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Bulletin - Vol 9 No. 2
March/April 2006


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The Sugarloaf Point Story

by Denise Shultz, LoA Inc President. All photographs by D. Shultz

The majestic Sugarloaf Point lighthouse
The Sugarloaf Lighthouse is unusual in that the staircase is on the outside of the tower.

This story starts with a letter from a certain ‘famous lightkeeper’ that I received in August 2005. It reads:

Sugarloaf has this magic and presence about it and I’ve certainly rooted myself in here, but as they say; “Every dog has his day” and I will be going back to the real world soon. There are great plans of development to be implemented here.

I have a vast lighthouse collection - a result of years of scavenging, pleading with past keepers and mechanics to let me have their junk. The bulk of the collection is here at Sugarloaf in four display areas. It is quite unique and I think you would not find one like this anywhere else. So, before I pack it up and store it away, you should come and visit. I have until February to move out, so I shall get another season of curious and gob smacked tours. After that, National Parks plan to send the builders in to renovate the place and then it will be handed over to a tourist operator. 

Mark Sheriff

The roof of the headkeeper's  cottage gives away its designer - James Barnet. 
Overlooking the beach below, the cottage was, until now, home for the Sheriff family.

I needed no more persuasion and the Melbourne Cup weekend in early November was the perfect time to make the trip. Both Kristie Eggleston and Steve Merson were eager to go along, but because of other important commitments, they had to cancel at the last moment. And so early in the morning on Friday 28 October, it was just me and my husband Paul driving north towards Sydney, navigated by a mini computer with GPS which I affectionately call “Bruce”. 

We made a good progress, once we got out of Melbourne. We were about two hours from Wollongong and if I knew what was ahead, I would have given the wheel to Paul. Despite Bruce's protests, I turned off towards Wollongong at Illawarra Highway. I was driving through the town of Moss Vale when it suddenly got darker, not with twilight, but with low stratus clouds. The further we got, the worse the visibility had become. The drive down Macquarie Pass to Wollongong would have been a bit of a challenge even during good weather conditions, but descending the steep, narrow, winding road in fog, rain and falling darkness was a hair-raising experience. There was no place or time to swap drivers, so Paul, who was very pale sitting beside me, had to be content with just looking at the dot slowly progressing on the Navman map, and telling me in advance when and where the next hairpin turn was coming up. When, after what seemed to be like three hours, we safely made it down to the Princes Highway, Paul breathed a sigh of relief but I felt exhilarated, rather like reaching the top of Mount Everest.

The lighthouse from the beach
The headkeeper's cottage enjoys the view directly below the tower.

By the time we reached Wollongong it was dark and we had just enough time to refresh ourselves at the motel and hurry to meet our friends Ian and Anne Clifford at the Harbour Front Restaurant. We found them already sitting on the classy upper floor which overlooked the Wollongong Breakwater and the Wollongong Head Lighthouses. Surprisingly, Ian did not manage to light up the lighthouse to commemorate the grand occasion but it looked good anyway. While enjoying each other's company, a very good meal and a bottle of bubbly, the four of us exchanged the latest lighthouse gossip, discussed various engineering problems and decided that lighthouses are like children: sometimes, they give you trouble, but you can never leave them. After dinner, we went for a walk to have a closer look at the lighthouses. With the key to the Breakwater safely at Ian’s home, I was denied, for the second time, the opportunity to have a look inside. Next time, definitely! The Flagstaff Point was a beautiful sight and a fitting conclusion to our evening. When we said good bye to each other later, we promised to meet again soon.

Sugarloaf Point is a place of rugged beauty.
The southern wall of this gorge drops down a couple of metres right behind the fence of the assistant keeper's cottage garden.

The next day we woke up to a beautiful morning. Thanks to Bruce's navigation, we passed smoothly and quickly through Sydney and were soon pelting along the freeway towards Newcastle. It was smooth sailing all the way to Bulahdelah, where we had to stop to replenish our food and alcohol supplies and farewell civilization, the last sign of which was the holiday town of Seal Rocks. After that, the road got progressively narrower and more rugged. We had to pass through a foreboding gate, but undiscouraged (after being advised by Mark how to get there) we pressed on and shortly after anchored our car at the lightstation.

What a beautiful place this was! Two cottages, one on each side, huddled together on a steep slope, which topped about 50m further up, a narrow, stepped path leading up to the squat but ornate lighthouse. The lightstation seemed to be devoid of any people but strangely, we noticed that somebody was watching us. A motionless figure was standing in the lantern room, menacingly looking down at us. Nervously, we took our belongings and supplies from the car inside the assistant keeper's cottage, where Mark left some linen and a welcoming message for us. As soon as we could, we climbed up the steep hill to check out the lighthouse and to investigate the mysterious figure which was still staring at us from the lantern. When we got closer, it became obvious that it was some kind of a dummy, obviously one of Mark's practical jokes.

Mark Sheriff at the place he calls home.
Their new home will be a far cry from the headkeeper's cottage they have been renting from Parks till now, but Mark takes it philosophically: "I will move with ease and understand that you cannot stand in the way of progress"

Relieved, we looked at the lighthouse and because it was pretty hot, decided to cool down in the waves down below. We descended to the beach from where the whole lightstation was on display, majestically overlooking the scene. The swim was invigorating. The waves were taller than us and, not very far away, a pod of dolphins did not have any trouble surfing very close to the beach.

We did not expect anyone to be home when we returned to the lighthouse an hour later, but we were pleasantly surprised. A car was in the garage and Mark’s youthful figure in a paint-stained t-shirt and shorts was standing in the little garden of the headkeeper's cottage. There could be no mistake, he changed very little since I last saw him at Barrenjoey in 2002. Only back then, he was not accompanied by his lovely wife Cath and their two little "angels/devils", Imogen (age 6) and Iris (age 3).

The huge collection of lighthouse artefacts in Mark Sheriff's collection.
Includes kerosene burners, acetylene lights, brass ventilators, clockwork mechanism parts, reflectors and electric bulbs. He is going to put the collection in storage until it can be appropriately displayed again, perhaps in a lighthouse museum.

We chatted for a while but it was time for dinner, so we went back to the house and prepared a very complicated meal by heating a frozen microwave dinner. By the time we finished, it was dark and the lighthouse was alight. We took a bottle of bubbly and ascended to the lighthouse. Visitors are not allowed inside, but it did not worry us because it was not awfully windy and we could sit in the upper door of the lighthouse watching the loom pass above while talking, eating cheese and drinking champagne. We were hoping Mark and Cath could join us but the little girls demanded their attention and needed to be put to bed, so we were forced to finish the bottle on our own. Coming back, we had another look at the dummy in the lantern. At night, it looked even scarier. The interplay of light and shade caused by the rotating lens created an image that sometimes disappeared and then showed itself up again, like a ghostly apparition. Mark told us before that it was actually Cath's creation, a transparent hollow plastic cast of life-size human figure. It was very effective.

When we returned back to the house, Mark finally dropped in and showed us boxes and more boxes of photographs, documents and artefacts relating to his career as a lighthouse keeper at NSW and QLD lighthouses. He gave us permission to look through it all, an impossible task for a short time we had there. When Mark retired back to his house, exhausted and not feeling very well, we followed his example soon after.

The lightstation fell dark and quiet, at least for a while, before we started to hear strange noises around the old house. Something dropped noisily in the direction of the kitchen, then we heard shuffling noise in the lounge room and a faint crackling sound from the corridor. I was glad I was not on my own and prayed that I did not have to go to the toilet, because the little convenience room was located outside in the backyard, a fair distance away. I could not say that our first night was exactly sleepless, but it was a bit of a worry.

Parabolic reflector with wick
One of the items in Mark's extensive collection of lighthouse artefacts.

The next day dawned warm but rainy, so we were not in a hurry to get outside. First of all we checked the house for ghosts, but all we found was debris on the kitchen floor which fell out of a ripped plastic bag and the soap had gnaw marks, and was out of its case in the bath tub. From the size of the droppings, it looked like either a large mouse or a small rat. It seemed that it had a feast on our leftovers and toiletries, which certainly explained all the weird sounds and noises we heard the night before.

Spending most of the day indoors gave us an opportunity to study Mark's vast collection of papers, photos and videos. I finally managed to see the famous episode of "Australian Story" featuring a somewhat younger Mark paddling into the sunset at Green Cape in his birthday suit. Life had changed for him a lot since he was that carefree lighthouse keeper who, when asked about what he thought the future held for him quipped: "Future?... Bugger if I know."

Ten years later, after he married the love of his life and fathered two beautiful daughters, Mark has settled down a bit, but the larrikin spirit and the wicked sense of humour persists. A gullible person like me has to be extremely careful around him, otherwise you come out a loser. But after we had a chance to get to know him a little bit better, we realised that it was just his way of coping with life's challenges, many of them, and that if he lost his ability to make a mockery out of trouble, he would be surrendering.

In 1980, Mark bought this disused church, only 15 minutes drive from Sugarloaf Point lighthouse.
He is now renovating it to make it their family home after they leave the lightstation.

It was not all serious talk though and as there were several breaks between the rain showers, we even managed to check various other buildings around the lightstation. Mark opened the paint store, the shed and the garages for us as well as for the few visitors, and we had a look at many rare lighthouse artefacts. The former paint store contained part of the original Sugarloaf roller-bearing pedestal and a genuine parabolic mirror with a wick burner and in the shed we found various lamps, photographs and even an old CLS motorbike. It was just overwhelming. 

Later on, we again went to the beach, the path down to it signposted by a decorated pole bearing that unmistakable Sheriff artistic touch. We watched the dolphins surf again but this time the beach was pretty busy and we always had to keep one eye on the pleasure drivers in their 4WD vehicles who revelled in driving up and down along the 1km long beach.

We spent the evening at the lighthouse again with a bottle of my favourite sparkly. The second night at the house was a lot quieter. I don't know whether it should be attributed to us being more careful with our rubbish, or the rats staying away from Mark's vengeful trap down in the laundry, but happily, there were no dead rats the next morning.

Is this the last lighthouse family in Australia? 
Three of the four Sheriff family members, Mark, Iris & Cath (older daughter Imogen was at school) pose in front of their lighthouse.

It was our last morning at Sugarloaf and my plans for a photo session were thrown awry when I realised that the Sheriff family was no longer complete with Imogen at school. Still, we shared a "last" tea in Mark's house with Cath and Iris, and the photo session took place after all, though not as it was originally planned.

Mark and his family are moving out of their magical lighthouse home as you read this article. Parks will be taking over the lightstation and refurbishing all the houses for luxury tourist accommodation. After the injection of some $2 million by the state government, the houses are bound to be much more comfortable. The kitchen, which is now part of the former verandah, will be moved to the much larger laundry and equipped with all the necessary appliances. The verandahs, now partially walled off, will be opened again. The bathroom and all the other rooms will be refurbished and there will be no more outdoor dunnies. The garden will be re-landscaped and a new outdoor area created. It will be spectacular - believe me, I have seen the plans.

Mark and his family however, will not be returning there after the show is over. Instead, there will be another caretaker, either a Parks Ranger or a commercial tourist operator moving to the cottage.

The places are not only made by the buildings, they are made by their people as well, and though I am happy that another historical lightstation is going to look like new again, I can not get rid of the feeling that by Mark and his family going, Sugarloaf Point lightstation is losing something very substantial and, perhaps, more valuable than its looks.

Dare I say, its spirit?

Email Denise Shultz

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