Cape Otway – The Untold Story of Victoria’s Famous Lighthouse

The story of Cape Otway Lighthouse goes back to many years and an history that got me intriguing to learn more about one of Victoria’s most known lighthouse and its keepers, the shipwreck survivors, and the aboriginal settlers near the Cape Otway lighthouse.

The Cape Otway is located about 218 km south-west of Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road. I have been along the Great Ocean Road over 10 times, but this time I was presented with more historic information.

Staying at the 1948 Lighthouse Keepers quarters makes you more curious about the people who lived there in the past and their way of living. A short walk to the Aboriginal Hut is yet another entry to the Aboriginal local life. So much history in just a small part of Victoria.

Also read: Things you must do on the Great Ocean Road Roadtrip

Before the Build of Cape Otway Lighthouse

Over almost 106 million years ago, the Otway coastline was part of the Antarctic circle and have known to have seen some fascinating dinosaurs like the Leaellynasaura amicagraphic. In 1991, a 43 cm long femur was recovered from dinosaur cove near Cape Otway. Just imagine!

Cape Otway Lighthouse
Cape Otway Lighthouse – a few hours just before the sunset

By the 1980s, Bass Strait became an important sea route between Europe and New South Wales. Many ships were passing by Cape Otway and hence the Cape Otway lighthouse was built in 1848 to help these ships cross the hazardous entrance of Bass Strait from Southern Ocean. Ships attempting to pass Bass Strait kept very close to the Victorian coastline to avoid being clashed by the rocks at King Island. This narrow passageway became known as the ‘the eye of the Needle’.

There were many shipwreks along the coast of Cape Otway. Some of them were Fiji (1891) and Marie Gabrielle whose anchors can still be seen at the Wreck Beach. One of the worst shipwreck Cataraqui wrecked at king Island lost about 400 lives. It was mainly after this the public demanded a lighthouse in Cape Otway.

Exploring the Cape Otway Region – the beginning of Lighthouse

The problem about building a lighthouse in this region was access. The Otways region was described as a forest so dense that no sun was shone to the ground. In 1845, A decision was made to build a lighthouse in Cape Otway, but because no European colonist had been to the cape, the area needed to be inspected.

The superintendent of the time Charles La Trobe took 3 attempts to reach the area by land route. Finally he got through in 1846 and surveyed the location for about an hour. He was able to find an open route with the help of early settlers such as Allans and Roadknights. William and Thomas Roadknight discovered a route that go over the Otways from Birregura in the summer months.

Also Read: Explorers Guide to the Great Alpine Road

George Smythe was assigned to survey the region from Cape Otway to Lorne. With all the surveys and explorations by the Europeans and eventually their settlements came at a disastrous cost to the local Aboriginal communities in the area.

Finally the construction of the Cape Otway Lighthouse began in 1846 and was completed in 1848. The stone used to construct the lighthouse was quarried at Parker river about 5km away. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1994 and is replaced with a solar powered beacon next to the lighthouse. You can get a clearer view of the beacon and the lighthouse from the World War 2 radar bunker which is only a short walk from the Cape Otway Lighthouse.

People of the Cape Otway Lighthouse

All recognition for looking after the lighthouse for 30 years goes to Henry Bales Ford who served as the head lighthouse keeper from 1848 to 1878 until his retirement. He replaced the first superintendent who was dismissed for various misdemeanours.

 View from the top of Cape Otway Lighthouse. It’s an easy climb to the lighthouse. We stayed at the quarters ( right) so we got a free entry to the lighthouse. But whether you’re staying here or just passing by the Great Ocean Road, this is worth. I promise :).

Ford’s 30 years of service was highly recognised and considered Australia’s highly unsung pioneers for continuously keeping the light burning often by himself with assistance from his wife (Mary Ann Ford) – especially when his assistant lighthouse keepers deserted him during the gold rush. During the time, Ford and his family gave shelter to shipwreck survivors, fought bushfires and maintained equipment and buildings, while raising 9 children. Ford’s burning light may have saved hundreds and thousand emigrants who hadn’t seen a land for months since their departure from Europe and England.

Hardships Faced By the Lighthouse Keepers

Life of a lighthouse keeper at Cape Otway was not all about watching the waves go by and writing poetry. Each keeper worked a 4 hour watch where the Head Keeper and the assistants took over one after the other where the mechanism had to be kept running constantly. This included refilling the lamps with sperm whale oil and wiping away any soot. Each month, the lighthouse used about 100 gallons of oil and the challenge was carrying these up to the lantern room. By 1891, the lighthouse updated to a kerosene lamp but still the keeper were having to carry 4 gallon tin of kerosene up to the lantern room each night. 

Farmhouse on Cape Otway, Great Ocean Road
Quaint Farmhouse (Love historic restorations)

The lighthouse keepers also had to maintain (repair and paint) the Lighthouse and the quarters along with looking after the horses, bullock and other animals. Because of the stations isolation, they were supplied food staples once every 6-12 months, hence the community had to be self-sufficient. As there were no roads, supplies had to be landed by ship which was yet another challenge as if the supplies sat on the landing site for more than few hours, then the food would go mouldy or eaten by rats – landing supplies also cost the life of 3 sailors at Blanket Bay. 

The lighthouse keeper had to constantly be alert and watch for certain passenger ships and alert Melbourne of their arrival. If their arrival was overdue, then the keepers would search the coastline for any wreckage or survivors. 

World War 2 Secret Bunker near Cape Otway Lighthouse

In 1942, a radar (#13) was built as a top secret at the Cape Otway Lightstation region to watch out for the enemy and their positions. Back in the day, it played a significant role in the Australian and American history. It all began when the Germans (in the area) hit a mine in the Australian waters from Wilsons Promontory leading to the sinking of the US Merchant Ship City of Rayville, about 6 miles from Cape Otway. As the Rayville sank, the light station sent out an alarm and a few fisherman from Apollo Bay rescued 30 odd crew members.

There was also a Japanese submarine just few miles off Cape Otway that had a light aircraft on its deck. Both the Japanese and Germans kept this a top secret so the Australians weren’t threatened.

The story is not hidden but not a very known one. Spend a night at the keepers quarters and take a walk to the aboriginal talking hut and stop by the community hut to have a chat with Pam who had so much information about the Aboriginal settlements in Victoria. 

Aboriginal Settlement at Cape Otway

Cape Otway has an Aboriginal culture that dates back to thousands of years. It is the traditional land of the Gadubanud Aboriginal people. The Cape Otway Coastline provided the indigenous people fish and other food. 

As I walked past a hidden bunker, I was curious to know if the aboriginals were around at the time when Henry Bales Ford served as a head keeper at the lighthouse. Pam says the Aboriginal settlements were a long long time ago before they were killed by early European explorers who were clearing land for pasture.

On the way to the Aboriginal Talking Hut. This walkway comes as such a surprise on a visit to the Cape Otway Lighthouse. There is so much history for such a small region.

I wonder how tough life would have been for the lighthouse keepers in those days – living in an isolated place with unpredictable weather doing a tough job. Now that I’m back home in Melbourne, I still imagine being in that darkly nights sitting beside lit candles(no electricity), warming up beside the fireplace and the wooshing sounds of the sea when the wind blows and the waves hit the sand.

Disclaimer: Some historical context has been taken from the informational book at the keepers quarters.

Have you been to any lighthouse? what did you like the most about it? Share your story in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!

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