Point Lonsdale lighthouse has guarded the entrance to Port Phillip Bay since 1902. It towers over treacherous waters known as The Rip, close to a spot where the man famous for Buckleys Chance lived
My experience at the lighthouse
You need to get to Point Lonsdale Lighthouse before 1pm on a Sunday if you want to climb to the top and have the lighthouse tour. It’s always worth having a guide for this sort of visit, just for the tales they have to tell. And Point Lonsdale has no shortage of stories, as we found both on our own visit and by searching through the Trove website afterwards.
We were there on a bright sunny day in April, with people still snorkelling in the shallow waters of low tide and the skies a deep deep blue. From the press clippings I found on Trove, this is clearly not typical weather, and Point Lonsdale gets its fair share of fogs and storms through the year.
The first sight not to miss is the staircase (and you can probably sneak a view of this from the ground floor without paying for a tour if the guides are in a benevolent mood). It’s worth a photo just to get that spiralling view as the 110 steps make their way up to the light itself.
A. didnt join me for the climb for fear of a vertigo episode, but actually once you get beyond the first set of stairs, there is little chance of dizziness, as long as you don’t look over the edge! The stairs are pretty confined, and for the last section, coming down you need to go backwards to negotiate the narrow passage.
Watch out also for the clever safety feature in the staircase handrail. Feel the bulge in the metal as the stairs even out and then a sharp drop in the angle of the rail as the descent returns. Probably pretty important on a dark night when the keeper might have been rushing about to save people…
Up at the top there are fabulous views over to Sorrento and the beach where Prime Minister Harold Holt famously disappeared 50 years ago; you can look down on those snorkellers searching for the famous red and blue fish in the waters near here; and see the reefs and sandbanks at low tide which make this stretch of water so treacherous for shipping, though it is The Rip which has given many smaller boats trouble over the years.
The guide told me of a recent group which saw seals surfing on the swell just below the lighthouse on a stormy afternoon, and another story of a 21st century incident, when a drone that had got ‘loose’ in a gale smashed into one of the lighthouse windows, needing a brave (non-vertigo prone) glazier to come up and fix things.
And for the techie types, there are explanations of how the technology has moved on, with some of the old lights still on display and an explanation of how the modern LED lights work and last longer. All that stuff is not really my ball game, nor the purpose of this blog, but for those who are interested, there is the excellent website mapping all of Australia’s lighthouses, which has much more of a focus on technical engineering and architectural matters.
$10 for a tour in 2018
Tours 10am – 1pm Sundays and some public holidays
Car park by the lighthouse (actually on the site of the old lighthouse keeper’s accommodation, funnily enough). But this was full when we arrived at about noon, so we parked off the main road on the grassy area next to the beachside scrub on the road back to Geelong.
Public transport is possible: there are buses from Queenscliff (and the ferry to Sorrento) to Geelong and back, even on Sundays.
The foghorn still works and there is a siren 2 minutes before it is due to go off as I guess the sound is pretty deafening.
History and stories
Stories about shipwrecks off Point Lonsdale took us back to the mid 1800s on Trove, and it was apparently a series of lost ships in the 1850s as the Gold Rush got going which led to the first efforts to provide a safety light on the headland.
The present-day lighthouse at Point Lonsdale dates from 1901/2. It was based on a classic lighthouse design from Trinity House in London and the materials to build it were apparently shipped flat pack-style from England to the Port Phillip Headland.
A 1940s feature in The Age described Point Lonsdale as ‘the most important light around our coastline’ and something almost every Victorian knows. Newspaper prose was more romantic in those days, with descriptions of: “the light that leads all ships to Port Phillip from the Seven Seas”.
The article reviews a book on the history of Point Lonsdale (by a N A Dunn). A series of wrecks on the heads in the gold rush era led to moves for a lighthouse to be built here. a ‘jovial old master mariner Captain Preston and his niece Fanny Green, who shared his solitude’ were the ones who first built a signal here in 1854. But nobody knows where this ‘strange pair’ lived until a house was built by convicts on the hill in 1857, three years later.
The story is told of an 1873 tragedy when a boat was torn apart by waves and the second mate insisted his body tangled up in the damaged masts be cut away, waving at the rest of the crew as he was taken away by the rip. James Marr was the name, but he seemed to have been forgotten till that 1949 feature remembered him again. The schooner made shore ‘on the next flood tide’ thanks to Marr.
Lighthouses are not all about shipwrecks and tragedy, though. I liked a 1912 story of a bottle picked up on the beach by the lighthouse, which had been tossed overboard from a ship near the Cape of Good Hope and drifted on tides and currents to Point Lonsdale 12 months later.
Trove also unearthed stories of overzealous restrictions on access to the lighthouse and its surrounds after World War 1 – though public protests soon ensured that these restrictions were lifted, such was the popularity of the place among locals and visitors.
In 1948, the lighthouse keeper said he was briefly blinded by a flash of lightning over the lighthouse. Hence the warnings of no entrance or tours during electric storms today…
And still the stories continued after the second world war. A 1950 fishing boat foundered on the reef in fog, leaving its two crew members to use the lighthouse lights to guide them across the reef on foot to safety. In 1957 a dinghy drifted out backwards, caught in the Rip. The occupants tried tying a shirt to an oar and waving it towards the lighthouse; and shirts were useful also in 1969, when 3 fishermen set fire to their shirts to attract the attention of the lighthouse keeper.
I was struck also by the number of times stories cropped up where the lighthouse keeper had to give evidence in court or at inquests into wrecks. One case dating back to before the 1902 lighthouse was built saw accusations that the flare – as it was then – was not lit, with the keeper allegedly to blame, so you realise the tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of the people who kept watch in places such as this.
People linked to this place
I could have picked Captain Nelson and his niece, or James Marr, or indeed the infamous Buckley of Buckley’s Hope, who apparently camped out near here for quite some time (see the plaque next to the lighthouse).
But for Point Lonsdale, I rather liked the simple letter to the editor of The Age written in 1947 by an 11-year-old called Nanette Hollywood. She wrote of her excitement at having climbed up to the top of the lighthouse while on holiday in the area.
Is Nanette still with us today? Does she remember her visit or writing the letter? Do any readers of this blog remember a schoolfriend called Nanette Hollywood (quite a good name, for sure, and surely memorable for others in her class)?
What are your experiences at Point Lonsdale lighthouse?
Does anybody else have stories to tell of their own visits or escapades in and around Point Lonsdale? If so, I’d love to hear them, so send a comment in below.
And if you have any recollection of Nanette Hollywood, or know of where she might even be today, do get in touch.
Other links and writings on Point Lonsdale lighthouse
Fabulous photos here taken underwater when snorkelling. Thanks to Peter Fuller’s Dive Blog – you need to scroll down to find his pics of the lighthouse, taken from out to sea.
There’s more practical info on Melbourne Playgrounds site, with tracks you can walk on around the lighthouse
There are some great pictures and a nice narrative about visiting Point Lonsdale on this photographer’s blog.
The Travelling Frenchies blog has lots of practical information and some nice observations on the area around Point Lonsdale.
Simple Simon Says has a nice simple (appropriately enough) blog entry on Point Lonsdale.
I also liked the post by photographer and graphic artist Julie Powell.
Coffee after your tour?
Continue a short distance north from the lighthouse to the series of shops by the beach in Point Lonsdale itself. The cafe we chose didn’t have great coffee so I can’t vouch for any quality brew here, but there were a few other options to choose from so hopefully one of them does a decent coffee or tea.
Does anyone have a favourite spot for a post-lighthouse coffee near Point Lonsdale? Let me know in the comments below if so…