SEE THE LIGHT

Tales abound of a ghostly pres­ence in the light­keeper’s cot­tage at Vic­to­ria’s lonely Point Hicks. Jen­nifer Pringle in­ves­ti­gates

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Australian Holidays -

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.

Check­list

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

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