Why you should visit Queensland’s lighthouse of hope and despair

Nov 16, 2019
The lighthouse and ancillary sheds guard the track leading to the cemetery. Source: Di East

As the crow flies, Bustard Head Lighthouse is located 57 kilometres south of Gladstone and 21km north of the Town of 1770 on the Queensland east coast. No other light station in Australia has a history of tragedies equal to that of the isolated Bustard Head Lighthouse.

The history of the light station is beautifully chronicled in Stuart Buchanan’s book Lighthouse of Tragedy in which it is stated “… since 1868, shipwrecks, murder, abduction, suicide, drownings and cyclones have shattered the lives of lightkeepers and their families”. If you love a good eerie history story, then I highly recommend you read the Lighthouse of Tragedy.

Notwithstanding its tragic past, to me, the most despairing event is that this historically significant site was permitted to decay and fall into disrepair at the hands of vandals once the lighthouse was automated and de-manned in 1986. Fortunately, due to the herculean efforts of Stuart and Shirley Buchanan, Des, Betty and Neil Mergard, Dudley Fulton and an army of volunteers, the light station is once again restored to its former 1985 condition, including a museum of artefacts from the long-lost era of the lightkeepers.

If not for these amazing people yet another important part of Queensland history would have likely been bulldozed and lost. So, for me, Bustard Head Light station is the ‘Lighthouse of Hope and Despair’ — hope that it will continue to be maintained and visited and despair that it was allowed to dilapidate in the first place.

There are many reasons why you should visit this lighthouse. This 18m high 19th century cast iron monolith located high on the bluff is not only still an imposing sight and operating navigational aid, but the lighthouse and light station buildings remain intrinsically woven into the fabric of European settlement in Queensland.

This was the first lighthouse commissioned in 1868 by the colony of Queensland shortly after separation from New South Wales. At that time the only other lighthouse along Queensland’s 5,200km coastline was at Cape Moreton, but that was constructed prior to the establishment of Queensland as a separate colony. It is one of only two Queensland lighthouses constructed from prefabricated cast iron panels fabricated in England.

It is listed on the Historic Register and is the only operating lighthouse in Queensland that can be toured internally by the public. There is a wonderfully interesting museum that gives an insight into the lost art and science of the lighthouse keeper. The 360-degree view from the lighthouse platform must be experienced to be believed. The climb to the viewing platform is easy and can be undertaken by anyone older than eight years. Fortunately, there is no upper age limit, which is good news for us Baby Boomers.

The view south over the site managers house to Jenny Lind Creek
The view south over the site managers house to Jenny Lind Creek. Source: Di East

There is also a cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence, located about 300 metres north-east of the station. It contains nine graves dating from 1879 to 1911 as well as two unmarked, child-sized graves — a testament to many of the past tragedies. Both the lighthouse and museum are accessible to the public daily.

For 118 years a lightkeeper would climb the steps of the Bustard Head Lighthouse tower and light the lamp, throughout the night. The light is now automated and operated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Since restoration, the light station is managed around the clock by volunteers from the Bustard Head Lighthouse Association, who not only ensure that the station is maintained but also openly welcome all visitors and conduct tours of the lighthouse, museum and former machine room whenever requested.

There are two ways to access the lighthouse. Town of 1770 LARC Tours, run by Neil Mergard, shuttles tourists 20km to the lighthouse in an amphibious, Vietnam-era military vehicle called LARCs (Lighter, Amphibious Resupply, Cargo). These LARCs are essentially large boats with wheels. They offer a range of fun and unique amphibious tours exploring beautiful secluded beaches in the Southern Great Barrier Reef Region and visiting remote National Parks including the Bustard Head Lighthouse.

Sir Joseph Banks - one of two 1770 Tours LARCs
Sir Joseph Banks – one of two 1770 Tours LARCs. Source: Di East

The LARC drives right up to the light station from Town of 1770 via the coast and Jenny Lind Creek. This is by far the easiest and most comfortable way to visit the lighthouse. However, if you are into boating then there are two tracks from the Pancake Creek anchorages that are also easy to scale with moderate fitness.

Both tracks from Pancake Creek are a total of 2.6km each way and afford scenic lookouts along the way. The ‘Main Road’ track connects to the anchorage closest to the mouth of Pancake Creek and is the easiest to walk exhibiting many examples of the former corduroy road that serviced the light station when it was manned. The other ‘Chinaman’s Creek’ track connects with the anchorage further upstream and is a little harder to traverse owing to the soft sand and steeper incline.  It is also less shaded than the ‘Main Road’.
Keep your eyes peeled for ‘George’ the goanna and his many cousins. We saw four such goannas on our recent trip. They are used to people and fascinating to watch.

George, the goanna. One of several to be seen
George, the goanna. One of several to be seen. Source: Di East

Whether you access the site via your own boat, as we did, or join in one of the frequent LARC tours from Town of 1770, you will receive a warm welcome and brilliant hospitality from the volunteer on-site managers. At the time of our last visit, John and Carol Steele were the resident managers. What wonderful people they are and great ambassadors for the Bustard Head Lighthouse Association.

The former generator machine room now full of artefacts-Di East
The former generator machine room now full of artefacts. Source: Di East

They were very accommodating of our desire to photograph the station including the lighthouse interior where the ground floor has been reconstructed as it was during the era of the lightkeepers, complete with weather charts, signal flags and lightkeepers’ desk. Don’t be shocked by the skeleton at the desk — he is just a representation that the light keeper’s era has passed and will never return. Once you have toured the lighthouse, soak up the history with a guided tour of the museum building, which includes fascinating artefacts such as the telescope used by the first and longest-serving lightkeeper, Thomas Rooksby. The cost of all the museum tours is included in your LARC tour fee but if you come independently from Pancake Creek, then a modest fee of $10 per person is requested.

The Light keepers station within the lighthouse - Di East
The Light keepers station within the lighthouse. Source: Di East

Automation of the lighthouse light was inevitable, but the desecration of this historic site was not and could have been avoided with a little foresight from the authorities at the time. What you see today was not created by a government agency. It was painstakingly reconstructed by volunteers with a tenacious passion and desire to see the history of the light station preserved for future generations to enjoy and marvel at.

The restoration was funded in part by a Federal Government grant and by private donations. If you want to read about the trials and tribulations of the transformation from derelict squalor to the current immaculate condition, then I recommend that you read Stuart Buchanan’s book, Light of their Lives.

Bustard Head Lighthouse Association holds a 20-year lease from the State Government over the light station (excluding the lighthouse, which is the property of AMSA). This lease will expire on February 2022. What happens after that is still uncertain. What is plainly obvious is that a new lease will be required, and the successful lessee will need to maintain the light station in the same manner as it currently enjoys. It is also obvious that the LARC tours or something similar will need to continue if the public is to be able to enjoy access to this historic site in large numbers.

One can only hope that the authorities of the day learn from past mistakes and that Queensland’s ‘Lighthouse of Hope and Despair’ does not once again fall into disrepair, for that indeed would be the final tragedy.

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