SEE THE LIGHT
Tales abound of a ghostly presence in the lightkeeper’s cottage at Victoria’s lonely Point Hicks. Jennifer Pringle investigates
IT’S one thing to stay at a historic hotel because it is reputedly haunted. It is quite another to arrive unsuspecting at a lonely lighthouse and learn that the lightkeeper’s cottage, and in particular your otherwise idyllic ocean-view room, is supposedly haunted by a mysteriously vanished lighthouse keeper.
The white spire of Point Hicks lighthouse, Oregon-timber cottages clustered about its base, stands atop a windswept granite headland in Victoria’s Croajingolong National Park. This wild point of land was the first place on the Australian mainland to be sighted by Captain James Cook and his crew on the Endeavour in 1770, and is named after Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, who first saw the land.
The isolated point is about an hour, via winding bush tracks, from the nearest town, tiny Cann River. Only satellite phones have reception at the lighthouse. In short, Point Hicks is all one imagines a lighthouse and its surrounds should be, so perhaps it is appropriate that this remote outpost in far-east Victoria apparently is haunted.
When we arrive, the sun is shining and the sea is flat and blue, so ghost tales are met with relish by my fellow travellers. Their enjoyment also seems to derive from the fact that their rooms are not among those reportedly favoured by the ghost. Rob Coates, who has a 21-year lease on the lighthouse and cottages, relates the legend of Robert Christoferson, a lighthouse keeper who vanished without trace on April 3, 1947, apparently while setting his cray pots.
A six-day search by police proved fruitless. The lighthouse and cottages are said to be haunted by a ghost with a penchant for polishing brass doorknobs and whose hobnailed boots echo around the light tower at night.
Coates has lived in the main lighthouse keeper’s cottage for 11 years and rents out the other two cottages, which were built as a duplex and once inhabited by assistant lighthouse keepers and their families. He takes us on a guided tour of the 39.7m lighthouse, the tallest on the Australian mainland.
One hundred sixty-two cast-iron steps are cantilevered from the wall in a spiral with no central pole, forming a striking architectural feature.
Unlike many decommissioned lighthouses, the Point Hicks tower retains intact the original lead-crystal lenses that magnified the strength of the old lamp about one million times.
It was completed in 1889 and tended by three lighthouse keepers in eight-hour shifts until the original lamp was decommissioned and replaced with an automated version in 1993.
Today, the lighthouse keeper’s responsibilities include taking weather readings several times a day, general maintenance of the lighthouse buildings, nearby campground and local tracks, and cleaning and renting out the cottages. After inspecting the old light, we step outside on to a platform that circles the lighthouse to enjoy the 360-degree view. A colony of bachelor fur seals is clearly visible, playing off rocks near the point, and it is obvious why Point Hicks is an ideal vantage point for whale watching. Even without the added height of the lighthouse, the point’s altitude is perfect.
There are about 200 whale sightings a year from Point Hicks, Coates tells us. The best months are June, October and November, which coincide with the humpback whale migration periods. Killer whales are occasionally sighted close to shore and southern rights may be seen calving or resting with their young in shallow water just beyond the surf.
After our tour of the lighthouse, we hike across the point to West Beach and the ruins of a jetty where ships would dock every four months to deliver supplies to the isolated early residents. The 40-minute return walk along Sledge Track meanders through thick tea-tree and banksia, tracing the steps of the lighthouse keeper families who brought supplies back on a horse-drawn sledge.
At West Beach, we walk kilometres along the spray-misted sand. A venture into the sand dunes turns up tracks of dingoes, which live in the thick undergrowth and forage along the beach at dawn for stranded sea creatures. Beyond the scrub-covered dunes are towering, Sahara-like mountains of sand that can be reached via tracks from the Thurra River camping ground on the far side.
Among the easier hikes from the lighthouse is the coastal Shipwreck Walk to a viewing platform that overlooks the remains of the SS Saros, a steel steamer wrecked in 1937.
At sunset, Coates joins us for a drink and we learn more about Point Hicks, where for 11 years he has been living a boyhood dream. ‘‘ When I was 14, we hiked along the coast here and when we passed the lighthouse I thought, ‘ Wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like that?’ ’’ he says.
As stars appear one by one, they are matched by the phosphorescent flash of waves breaking over submerged rocks just beyond the point. When the chill and mosquitoes become too persistent, we move inside for dinner. Each cottage has a fully equipped dining room and kitchen. Generators and solar panels charge large batteries that provide power to the cottages (no phone, television or radio).
The wood stove draws us to the cosy living room where, like kids telling scary stories around a campfire, conversation soon turns to ghostly tales as firelight shadows dance on the walls.
So, what of Christoferson’s ghost and his hobnailed boots? Does it exist beyond the tales told by residents and visitors? I cannot say there are no wandering spirits at Point Hicks, but when we finally retire, I sleep uninterrupted in my supposedly haunted room, the waves breaking against rocks below the only sound through an otherwise silent night. Jennifer Pringle was a guest of Tourism Victoria.
Point Hicks is reached by taking the Princes Highway to Cann River, 450km east of Melbourne. Point Hicks lighthouse is about an hour from Cann River, via the Tamboon Road turn-off. Specific directions are available when booking. A helipad at the lighthouse means arrival and departure by charter helicopter can be arranged. Point Hicks lighthouse has two cottages, each sleeping up to eight in three bedrooms. Book up to 12 months in advance. Each cottage has a wood-burning stove, fully equipped kitchen and wood barbecue. Food is BYO and guests must carry out their rubbish when they leave. More: (03) 5158 4268; www.pointhicks.com.au.
Tall order: The lighthouse and its keeper’s cottage at Point Hicks, about an hour’s drive from the nearest town
Twists and turns: The lighthouse staircase consists of 162 cast-iron steps cantilevered from the wall in a spiral with no central pole