Whether you want to spot migratory whales, hike the magnificent coastline, photograph fur seals, snorkel new waters or have some time out for yourself, a lighthouse stay on NSW’s Far South Coast offers a unique experience that will draw you into a bygone time.
THE HIKING, THE campsites, the bike and 4WD tracks – in your self-confident mind, it’s a case of ‘been there, done that’. So it can be refreshingly educational to revisit that place – the place that you still, many years later and living many miles away, define as ‘home’ – and discover that no, you really didn’t know it all, and ‘home’ actually has quite a few awesome and adventurous secrets you weren’t aware of. Sometimes these secrets can be a shock, but this time, as I revisit the playground of my youth on the NSW Far South Coast, they are shaping up as a brilliant surprise.
I am aboard Nitro, a fishing charter vessel skippered by Nick and crewmate Chad, and I am on my way to Montague Island Nature Reserve, just 9km off the coast from the beautiful town of Narooma, that also contains one of the east coast’s most notorious river mouths: the Narooma Bar. This deceptively benign looking body of water, accessed via Wagonga Inlet, allows boat access to the ocean, and is a part of my years of living in nearby Moruya (30 minutes north) that I do remember: in rough seas, this river mouth is incredibly dangerous to boats. Luckily today the bar is close to dead-flat, allowing me to focus my attention on our ultimate destination: Montague Island.
It’s only a short blast across to Montague Island from the mainland; if you were going straight to the dock, that is, and not paying any attention to your surrounds. It’s not more than five minutes in that Nick and Chad point out a huge bait ball (basically a massive ball of baitfish) swirling near the surface. The idea behind this is for the baitfish to appear far larger so as to put off any nearby predators. Another 10 minutes in and we’ve spotted another bait ball – and the circling seabirds, keen to have a crack at the food below them. After another 10 minutes Nick slows down and I grab my cameras; Montague Island’s resident Australian fur seal colony is right in front of us. These larrikins of the sea spot us and start out for the boat immediately, keen to see what’s up. The Australian fur seals have only returned to Montague Island in the past three or four years on a permanent basis. The sealing industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries pretty much wiped them out and it has taken a bloody long time for them to return.
The rugged southern coastline contains some amazing cliffs of contrasting red colour. (Image: Justin Walker)
There is actually more than one seal variant on Montague: New Zealand fur seals reside just around the corner from their Aussie brethren, further south toward the island’s dock. The differences between the two species are interesting: Chad mentions that the Aussie fur seals will always crowd very close together – practically on top of each other – while the Kiwis are a bit more relaxed and prefer a bit of private space around them. The Australian fur seals are also larger and more boisterous. Go figure…
After a few minutes photographing the seals Nick turns Nitro toward the dock and patiently waiting NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger-in-residence Kel Myers quickly unloads my luggage. After saying farewell to the boaties, we head up to the Montague Island Lightstation itself – my digs for the night.
Montague Island contains, as Kel points out to me later during a tour, numerous layers of history and culture, beginning with its huge significance to the local Yuin people, who know the island as ‘Barunguba’. The name signifies the island as the eldest son of Gulaga (Mount Dromedary), located on the mainland. It is estimated that aboriginal people have been visiting the island and using it for cultural ceremonies for thousands of years (from back when it was still attached to the mainland; the island is estimated to have been cut off by rising seas around 8500 years ago). Today the Yuin still use it for cultural activities.
The island has, in the past 240 years, also borne witness to the influence of European culture, most notably in the form of fishing and seal hunting, as well as its primary duty as a navigational aid, with its lighthouse. James Cook initially thought the island was part of the mainland, and named it Cape Dromedary (in reference to nearby Mt Dromedary) but was confirmed by Bass and Flinders as an island in the late 1790s. The island was named Montague after George Montagu Dunk, the Earl of Halifax.
Lighting the way
The Montague Island Lighthouse was commissioned in 1873 and, after a few delays, was finished in 1881. The lighthouse – and the lighthouse keepers’ quarters – was designed by NSW Colonial Architect James Barnet, with builder W. H. Jennings doing the hard construction graft. Granite from the island was used for the large blocks at the base of the lighthouse – the remnants of the quarry can be seen on the walk up from the jetty to the light station buildings. Montague’s lighthouse, like all the others dotted up and down the east coast, was originally used for navigational purposes; maritime was big business in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Australia, something that Kel mentions to me during our walk-around when he shows me the plaque that places a value of thousands of pounds on the lighthouse, but only 50 pounds on the island itself. How things have changed…
Montague Island was given the status of a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1953 by the National Trust of Australia. It stayed that way until 1990 when NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service took over care of the island (and titled it a Nature Reserve), with the lighthouse still managed by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Since NPWS has been caretaker, the island has undergone a total transformation: all feral animals were removed and replanting of native species begun. Now, you wouldn’t know that when NPWS first arrived it was a bare lunar-esque landscape that greeted visitors to the island. Native trees and grasses now flourish – as do native animals, such as the seals and prolific seasonal birdlife, none more so than the little penguins.
There has been a drop in the little penguin population at Montague Island; when the first penguin survey was done in the 1990s the population was numbered around 20,000, but in the most recent survey it was down to between 8000-9000. Kel explains that the population drop is likely due to the seals having only recently (around three to four years ago) returned permanently to the island; the little penguin population is therefore probably back to where it was before the sealers’ boats arrived in the 19th century.
Not a bad way to start day two of the Light to Light: sunrise breakfast at Hegartys Bay campsite. (Image: Justin Walker)
Living the life
The life of a lighthouse keeper (and his assistants) was a busy one: the assistants were tasked with any number of duties besides managing the light itself, including constant maintenance of the lighthouse. Interestingly, due to the remoteness of light-station life, the families were actually not encouraged to mingle too much. The reasoning was it could cause arguments, ill-judged relationships and more, all of which could, in such isolation, have a dramatic effect on the running of the light station.
The buildings themselves are impressive: NPWS has done a magnificent job of restoring them, as well as providing for paying guests who can spend two nights over here, experiencing a little of life at a light station, as well as the island’s many attractions.
I have scored the Head Lighthouse Keeper’s quarters for my accommodation and it’s pretty awesome. The building includes five bedrooms, with a mix of Queen bed and King Single beds throughout. There is a communal lounge area that faces dead east, with a huge window through which to spot whales, and a gas heater (very handy on this cold winter’s night). There are also separate courtyards (north and south), a verandah that flows around the northeast corner and the eastern side, and an enclosed verandah on the southern side. The dining area is massive (it can seat 12), as is the kitchen; guests have to bring their own food and beverages for their stay but this kitchen will definitely take care of the rest. There’s also a large bathroom and separate toilet. Kel gives me the full tour of this building, as well as the Assistant Lighthouse Keepers Quarters next-door that include three bedrooms, and I am amazed at both the obvious quality of the original construction and what National Parks has done in the restoration to make them comfortable for guests. Even more impressive – in my mind, anyway – is that I am the only guest here tonight. Sometimes, just sometimes, this job is bloody tough…
Around we go
After dropping off my luggage we head out on a tour of the island itself, where Kel points out the penguin habitat and his (and the other NPWS staff’s) constant battle with keeping the kikuyu grass at bay so as to ensure the penguins have manageable access and egress to the nesting areas for themselves and their chicks. For anyone who thinks being a NPWS Ranger on Montague Island would be a dream job, they need to get out and see how much hard work these people do to keep the island “humming along”, so to speak.
As we venture around the southern section of the island, Kel points out the small graveyard (two young children and one adult are marked with headstones) before we head down to Old Jetty Bay, the location of the original jetty for the island. The reason for this location was the shallow and sheltered waters here, allowing longboats to transfer goods and gear from larger vessels moored nearby out of the often-savage winds that can buffet the island. There are also more seals here and visitors who join a charter-boat tour of the island often snorkel here, and around with the seals on the other side. This prompts me to ask Kel about an urban myth I heard when growing up in the area, about a massive great white shark that lurked off the island preying on the seals and, supposedly, unfortunate snorkellers and scuba divers. Kel and most of the rangers here have never seen this elusive monster but he does mention that Montague Island has a resident grey nurse colony off its northern tip, which is a favourite destination for scuba divers.
Our last port of call is the lighthouse itself and it is a great way to finish off the tour; winding my way up the stairs I envisage the light keeper and his offsiders busy each and every day ensuring this important beacon always stays alight. The view from the top is brilliant, looking across to Mt Dromedary and Narooma nestled below it, all the way north up toward Moruya Heads and the rugged mountain ranges behind.
After soaking up the view of the impending sunset we head back down to the buildings. I am excited to be here but slightly disappointed at the same time, as I am only on the island for one night – and it is outside the whale-viewing season. Montague Island is, like most of the NSW east coast, a brilliant way to spot the migrating whales as they travel up and down the east coast. The NPWS has a brilliant app for smartphones – Wild About Whales – that offers a great way to keep track of whale sightings. I have my app at the ready, but Kel mentions he’s seen none so far the past few days. That’s a bummer, and it looks like the wild weather is going to make it slightly more so. I had been briefed earlier that there was a possibility of the tides rising significantly overnight with the big southerly we are experiencing, so I resign to having my own personal island for just the one night. It isn’t that hard though; sitting in the warm lounge area after dinner I poke through the collection of books in the small library, then settle down to listen to the roar of the ocean and the wind, while reading some lighthouse history and casting a few glances out the window just in case a breaching whale appears. For a night in the ‘outdoors’, this is not a bad one at all.
During the migration season, the Far South Coast of NSW is one of the best whale watching spots in Australia. (Image courtesy Wild About Whales)
Way down south
I am up early the next morning hoping to photograph a sunrise but the rugged weather has well and truly arrived; the dramatic skies and whitecaps across the water confirm the forecast: it’s gonna be a bouncy trip back to the mainland. And it is, but exhilarating too as I watch, firstly, seals, then seabirds track beside the boat as Nick expertly pilots it through the troughs of the waves.
It is a surreal experience stepping back onto the mainland after a day and night out on a figurative ‘other world’ and after marking Montague Island as a destination on my ‘repeat visit’ list (I would love to be there when it is bustling with migratory birds, penguins and passing whales in the spring months) I start to think of what’s next. Which is, luckily for me, a night’s accommodation at Green Cape Lightstation, at the southern end of Ben Boyd National Park, and about an hour’s drive south of the last main town of Eden.
The drive south from Narooma to Eden takes roughly an hour-and-a-half, and is fantastic: this part of the NSW south coast is covered in national parks, both coastal and mountain, with the Princes Highway winding its way down to the Victorian border through a virtual avenue of tall timber, rolling green hills, rugged timbered mountain regions and spectacular beaches.
For somewhere so remote, Green Cape is easy to find as I follow the signposts off the highway south of Eden that lead me first to Edrom Road, then onto Green Cape Road itself. The drive in is slow, owing both to the rain and the slightly slippery road surface. It is also worth taking it easy, as I soon find out, so as to avoid any wildlife collisions. Not more than 10 minutes on the dirt and I see my first lyrebird, scratching happily away on the roadside, oblivious to the gawking fool in the RAV4. The second lyrebird – another couple of kays in – is decidedly more skittish (read: suicidal) and makes a fast dash across the road right in front of me before arrowing headlong into the dense bush on the other side. I cruise through the dense forest where the trees seem to loom over the vehicle, noting the turnoffs to Saltwater Creek campground and Pulpit Rock, before the road takes me out into more open coastal heathland, and my first glimpse of the Green Cape Lightstation.
Oddly enough, even though it is still on the mainland, Green Cape emits a more remote vibe. It truly feels like the ends of the earth and when I pull up, on the narrow piece of land that comprises the cape, that remoteness feels even more pronounced thanks to the loud and constant crashing of the ocean on both sides of the cape… and not another person to be seen. I soon agree with NPWS and how Green Cape Lightstation was described back in the day as “the windiest, coldest and driest” of them all. There is another person here though in the form of Green Cape caretaker Gary Mullinger who welcomes me and shows me to my room. I have scored a Queen room in Cottage 1, closest to the lighthouse and the cape itself; there are three beautifully restored cottages available for accommodation here. Gary then takes me on an amazingly informative tour of the lighthouse itself.
The house and its history
Green Cape Lightstation was another designed by James Barnet, and the similarities between it and Montague are obvious, and most pronounced in the way the cottages are designed. The challenges here for the builders were many, and included the fact that workers initially had to travel by horse or boat from Eden, Towamba and even Mallacoota, with most of the day spent en route to the workplace. Needless to say, it wasn’t too long before the government approved a workers’ camp on location (fed by two nearby natural springs), saving a six-hour each-way journey by horse from Eden, as an example.
During the build a tramline was run from Bittangabee Bay (to the north – and chosen for its sheltered waters) to the site, with concrete and all other supplies ferried via the horse-led tram up the hill. The lighthouse is nothing if not impressive; at 29m in height it is the tallest in NSW and looks built tough enough to withstand the most fierce storm the south can throw at it. We reach the top after a bit of huffing and puffing on my behalf (Gary literally bounds up the winding stairs) to be greeted by a crackerjack 360-degree view that takes in the aptly named Disaster Bay to the south, the mountains of South East Forest National Park to the west, and the coastline and adjoining waters of Ben Boyd NP to the north.
It is here that Gary explains the different lighthouse beams and how each is unique to the lighthouse’s location (on land or an island); Green Cape’s is a twin beam set-up, compared to Montague’s singular. Green Cape Lighthouse became operational in 1883 and was a manned tower until 1994, when it became automated. During that 111 years, the lighthouse and its generations of staff witnessed an incredible number of shipwrecks, with the most famous being that of the Ly-ee-moon in 1886. This steamer was wrecked off the point with a loss of 71 lives. There are numerous other wrecks here, with the most recent a trawler that was sunk on the northern side in the early 1950s (and which makes a great scuba dive site today).
I listen intently as Gary recounts the light station’s history – and what was involved in making it all work. It was incredibly hands-on, and the automation must seem nearly like a slap in the face of all the effort needed to keep the light going in the early days. I stay up in the tower for a while by myself as Gary heads back down to get on with more work, and this bit of alone-time provides me with a great chance to really soak up both the history I have just heard recounted, and the fantastic location that I am privileged enough to be visiting for the night. I am only jarred out of these thoughts by the sight of two day-visitors walking along the pathway to the point itself. I wonder what they think of this place; do they think of the many lives and effort put into building and running the light station? Or are they just keen to see if they can spot a few whales on their migratory path? (Gary had spotted five this day.) Or even, have they just finished the nearby Light to Light Walk (see Linking The Beacons, page 46), a two- or three-day hiking adventure from Ben Boyd Tower to Green Cape? I will never know these answers. Still, spending a night in a historical lighthouse keeper’s house at this timeless location, where the sea roars outside and the storm clouds and sunshine battle each other while migrating whales ply the waters, means I will have plenty of quality time to think about it. The rest of the world will just have to wait – or come and see it for themselves…
Where: Montague Island is reached via boat tours or NPWS accommodation tours only, via Narooma. Narooma is a five-hour drive south of Sydney, via the Princes Highway. See www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/Montague-Island-Nature-Reserve/Visitor-Info.
Green Cape Lightstation is a one-hour drive south of Eden, via the Princes Highway and Edrom Road (there is plenty of signage), in the southern section of Ben Boyd National Park (park usage fees apply: $8 per vehicle, per day). Eden is 6.5hr south of Sydney, 6hr northeast of Melbourne, both via the Princes Highway, and 3hr southeast of Canberra, via the Monaro Highway. See www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/camping-and-accommodation/accommodation/green-cape-lightstation-keepers-cottage.
Montague Island: The Montague Island Head Keeper’s Cottage has five bedrooms and caters for 12 guests. Cost is $1800 per night. The Assistant Keeper’s Cottage has three bedrooms and caters for eight guests. Cost is $1200 per night.
Prices include boat transfers, linen/towels, and a 2.5hr Ranger-led island tour. You will need to bring all food and beverages with you. There is a large kitchen for cooking and refrigeration of cold goods and cutlery/crockery is onsite. From now until November 30 there is a “Stay 3, Pay 2” offer. To book, see www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/montagueisland
Green Cape: There are three restored keepers’s cottages available at Green Cape, and cost is from $250 per night. This includes all linen/towels and a lighthouse tour. You will need to bring all food and beverages with you for your stay. There is a large, fully equipped kitchen available. There is no mobile phone reception at Green Cape. To book, see www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/greencape
Best time: September-April for both Montague Island and Green Cape. For optimal whale viewing, late August to November.
Whale watching/island tours: Narooma Tours & Charter Fish Narooma offers a wide range of tours based around Montague Island, including Montague Island day tours, snorkelling tours, whale-watching tour, and fishing charters for keen ocean anglers. See www.charterfishnarooma.com/services/
Cat Balou Cruises, based out of Eden, offers whale watching tours for those visiting Green Cape and Ben Boyd National Park. See www.catbalou.com.au/cruises-tours/.
More info: www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
This article was originally published in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of Australian Geographic Adventure.
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