Beacons beckon

Beacons beckon

SYDNEY - Scattered across Australia's vast coastline, hundreds of lighthouses once played a vital role in preventing shipwrecks, but they gradually fell into disuse and disrepair in the age of radars and Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking.

However, a new use has been found in recent years, with lighthouses being turned into boutique accommodation, museums and tourist sites.

Though the days of manned lighthouses in Australia are long gone, many of the historic buildings - some of the oldest in the nation - are finding a new lease of life.

The latest such revival involves plans for a remote island off the west coast, Breaksea Island, whose 156-year-old lighthouse is one of the nation's oldest.

Visitors will soon be able to access the island by helicopter under a deal that could bring in much- needed funding to restore the lighthouse and prevent it from crumbling into the sea.

The state government in Western Australia said recently that it was a "great opportunity" and it is considering ways to fund an A$400,000 (S$434,470) upgrade that would allow visitors to stay at the cottages in which the lighthouse keepers once lived.

Mr Peter Hartley, a state parks and wildlife official, told ABC News: "The visits will be guided trips because of some of the hazards on the island and the historical importance.

"We can't afford for people to be left to their own devices and run around the island."

The tours mirror a trend in Australia, where the 380-odd lighthouses scattered along the nation's 35,877km coastline are becoming better known as holiday destinations and historical sites than for the light that they still shine to assist seafarers.

The nation's first lighthouse, at Sydney's South Head, was finished in 1818 and is now a familiar landmark, especially for visitors to the city's coastal walkway.

The development of automatic lighting and satellite navigation systems for large ships meant lighthouse keepers were no longer needed.

The last manned lighthouse - on Maatsuyker Island off the island state of Tasmania - finally lost its live-in keeper in 1995, when it had an automatic solar-

powered light installed.

An expert on Australia's lighthouses, author John Ibbotson, who wrote several books about them, said many people had romantic notions about the lighthouses, which were often in remote and seemingly treacherous locations.

He told SundayLife!: "Up until the 1990s, they were out of bounds to the public, so they were also something mysterious. They are often in beautiful spots."

The lighthouses are still largely in use but, in recent years, have been switching over to LED lights which use less power and require less maintenance.

Ibbotson said the lighthouses provide little practical use these days.

Still, he said some big shipping companies have begun requiring staff on the bridge to record each lighthouse to make sure they look out of the window rather than stare at the satellite tracking on the computer screen.

This, he said, ensures that the staff will notice objects - such as unexpected ships or wrecks - that do not appear on the computer.

The federal authority which manages the nation's lighthouses, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, says lighthouses continue to provide a "visual backup" despite modern navigation techniques which use satellite and sophisticated GPS tracking.

"Lighthouses provide a visual backup, particularly for small vessels without sophisticated electronics," the authority said in its annual report last year. "They also often house the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's electronic equipment and, therefore, will be a link in future."

Being located on points and headlands, the lighthouse keepers' cottages are often near beaches and have unfettered views of the oceans. This has improved their potential as accommodation, with some fetching hundreds of dollars a night.

The latest potential site was announced by the New South Wales government in October, which said it was considering allowing overnight stays at one of Sydney's most famous lighthouses, Barrenjoey Lighthouse, an 1881 sandstone building at the far northern tip of the city.

"It means that people will have more opportunity to visit and more opportunity to get inside and feel what it's like to live in these places," the state environment minister, Mr Rob Stokes, told the local Manly Daily newspaper.

"It's all about opening up access to the community. These cottages are owned by the public."

Mr Lyndon O'Grady, a heritage officer for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority who helps to preserve the lighthouses, said many people - including himself - still have "strong feelings about lighthouses".

"They find them romantic," he said. "Even my wife is entranced - we were married in a lighthouse."

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com


This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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