Lighting the Way

There have been more than 1400 ships wrecked off the coast of Western Australia since records began, and with its rugged, rocky coastline, strong prevailing winds and often stormy weather, the south west corner of the state has been the site of many of these disastrous shipwrecks. There are two lighthouses on this part of the coast, at Cape Naturaliste in the north and Cape Leeuwin in the south, built to guide sailors through the treacherous waters of the Indian and Southern Oceans.

The lighthouse at Cape Naturaliste is perched high on a cliff at the western-most point of Geographe Bay. It has only 59 steps but with its elevated position it is 123 metres above sea level. From the top of the lighthouse there are wonderful views of the Indian Ocean, Cape Naturaliste and the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park.

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The lighthouse was built in 1903 but it wasn’t until the Lighthouse Keepers’ cottages were built in 1904 that the lamp was lit. There were three Lighthouse Keepers who worked a continuous rotating shift to keep the lamp maintained and lit through the night.

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In the reserve below the lighthouse are the cottages of the keepers and their families, who continued to live there until the lighthouse became automated in 1996. Looking back down from the lighthouse it’s not difficult to imagine the isolation of living here: they had to be completely self-sufficient. One cottage now houses the Visitor Centre and a small museum while a caretaker lives in another.

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At the southern end of Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park is Cape Leeuwin, the most south-westerly mainland point of the Australian continent. It is here that the Indian and Southern Oceans meet in a flurry of white-capped waves. The Dutch ship Leeuwin, for which the cape is named, visited the area in 1622 while the English navigator, explorer and scientist Matthew Flinders began his survey of the southern part of Australia from Cape Leeuwin in 1801.

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Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse was built in 1895 and became operational in 1896. At 39 metres it is Australia’s tallest lighthouse. Its lens, still the original, projects a light with the power of a million candles, which can be seen up to 47 kilometres away. Like the lighthouse at Cape Naturaliste, this lighthouse also had a resident population of keepers and their families who made sure the light never went out.

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The ocean route along this part of the Western Australian coast is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes with ships travelling to and from Fremantle Harbour. These two old lighthouses continue to play an important role in the safekeeping of the vessels that sail past.

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