drops in on a tiny is­land off the NSW north coast that is be­ing opened to vis­i­tors for the first time next month

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Re­mote con­trol: South Soli­tary Is­land is a speck in the ocean, main pic­ture; the light­house keep­ers’ cot­tages lie idle, above Is­lands Marine Park. To the north is long, low Snap­per Rock, where light­house keep­ers caught gi­ant spec­i­mens for sport and to sup­ple­ment food sup­plies that were shipped in once a month, when sea con­di­tions al­lowed. The flat top of the is­land has a frost­ing of rough, green grass, where laun­dry once flapped in the breeze. Here, too, chil­dren played un­der the ever-watch­ful eyes of their moth­ers, who teth­ered the lit­tle ones to wash­ing lines to stop them tum­bling over the cliff edge and into the sea.

We walk from the light­house to a clus­ter of build­ings, fol­low­ing a long wall that pro­vided shel­ter from the some­times hur­ri­cane-force winds that threat­ened to blow keep­ers off their feet as they end­lessly trudged, what­ever the weather, be­tween the light­house and their liv­ing quar­ters.

Build­ing be­gan on the James Bar­net-de­signed con­crete light­house and cot­tages in 1879; it was no easy task since the 30 labour­ers, their build­ing ma­te­ri­als, food sup­plies and a horse had to be trans­ported by sea and winched on to the is­land.

Tim­ber was floated down the Bellinger River and loaded on to boats for the fi­nal jour­ney and, with no sup­ply of drink­ing wa­ter, tanks had to be sunk into solid rock. De­spite the hard­ship and iso­la­tion, work was com­pleted within a year.

The 20m-high light­house (which is not open to the pub­lic), three sub­stan­tial cot­tages and an­cil­lary rooms such as a laun­dry and stores, all sur­rounded by a high pro­tec­tive wall, re­main much as they were in 1880.

Nalder un­locks the head light­house keeper’s cot­tage — un­re­stored and un­fur­nished but spruced up to re­ceive vis­i­tors — and we are sur­prised at the num­ber and size of the rooms.

Fire­places re­mind us that win­ter nights on South Soli­tary would have been long and cold. In our imag­in­ings, life on the is­land must have been bleak and lonely, but our won­der­ful com­pan­ions on this trip, wives of for­mer light­house keep­ers, Bar­bara Atchi­son, on her first visit to the is­land in 34 years, and Shirley Northam re­gale us with sto­ries of do­mes­tic life, bring­ing the aus­tere sur­round­ings to life.

Atchi­son was just 20 when, in 1975, she lived on South Soli­tary for six months. Her young hus­band was there to de­com­mis­sion the light­house and it seemed ‘‘ like an amaz­ing ad­ven­ture’’, she says. Ex­cite­ment rapidly turned to panic when, clutch­ing her six-week-old daugh­ter, she was swung ashore from the deck of a heav­ing boat in a wicker chair at­tached to a crane at the end of a jetty. For a cen­tury or more this was the only way on and off the is­land for peo­ple and sup­plies, even live­stock.

‘‘ I re­mem­ber the ter­ror of the chair spin­ning, see­ing the wa­ter boil­ing be­low us and feel­ing sure we would fall in,’’ she says. Her baby was sick with croup and, with no other woman on the is­land, Atchi­son felt ter­ri­bly alone, her only sup­port a long­suf­fer­ing phar­ma­cist in Coffs Har­bour she re­peat­edly phoned for ad­vice.

There are no snakes on South Soli­tary but it boasts a healthy pop­u­la­tion of gi­ant cen­tipedes, up to 30cm long, and Atchi­son re­calls her bed be­ing sur­rounded by bowls of kerosene to de­ter the arthro­pods, which can de­liver a shock­ingly painful bite.

‘‘ The thing I loved best was the ab­so­lute peace,’’ says Northam, who with her light­house keeper hus­band, Barry, and young son lived on South Soli­tary from 1958 to 1963.

Her leisure time was spent read­ing and lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio; de­spite the close prox­im­ity of two other light­house fam­i­lies, they so­cialised only one Sun­day a month, when they would meet to play cards. ‘‘ It was the only way it could work,’’ she says. ‘‘ For the men it was hard and danger­ous work, but I knew we were safe here.’’

Nalder and Flan­ders, the rangers who will be lead­ing tours of the is­land in July, have a fund of sto­ries, of­ten sad like that of a light­house keeper’s daugh­ter who died of ty­phoid in 1912. Dig­ging a grave was im­pos­si­ble on the rocky is­land, so her body was sealed in­side a cast-iron bath­tub and taken to the main­land for burial.

Per­haps the best story is that of John Fisher, an as­sis­tant light­house keeper who fell in love with a young woman on the main­land. Each Sun­day, his day off, he rowed through wind and waves from the is­land to the near­est head­land and, af­ter a few hours canoodling, rowed back.

No mat­ter that at first he had no boat for the 8km jour­ney: the en­ter­pris­ing young man sim­ply built one Sue Milne was a guest of Novo­tel Pa­cific Bay Re­sort.


He­li­copter tours of South Soli­tary Is­land will take place from July 4 to 12. Re­turn flight and one-hour tour with a NPWS ranger, $250 a per­son; re­turn flight, two-hour guided tour and gourmet lunch, in­clud­ing wine, $490 a per­son. A for­mer res­i­dent of the is­land will ac­com­pany most tours. More: 1300 369 070; www.pre­ci­sion­heli­ Novo­tel Pa­cific Bay Re­sort, 3km north of Coffs Har­bour, where Pre­ci­sion He­li­copters’ flights to the is­land will take off and land, has a spe­cial win­ter pack­age with rooms from $135, with break­fast. More: www.paci­ficbayre­

Pic­tures: Rob Cleary, Coffs Coast Mar­ket­ing

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