The modern lighthouse keeper
Celebrating International Lighthouse Day
It’s International Lighthouse Day on Saturday August 18th, so to celebrate, get a close-up of two of the region’s stunning historical maritime buildings. With unforgettable views, a history of shipwrecks, and a chance to spot migrating whales, you won’t regret the experience! Janine Pittaway spoke to Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse site manager, Paul Sofilas in the lead-up to this special day.
The life of the lighthouse keeper of old could be a tough and lonely existence. The first lighthouse was built by the ancient Egyptians in 290BC, and used a giant mirror to magnify light from a constantly burning fire to guide ships to the entrance to Alexandria harbour.
Fast-forward to the 17th century when maritime trade boomed and so did lighthouse construction. Thousands were built around the world. There are an estimated 50,000 lighthouses in the world today.
Two of those remaining lighthouses are now much-loved attractions in the Margaret River region – Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse and Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse.
Situated at the most south-westerly point of Australia, Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, built in 1895, is the tallest on mainland Australia and is at the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean.
Paul Sofilas is the site manager at Cape Leeuwin, and lives and works at the lighthouse site. He’s a full bottle on the history of the building, the day to day operations, and the people who visit daily from around the world.
“I live in one of the original keeper’s cottages near the lighthouse,” Paul said. “To live there you need to manage life where the daily routine is dictated by sometimes extreme weather conditions. Living at a place which is open to the public from 8.45am to 5pm every day but Christmas day, means privacy is quite limited, so after hours is the time for privacy.”
He said these days, isolation was not an issue with Cape Leeuwin being a drawcard for people from around the world of all ages. “It’s a bit like travelling but you don’t have to go anywhere – they come to you!
“Tour guiding is the most rewarding part of my duties, so between meeting people in my job and quiet times after hours, you can strike a good balance. I’ve worked in the outback at small communities so am used to isolation, though the views are definitely much better here! Having an ability to appreciate the natural environment and take pleasure from that is important.”
So how did Paul get to become site manager at Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse?
“I came back to visit my parents down here and started walking the Cape to Cape track, and riding my mountain bike around the area. That rediscovery of the many attributes of life here made me want to stay. A job was advertised, I applied, and was lucky enough to get it. While I had not worked in the tourism industry before, I was enthusiastic about the job, the region, and liked dealing with people.”
Paul manages the day to day operations of the site, which include 16 daily guided tours, a self-guided grounds tour, a visitor centre, visitor servicing, and retail sales. “So administration, staffing, and of course I still have days where I am primarily tour guiding – which is the best part. Such interaction is rewarding no matter how long you are around, you can always learn new things and have new experiences. We have occasional events – like the upcoming CinefestOZ screenings, the Cape to Cape Mountain Bike race (which starts here most years), or International Lighthouse Day. So that adds to the excitement.”
Paul has a deep respect for the lighthouse keepers who came before him and has gained an insight into the world of the traditional lighthouse keeper. “I was very lucky to have had a co-worker who spent his formative years as the son of a lighthouse keeper here at Cape Leeuwin in the 1950s and 60s, William Gates Jnr. Through him I gained a respect for the keepers who worked here, life for the families that lived here, and the ongoing importance of the still operational lighthouses that Cape Leeuwin (and Cape Naturaliste) are.”
Paul’s top reasons for visiting Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse
- It’s the tallest mainland lighthouse in Australia with excellent views 360 degrees from the balcony, or even from the ground decking.
- It is the south west corner of the Australian continent, where the Southern Ocean meets the Indian Ocean, and Australia’s south coast meets Australia’s west coast.
- It is still operational with many aspects of the infrastructure being origninal – lenses are original from 1895, and the clockwork mechanism still in place.
- You can experience many types of weather systems – good weather and lighthouse weather – never bad weather! So you can have a real experience of nature, breathe ever so fresh air, and then be sitting cosily in the cafe enjoying great coffee and food, while watching the world outside through the glass walled cafe verandah.
- In winter and spring you can catch migrating humpback whales in either ocean, and calving southern right whales in nearby Flinders Bay.
- We are open every day except Christmas Day.
- With many great caves in the area, you can go down below for that experience, then climb above at the lighthouse – ‘an experience on all levels!’
International Lighthouse Day Celebrations
To mark International Lighthouse Day on August 18th, visitors can get involved with two-way radio operators who will be transmitting to all parts of the globe over the weekend. Local spinners and weavers will be displaying their skills and selling their creations. Augusta Marine Rescue will also have boats on display and Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse will have a fire truck that the kids can climb on and spray water from a hose.
Supporting Local Volunteers
Ground entry fees for both lighthouses on the 18th of August will be donated to local community organisations; the Dunsborough Fire Brigade and Augusta Volunteer Marine & Rescue Group.
Tower tour fees will apply as per normal on the day.