ship Loch Vennachar was lost in mysterious circumstances in 1905. Though the site of the shipwreck was finally located in 1976, the site of the grave remained a mystery to us.

New Zealand fur seal pup
A seal pup at nearby Admiral's Arch.

Apart from feeling like early 20th century lightkeepers, the best part of staying at Cape du Couedic was being so close to Remarkable Rocks. They are probably the most recognisable feature of Kangaroo Island and are presented in every brochure and advertisement enticing people to come there. However, no picture, no matter how spectacular, can do it justice. It just cannot capture its almost mystical, Stonehenge-like feeling. 

Remarkable Rocks

Photograph: Kristie Eggleston

Religiously, every evening, we came to the Remarkable Rocks with a bottle of champagne, sat under the hollow granite rock sheltered from the wind and watched the sun set behind the lighthouse. Then, shortly after, we watched the light come on. Strangely and luckily for us, no one else hung around long enough to see the spectacle. We felt very privileged to be able to enjoy such a spiritual experience.

If I was to describe Cape du Couedic in only a few words, it would be: solitude, isolation, timelessness, beauty and spirituality.

All photographs by Denise Shultz unless otherwise attributed.

Email Denise Shultz

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