“…I didn’t really think through what a lighthouse keeper actually did. I was attracted by the romantic notion of sitting on a rock, writing haikus and dashing off the occasional watercolor.” ~ ‘Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper,’ by Peter Hill
My One & Only is also attracted by the romantic notion of lighthouses. Hardly surprising then, that on discovering there was a lighthouse on our route back to Melbourne, he would want to visit it. We decided to make it an overnight stay.
Port Fairy is a pretty coastal town in south-western Victoria, at the end – or the beginning – of the famed Great Ocean Road. It was first named way back in 1828 by the captain of a small cutter, The Fairy. A few years later, a successful Tasmanian seal hunter, John Griffiths bought a small whaling station here. Within a decade. so many whales had been slaughtered there were none left, and Griffiths was forced to close down his business.
Meanwhile a wealthy Sydney solicitor, James Atkinson, bought over 5000 acres of the surrounding land at £1 per acre. He built a harbour and established a settlement which he named Belfast after his own birthplace. In 1887, twenty five years after his death, residents petitioned the Government to rename the town Port Fairy.
Today, Port Fairy still focuses on the sea, but today, the primary industries are no longer seal hunting and whaling, but fishing and tourism. Nowadays people come to watch the whales, not kill them. And to visit the lighthouse.
The lighthouse was built in around 1859, from local bluestone, on the eastern end of Rabbit Island. Originally, this island was a cluster of three separate islands but construction and coastal accretion have created a single island known as Griffiths Island – the only sign that remains of one of the area’s original inhabitants. The island is linked to the mainland by a concrete causeway, but in the old days lighthouse keepers would have needed a boat to reach the mainland. Perched right on the edge of the sea, the tiny Port Fairy lighthouse was built to guide local boats around the reef and into the harbour, not to alert the larger trade ships sailing further out between Adelaide and Melbourne.
The lighthouse was automated in the 1950s, although the original lens and globes are still in place, and the lighthouse keepers left the island. Sadly, the original stone keepers’ cottages were demolished, and now the island is home only to a mob of swamp wallabies, a colony of mutton birds – known more elegantly as the short-tailed shearwater – and this petite, sweet, red and white lighthouse.
We wander out in the early evening, to stretch our legs after a lengthy drive cross-country from Robe, through Millicent and Mount Gambier. The causeway crosses over sand banks and rock pools and skirts along the edge of the River Moyne. There is a cold wind blowing, and we are grateful for the protection of the low trees when we reach the island. The pathway is sandy, lined with information boards about the island’s history and the natural environment. Deep holes have been dug into the sand along the edge of the path – I suspect penguins, but it turns out to be the work of the wallabies. The island lacks trees but is coated in dense shrub perfect to disguise any nesting birds.
We follow the trail to the lighthouse. Large black boulders rest on the sand, remnants of an earlier volcano. The sea is calm, the mutton birds are noisy, the wallabies are lying low. We clamber across the pitted rocks to look in the rock pools. The One & Only takes photos of his lighthouse from every angle. Sadly we can’t go inside – it is rarely opened to the public – but apparently, we read later, there is an unusual spiral staircase to the top. We meander back into town as the light fade.
Port Fairy is an attractive coastal town, trimmed with pretty weatherboard and stone cottages, its wide streets lined with huge, orderly Norfolk pines, planted in single file. Bordered to the north by lush farmland, to the south by the rough and boisterous seas of the Bass Strait, tonight Port Fairy feels relaxed, quiet and calm. Some of the older buildings – a church, a hall – are made of the same pitted black volcanic stone we saw on the island.
Home tonight is at a lovely B&B on the edge of town. Clonmara is self-styled ‘a little bit of Britain’ at the end of the Great Ocean Road, and here our genial hosts are pleased to offer you respite from the road in a tiny tea room in the original white-washed stone cottage, built more than 150 years ago on what is now the Prince’s Highway. As well, there are four modern and elegant cottages tucked amongst the trees in the leafy back garden. With amazing attention to detail, the owners have created a haven for a romantic tryst, claiming that they have added everything they have ever found appealing – or found lacking – during decades of world travel.
Our room is modern, elegant, decadent, with tall windows framed in eau de nil drapes. French doors open onto a small private garden overlooking a thriving vegetable patch. We can hear the gentle cluck of chestnut coloured chooks from the hen house at the bottom of the garden. The garden ends at a small creek. Across the creek is a large paddock where the family’s pet alpacas roam, leggy, woolly and seemingly content with life among the gum trees. (Yes, I know alpacas are not quite the same as llamas, but I liked the alliteration with lighthouses. Call it poetic license!) Back inside we admire the vast and luxurious bathroom fitted out with a strong shower, a deep and inviting spa bath, thick, fluffy towels and all sorts of potions, lotions, and unguents – even a couple of small rubber ducks.
A small but well-kitted-out kitchen is tucked neatly into a corner, the bar fridge armed with drinks, the kitchen table set with chocolates and a pretty little decanter of Victorian port. Opposite the bed, a deep, comfy sofa faces a generous television that can swivel towards the bed. A tall, tubular gas stove graces the corner for cold winter nights. So, despite a long list of restaurants on offer, we opt for a quiet night in. We cook a simple meal with the help of the microwave, sip a South Australian Pinot Grigio, and finish off with a Bodum pot of the best coffee ever discovered at Costco.
In the morning, we wend our way under the willow and past flower beds brimming with spring blooms to a small courtyard garden at the side of the old cottage. Here breakfast is served beneath a slim, graceful silver birch, while a handful of tiny, friendly sparrows dart eagerly around our feet. White wisteria drapes itself over a wooden trellis and pots of red geraniums are clustered on the flagstones.
We chat enthusiastically with our host, Doug while his wife cooks a delightful breakfast – usually his job apparently – skimping on nothing, especially not the conversation. We only leave after I have indulged in a little retail therapy at the gift shop, promising to be back soon to try the afternoon tea.
*Of course my One & Only took the photo of the lighthouse. The alpacas came from Google Images, with thanks.