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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Welcome at the end of the World

As I straightened from tying my boot laces, I glanced out of the window and caught a spray of foam on the still ocean. Not quite believing what I had seen, I looked out in time to see a juvenile Southern Right Whale rising from the ocean and then crashing, back arched into the water. I pressed my hands to the glass of the window, trying to bring myself closer to this amazing animal, conscious of the privilege he afforded me in sharing this moment of utter joy in being young and alive.

Hastily picking up my pack, my husband fumbling for the binoculars, we ran outside in time to see the young whale disappear around the point of the lighthouse rock. We caught up with him again. Like a synchronised swimmer he poised nose down in the water, that beautiful white tail slapping at the water with the joy of a child banging on a saucepan, before he slid away under the water and out of sight.

A walk of 19kms had brought us to the old lighthouse at Wilsons Promontory, the most southern point of the Australian mainland. Although the "Prom" itself has been a National Park for many years, the lighthouse remained Commonwealth property, shut off from the hundreds of bushwalkers until very recently when it was reopened to offer accommodation in the old light house keepers cottages to the not-so-intrepid bushwalkers who like a little comfort at the end of a long day's hike, a sort of remote bed and breakfast (providing you bring your own bed and breakfast).

Built as one of a string constructed in the 1850s to protect the passage from Europe to Sydney through Bass Strait. It is hard to even begin to imagine the lives of those early lighthouse keepers and their families. Even today the lighthouse on the Prom is an isolated place, only accessible by foot - a walk of some 19kms from Tidal River which in turn is some 50kms from the nearest town. One such family, the Musgraves lived at the light in the late nineteenth century. There Mrs. Musgrave bore 7 children and buried 2. Their 12 year old son would take the only horse and ride the 100 miles to the old Yanakie homestead for mail and mutton. Supplies came in by boat once every 3 months. And yet, despite the isolation, the children's memories of their lives in these isolated light houses (and Wilson's Promonotory was not the most isolated!), is one of happy times and it was a life that continued right up until the lights became automated in the early 1980s.

We were met by Ailsa Richter who, with her husband, Chris, still 'man' the lighthouse as they did for years before autmoation. They raised their children in this isolated place and so deeply ingrained did their love of the sea and the Prom become that they returned as Rangers and together have built up a history of the Prom, its families and the life they led. Chris took us on a tour of the lighthouse and as he spoke of the old building and the work he did to keep the light blazing shone from him like the beacon that kept the shipping safe for all those years.

From the balcony on the lighthouse, we watched as a rain squall blew in from the west and retreated to the warmth of the old house as the wind shook the foundations. We now understand the meaning of those weather forecasts that promise "gales east of the Prom". We marvelled at man's ability to tame the wilderness, snuggling down in our sleeping bags, completely exhausted and at peace with the world.

Our return loop took us to Waterloo Bay where we stopped for lunch, alone on this completely by ourselves, on the beach at Waterlooo bay to once more see this spirited youngster rejoicing in the freedom of his world. All our wordly worries and cares vanished like the foam his frolicking created. A precious moment in time, impressed on us both.