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Southern beacon gets a boost


The heart and soul of Maatsuyker Island, its 17 metre high light tower, is being lovingly restored by contractors, while Parks and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers are tackling a range of island conservation projects during a two week working bee.

Maatsuyker Island is 10 kilometres off Tasmania’s south coast, it’s Australia’s most southerly lighthouse station and was the last to be de-manned in 1996. A volunteer caretaker program began in 1999 has grown through the years, with the two partners, PWS and the Friends of Maatsuyker Island (FOMI) Wildcare Inc group, combining their skills and energy for the benefit of the island.

PWS Heritage officer, Peter Rigozzi, is just as passionate about the island as its volunteers, many of whom were past lighthouse keepers, or children of keepers.

“It sounds corny, but it’s true to say that once you’ve been here, it’s never out of your blood and that’s why there’s a supportive community of people who have such a strong association with the place,” Peter said.

The island provides a spectacular view of the wild south coast of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, of which it is a part. The 180 degree view north extends from South West Cape to Cox Bight, Louisa Bay and east to South East Cape. To the south lies the immensity of the Southern Ocean.

This year’s working bee is jointly funded by the PWS, which has contributed $50,000 and FOMI, which has contributed $40,000, sourced from donations and fundraising events.

The focus is the light tower, which had suffered badly from its constant exposure to the winds of the Roaring 40s, driving rain and salt spray. It leaks badly, with rainwater regularly cascading down the tower stairs. FOMI president Marina Campbell, recalls one weather event when she was caretaking the island several years ago.

“We had 111 mm of rain in two hours, and when we went to the tower to inspect it, the rainwater was about 10 cm deep on the bottom floor of the lighthouse. It took 80 buckets to empty it,” Marina said.

The romance of remote lighthouses touches many and two who are well and truly in their grip is the contracting team of Mark Sheriff and Mick McNamara. Based in New South Wales, Mark is a former lighthouse keeper, who has continued his association by working to preserve lighthouses around the country.

His dedication has taken him to lighthouses at all points of the Australian mainland, from Booby Island near the tip of Cape York, to Cape Byron, Australia’s easternmost point, Cape Leeuwin, Australia’s most southwesterly point, and finally to Maatsuyker Island.

It was a journey that began when he saw a story about the Maatsuyker Island light tower being in dire need of maintenance, in the Weekend Australian newspaper four years ago. It was his dream job, and four years later, that dream is a reality.

“This is my Everest lighthouse project,” Mark said. “My vision for this is a restoration project; it’s a monument to the past. Lighthouses are incredible symbols, they’ve saved a lot of lives.”

He and Mick, along with Hobart local and high work specialist, Brian Burford, will spend about four weeks working on the light tower, with the priority to make it weather and leak-proof. They  are replacing and re-glazing windows to ensure they are leakproof, removing rust from various fittings, replacing corroded fittings, checking downpipes, and finally, applying undercoats and fresh paint. The tower’s crowning glory, its wind vane, dating from the tower’s completion in 1891, will be returned to its lofty position.  The tail had been blown off into the bush, but was fortunately located and re-welded.

Other works undertaken by FOMI during the working bee have continued as spelled out in Peter’s Catch Up Maintenance Plan for Maatsuyker Island, prepared in 2012. In the early days work focused on weatherproofing the three lighthouse keepers’ cottages with repairs to roof gutters, fascias and soffeits. A big project for this year was the replacement of the kitchen floor in cottage 3.

“Our aim with the maintenance is to get to a point where the volunteers can maintain the cottages and the parts of the tower they are able to, that will really cut down the future maintenance bill,” Peter said.

The volunteers also focus on the island’s considerable natural values, treating and removing weeds such as blackberry and Hebe. Monitoring of the island’s short-tailed shearwater population, Tasmania’s largest, unharvested breeding colony, is also undertaken.

Ranger Jeremy Hood has the enviable job of managing the island, its natural and cultural values, and its volunteer program. He, and field officer Brett Knowles, spent a week on the island during the working bee and, along with the volunteers, was treated to one of its unique experiences. They arose at 4.30am, made their way to a large colony of shearwaters and then witnessed an estimated 60,000 shearwaters a minute taking off to find food for their chicks. The spectacle of the mass departure went on about three-quarters of an hour.

“There’s a real power in nature on Maat, it’s gorgeous at times like this,” he said.