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