Images: Elements Margaret River
For nearly 120 years, the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse has stood majestically as a sentinel to help protect shipping off WA’s treacherous South West coast. Still a working lighthouse today, it’s the perfect day trip destination for all the family.
Lighthouses are so much more than a testament to man’s engineering ingenuity; perched defiantly against the elements, they invoke powerful emotional responses, featuring in films, books, poetry and song – such as these beautiful lyrics from WA band The Waifs:
“Lighthouse tall and grand
Standing on that cold headland
Shine your light across the sea
For a wayward sailor girl like me”
Albany sisters Donna and Vikki Simpson, who formed The Waifs, would no doubt have been inspired by the magnificent lighthouses in the South West, sentinels of safety and each with a unique story.
Standing proudly at the juncture of two great oceans, the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse was first mooted 1881 but it took another 15 years (due to lots of wrangling on where exactly the lighthouse should be located) for the project to get off the ground. Also, until gold was discovered near Kalgoorlie, WA didn’t have the money for such a big construction project (and the Eastern States were not interested in pitching in either). But the lighthouse was a must to protect shipping heading to Albany, at the time Western Australia’s major port, and the then premier, Sir John Forrest, pushed for the project to proceed.
And so, on December 1, 1896, the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse was switched on for the first time. The light was generated by a kerosene wick lamp, at the time the world’s largest, revolving in a mercury bath and controlled by a clockwork mechanism. With an intensity of 250,000 candela it could be seen for 40km. By the 1920s, the light was upgraded and could generate a beam of 780,000 candelas. The kerosene burner gave way to an electric light in 1982, the 1000watt halogen lamp beaming out 1,000,000 candela. And though the technology had changed over the years, the lighthouse was still manned.
But in September 1992, the romantic era of manned lighthouses ended and Cape Leeuwin was fully automated. Operated, like other lighthouses, by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Cape Leeuwin remains a vital beacon to guide shipping and warn of the dangers of coming too close to the rugged coastline, its unceasing light flashing every 7.5 seconds.
Today the lighthouse, which at 39m is the tallest on the Australian mainland, is open to the public. Just 9km from the town of Augusta (and 50km from Margaret River), the beautiful headland at Cape Leeuwin is also the perfect location to gaze in awe at the power of the sea, where the Indian and Great Southern oceans converge. You may even see pods of dolphins or whales.
Visitors can opt for either a guided tour (run every 30 minutes from 9:00am – 4:30pm) or a self-guided precinct audio tour. You’ll learn tales of triumph and tragedy (after all it was a shipwreck coast) and about the area’s stunning flora and fauna. Climbing the lighthouse’s 186 steps is quite a feat (children under four are not permitted on the tours because of this) and gives you an idea of just how fit the lighthouse keepers must have been.
Three of the four original lighthouse keepers’ cottages remain, one used today as a ticketing office and café. Whether you’re there on a balmy South West summer’s day or visiting with the winter southerlies blasting in, the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse experience is one not to be missed.