Tasman Island: Lights on at Tasman

By Ian Connellan 16 June 2009
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After a century atop weather-beaten 200] m cliffs, Tasman Island’s historic lightkeeper’s quarters are being restored by dedicated volunteers.

Carol Jackson, at 50-something, has started to resemble Tasman Island, on which she was raised. Her reddish hair floats wild in the breeze like the overgrown grasses that spill to the edge of the island’s 200 m cliffs. “Independent and reliable” seems to sum her up, much like the Tasman lighthouse. “I’ve usually lived in fairly isolated places, and been a bit of a loner,” Carol says.

Carol and her sister Dee Webb are the guiding lights of the Friends of Tasman Island (FOTI), founded in 2005, and they’re on the island now, late in 2007, for FOTI’s third working bee, supported by the AG Society. The group’s volunteers, with the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, aim to restore historic buildings on 120 ha Tasman, a striking mass of dolerite that juts above the wild seas about 70 km south-east of Hobart.

The sisters’ father, Jack Jackson, was one of the last head keepers of the Tasman Island lighthouse. He left in 1975 and died in 1976, a year before the Tasman light station was de-manned. Its three keeper’s quarters remained mostly dark and empty until FOTI’s first working bee, in 2006.

“It’s one of the most spectacular and isolated lighthouse stations in Australia,” Carol says. “I’ve never yet met a person who’s come out here and hasn’t been blown away by the beauty.” She chuckles at her pun: the wind on Tasman is famous, relentless, wearing.

“Even though modern-day seafarers have navigational aids, you talk to the fishermen – they still like to have the light of a lighthouse,” adds Dee. “There’s something reassuring about it – they know that they’re in the right spot.”

Keeper of the flame

“See, every light in this area, what we call K Division, which is the Pacific, had a different character,” says John Cook, his cornflower-blue eyes aglow beneath a tidy thatch of grey hair. “No two lights were the same. So when a ship made a landfall and picked up a light, he knew exactly where he was. Tasman was a two-and-a-half-second even flash every five seconds.”

John’s renowned as one of the last of the “kerosene keepers”: he spent a good part of his 26-year career in Tasmanian lighthouses tending kerosene, not electrical, lamps. He joined the lighthouse service in 1969, after a spell in the merchant marine. Far from reviling work on isolated islands such as Tasman and Maatsuyker, Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, he discovered that he loved the solitude and delighted in the sense of purpose that lightkeeping gave him. He did two stints on Tasman, in 1969–71 and 1977, and was head keeper on Maatsuyker for eight years.

Tasman’s kerosene light was a pressure lamp fuelled by two big bottles that had to be pumped up to 75 pounds per square inch (about 516 kilopascals): “It was the equivalent of pumping up a tyre every 20 minutes,” John says. “Then you had to wind up the weights – they went down the tower and turned the prism around like a big clockwork. If the weights went all the way to the bottom the light would stop.

“The main thing was that, 365 nights of the year you sat in that tower, 100 feet up, and you had to stay awake,” John says of Tasman. “If you fell asleep the light would stop and then you were in trouble.”

Keepers took watches around the clock, in a system similar to that on a ship. Day watches weren’t a chance to slack off: standing orders required the watch keeper to look seawards at least every half-hour, and to log sightings of any vessels, and their course, in the area. “But the main thing was there was always maintenance to do,” John says. “Because Mother Nature was your boss. She’d blow gutters off, that sort of thing – she was always stickin’ her bib in, and you were repairin’ it.”

Tasman keepers also ran a herd of up to 500 sheep. They didn’t have a freezer, so they’d kill and dress a sheep every fortnight. John supplemented his bulk stores, delivered every three months by the lighthouse supply vessel, with extras brought on the bi-monthly mail boat, and by keeping chooks, ducks and turkeys. “I never ran out of things to do,” he says. “In my free time I used to do correspondence courses – I did navigation, diesel mechanics, business management and accounting.”

In 1977, keepers left the Tasman quarters forever. “I’ve got such strong memories of those places with people in them, and kids’ voices rattlin’ around,” John says. “It breaks my heart to think about those places sittin’ out there empty with no lights on.”

Tasmania: my island home

For the lighthouse kids, Carol and Dee, time spent in Tasman’s quarters is warmed by a cosy shawl of memory. Most FOTI volunteers are staying in number 3 quarters, the cottage on which restoration efforts have thus far been concentrated, but Carol and Dee are camped down the hill in number 1 quarters, their old home. They happily conduct informal tours: here’s the old magneto phone; this was Dee’s room; here’s the hallway where we played cricket on days so windy Mum kept us indoors.

“It’s a great house down here,” Dee says. “But it was a hell of a walk up to the light at night, carrying Dad’s hot supper. It was easier getting around after dark in those days, because the kerosene light meant you could walk around without a torch. You’d get to the bottom of the stairs and sing out, ‘Dad, supper’ and he’d say, ‘well, bring it up’ and you’d be groaning, not wanting to cart it up the tower.”

Tasman’s location was their compensation. Views from the island almost defy description. The soaring, abrupt, south-eastern edge of the Tasman Peninsula looms to the north, across the Tasman Passage. The eye automatically falls on two features: The Blade, a tall, narrow promontory of dolerite that faces due south, and the towering, half-domed mass of Cape Pillar, which – at more than 250 m – is the site of Australia’s highest sea cliffs. To the west, Cape Raoul thrusts a dark, forbidding finger into Storm Bay and low-slung Bruny Island is a ribbon unfurled across the hazy distance.

“I think I only appreciated the beauty of the place as an adult,” Carol says. “When I came back out here for the first time in 30 years, on the first working bee, I just felt so happy. There’s this peace. And even though I get overwhelmed sometimes at the amount of work there is to do, I still feel very contented here.”

Source: Australian Geographic Apr – Jun 2008