Twenty-four Hours Atop Tasmania’s Forgotten Offshore Island
Photography by Jon Frank, Story by Jock Serong
Tasman Island stands sentinel over the southeast coast of Tasmania, the point at which the continental shelf cuts closest to the island state. To its west lies the labyrinth of Cape Raoul, Storm Bay and South Arm. Somewhere north of them lies the Derwent estuary and ultimately Hobart. The positioning of this lonely rock – just a mile long and half as wide – is integral to understanding both its importance to early shipping and the massive effort devoted to building a lighthouse here.
The scale of the Cape Pillar cliffs is intimidating. The ocean rises and falls like deep breaths, even on a comparatively flat day such as this. It whirls through narrow openings in the coast, thousands of tonnes of seawater pouring through kelp forests, deep enough to look blue-black, even under bright sun. The dolorite cliffs form vertical columns, plunging from the sky straight through the surface of the ocean and on down into the abyss.
Drawn by krill and plankton, life abounds in every direction. Shearwaters, terns, fairy prions and albatross circle over the water: a white-bellied sea eagle maintains a vigil on a rock outcrop. Dolphins erupt from the calm surface, while New Zealand and Australian fur seals bellow from the rock platforms. Although the tiny signs of our impact must be everywhere, it feels as though humanity has no presence here. And 400 metres off the walls of Cape Pillar – the tallest sea cliffs in the southern hemisphere – stands Tasman Island. It rises sharply out of the swell, grey-sided and green-topped, defined on all sides by those daunting columns of rock. A diagonal scar runs up the north-east side of the island.
This is the “haulage way”, an abandoned engineering project, originally comprising a flying fox to take loads off boats, a large timber landing stage, then a crane and a steeply-inclined tramline to winch the goods up the cliff. Once at the summit, a separate horse-drawn tramway carried the goods across the plateau to the lighthouse at the opposite end. Using only this rudimentary system, every man, woman and child, every beast and every scrap of building material was hauled onto the precarious top of the island for seventy-five years.
Photographer Jon Frank and I have come by boat. These days, most visits to the uninhabited rock are made by helicopter, but we think there’s a strange sort of authenticity about doing it this way.
Forty minutes out from Pirate’s Bay jetty near Eaglehawk Neck, we’re looking up from the deck of the boat, wondering what we were thinking. The only way to land people and equipment nowadays is by manoeuvring close to the rocks at the foot of the old haulage way, putting a wetsuit on and jumping in, taking care not to come up under the boat, which is rising and falling about ten feet in the swell (and again, this is a small day).
A curtain of heavy kelp hangs from a narrow ledge of boulders. Swimming in towards the ledge, you wait for the rise of a swell, then glide up the rocks on your belly and scramble free before the water recedes. Next, nudging the boat nose-first very quickly, the crew pass one dry-bag at a time from the bow onto the rocks, watched by huge fur seals on the platforms above.
Once we’re both up on the rocks (Frank somehow hops daintily across without even putting on a wetsuit), we have to wait for the seals to grudgingly depart. I peel off the wetsuit and leave it drying on the rocks, wondering whether it might be chewed up by one of these giant mammals. Then, passing the bags up ledge by ledge – a case full of camera gear, backpacks with our clothes and water, sleeping and cooking gear – we inch up the cliff.
Above us are the weathered planks of the old landing stage, with a stairway through the middle of it. On top of the platform, which is smashed at one end, there’s a derelict phone and a control cabin for the flying fox. We’re perched like birds on the side of a cliff, a hundred feet off the ocean, yet people somehow built these structures here.
The accident – 1927
The landing system on Tasman’s northern side was ingenious, but still treacherous. On 12 March 1927, a gang of riggers were nearly finished assembling a new crane when the structure collapsed, flinging William Groombridge a hundred feet down the cliff, his body striking the rocks several times before disappearing into the sea. Orlando Patterson survived, falling some distance before his foot snagged a steel cable and he hung suspended in mid-air until he could be rescued. His co-workers then had to heave him a further 800 feet up the cliff, after which he was laid out in the lighthouse, critically ill with a fractured skull. Carrier pigeons were sent with news of the accident (but never arrived, most likely due to hawk predation), as frantic efforts were made to signal a passing steamer.
It took more than twenty-four hours to land a doctor on the island. Patterson, still unconscious, was then winched back down the cliff in a basket and raced to Hobart.
He was married with four children. No records exists as to whether he recovered.
The timber landing platform, crane housing and remains of the haulage way. Ascending the wrecked tramline.
Loaded with gear, each step of the 250-metre ascent gains us maybe half a metre, by which measure it’s going to take five hundred agonising steps to reach the top: a near-vertical hand-scrabble, bags rapidly getting heavier. The railway once used for haulage is broken and disappearing in and out of the thick scrub. I’m kicking rocks loose in my struggle for footholds, and they’re bouncing down on Frank. The details of the ocean’s surface are getting smaller with the height.
Two and a half hours later, we’re on flat ground. The view back towards Cape Pillar defies belief. There’s more wrecked machinery up here. As on the Antarctic continent, or some of the earth’s highest peaks, the difficulty of getting materials onto the surface of Tasman Island meant that once their usefulness had expired, they simply remained there, bleaching in the sun and the wind.
The relics of forgotten labours are everywhere underfoot.
The birds are also everywhere, but darting skinks are the only signs of terrestrial life so far. A path leading up a gentle slope reveals the three keepers’ houses; heavily built, almost grand. Inside, they’re empty but far from abandoned. A couch, a mattress, running water, the restoration work of the Friends of Tasman Island. Rambling passageways and rooms where children once played. Such families seem gone only moments ago, Mary Celeste style.
The lighthouse itself represents a different enigma – what are we all going to do with these towers in future? They’re outliving their functional lives as navigation technology advances. Why are teams of men being sent at massive expense in helicopters to paint and weld and glaze them? Is it pure historical verity? For how much longer will governments fund it?
The lighthouse – 1906
The Tasman Island lighthouse is a hundred feet tall, far from the tallest light on Australian shores. But it stands at the highest point on the plateau at the top of the island, 800 feet above the sea, giving its lantern a commanding sweep of thirty-six miles over the ocean.
The tower was built in 1906, made from cast-iron plates like the hull of a ship. Nearby stand three large houses for the light-keeper and assistant light-keepers. They’re made from red brick and heavy timbers milled on the mainland. (We asked a Parks Tasmania heritage consultant why they weren’t made from something lightweight like weatherboard, given the necessity to heave the materials up the haulage way. He replied, deadpan, “because they’d blow away.”)
The island keeps its stories closely guarded. For the first twenty years of the lighthouse’s life, messages were conveyed to and from the island by pigeon. Plenty didn’t get through, but ended in explosions of feathers when the birds of prey got lucky.
Every month of the year the wind exceeds 100 km/h up here. There’s tales of people having to crawl on hands and knees from the house to the tower. A recent repair crew thought the roof of their house was going to blow off. As it happened, the verandah did.
Cats were eradicated from Tasman Island three years ago, saving up to 50,000 seabird mortalities annually. There’s a fairy prion colony comprising about half a million pairs among the square boulders out on the west side, a shearwater colony on the southern cliffs. Elsewhere, gannets, wedgetailed eagles, swamp harriers and honeyeaters abound. The Cape Pillar Sheoak, Allocasuarina crassa, lives only here, along with a grasshopper, fittingly called Tasmanoplectron isolatum.
The light-keepers ran up to five hundred sheep up here, killing them regularly for lack of refrigeration. There are signs of the fences which were apparently built to keep children and stock away from the plunging cliffs. There are holes in the land too, crevasses through the flutes of rock that feel like they plunge into the very centre of the earth. The vegetation changes slightly when there’s a hole. That’s the only clue you get.
The skull – 1913
On the southwest corner of the island, where the shearwaters crowd in their thousands to an isolated rookery at the base of the cliffs, a skull was unearthed in May 1913 by a Mr McGuire, assistant light-keeper. Reports at the time variously claimed it was found “on a road”, at the base of the cliffs and “down a shearwater’s burrow.”
Believed to have been of Aboriginal provenance, it was unclear how the skull came to be on the most remote and inaccessible corner of the island. The Mercury reported at the time: “Further search of the muttonbird rookery was made… without finding any more relics. (I)n all probability the remains were never interred, the person meeting with sudden death: I should say a landslip has occurred at that particular place years ago.”
The skull was passed to the Hobart Museum: in a telling glimpse of attitudes to Aboriginal remains at the time, the Mercury reported that “Additions to the Museum for the month of May included one aboriginal skull from Tasman Island, two birds, about 100 insects, two embryos of a dogfish… an eel and a few miscellaneous marine invertebrates.”
The skull has not been heard of since.
Seen some ways, Tasman Island is lonely, even desolate. On the other hand, there’s plenty of affection for the island, particularly among the Friends of Tasman Island, who’ve done much to restore the buildings and preserve the environment. Online, they post Jackson family memories, black and white photos of laughing families, of the keepers’ smiling children.
Up the lighthouse in the late afternoon, Frank’s trained a long lens on a white-bellied sea eagle circling just above us.
Next, he makes a panorama by walking around the lighthouse’s observation deck, taking one photo at each post of the handrail. Far below, a humpback whale passes by under the cliffs, its pale belly showing up green through the blue water. Nearly a thousand feet below us, somehow we can hear it exhale; a hollow sound of air forcefully expelled, identical to the sound of the swells being forced into sea-caves at the foot of the cliffs, being projected backwards, aerated. You can see the explosions far away, but it takes whole seconds for the sound to arrive.
As dusk falls, we’re debating where to sleep. A northerly’s blown up, cold and buffeting. We head for the downhill house, with its peeling wallpaper and choked fireplaces. It’s okay lying on hiking mattresses on the floorboards, and a whole lot warmer than outside. But we’ve chilled the air with talk of Yates.
The pursuit – 1950
Accidents and hardship aside, one story appears in the mists of Tasman Island history that condenses loneliness and isolation into gothic horror. There’s no firm evidence corroborating it, but this is the tale.
In 1950, the light was manned by Herbert James Yates, who lived on the island with his girlfriend Rita Clarke. The isolation turned Yates violent, and he drank to excess. The unfortunate Rita was the sole target of his rage: trapped on the rock with him, she often had to flee into the scrub to escape. Over years of this torment, she bore him four children. The violence escalated until fate intervened with the arrival of a new assistant light-keeper named Tregenza. With Shakespearean inevitability,
Rita fell for Tregenza, and Yates now harboured plans to kill them both. As the wind raged and Yates stalked them, they tried vainly to signal the mainland for help.
After their eventual rescue, they fled with the children to bayside Melbourne, where they married. But Yates was not done. Under investigation over his conduct, he pursued them there, ultimately tracking them down in Seaford in 1960, where he murdered Tregenza with a rifle and then turned the gun on himself.
The story appeared in the (now defunct) Melbourne Truth newspaper, which didn’t enjoy a reputation for journalistic rigour, and is recounted on a website about Australian lighthouses. Yates and Tregenza are officially listed as light-keepers at Tasman, but are otherwise lost to history.
The morning is bright and surprisingly warm. We’re imagining what it would have been like to look back towards the cliffs at night during a bushfire. Everything is a struggle for scale – the ocean is enormous from up here. Frank’s gone off up the hill to try to capture a “Sujimoto”, looking east.
You can leave the food out and walk away, because there’s no mammals on the island. In the end, the ants might get it, but there isn’t even a seagull, and the birds of prey seem fixated on the skinks. Frank is perching himself on ever-more precarious cliff edges as his confidence grows. There is virtually no wind, no flies. Just hot sun and chippering birdsong, the dry paper sound of crunching bracken underfoot. Oddly, there are no ordinary bees but giant bumblebees.
Huge pods of common dolphins are massing below us – moving at speed then stopping their forward momentum but circling: feeding? Socialising? There are no birds around them, so maybe it’s the latter.
The descent takes only thirty minutes, bum-sliding and boot-skiing viagra preisvergleich. The tiny white specks of the birds at sea level grow bigger and take form until they’re right below us, among us again. A visit to another world, and it’s over before we knew it.
My wetsuit, left on the rocks below the landing stage of the haulage way, is unmolested.
Our thanks to Wild Ocean Tasmania, Holic Wetsuits and Tourism Tasmania
This article was published in Volume 2:1 – back issues are available in the GOQ Shop.