Coming in to land on South Solitary Island by ‘chopper’ on a bright March morning earlier this year provided an idyllic sight, more uplifting than the new acclaimed movie ‘South Solitary’ might let you believe is possible. The real South Solitary Island is, of course, not located off Tasmania as told in the movie, but 12km northeast of Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales coast. The island is now uninhabited, the lighthouse being ‘de-manned’ back in 1975. South Solitary Island is in the greater Solitary Islands Marine Park and home to the critically endangered Grey Nurse Shark and the Little Penguin so visitors are not permitted on or close to the island.

I had occasion to go to South Solitary Island in my professional capacity as a Heritage Architect to inspect the historic lighthouse tower. South Solitary Island is about 600 by 200 metres across, including two large jagged rock ‘islets’ separated from each end of the main island. There is a delightful 1935 picture of lighthouse keeper Mr Tulk with his dog ‘Sausage’ using a ‘flying fox’ going from the larger of the ‘islets’ back and forth from the main island.

The lighthouse is on the highest point to the south of the main island built to an 1878 design by distinguished Colonial Architect James Barnet. He also designed the Customs House and the GPO in Sydney, courthouses across NSW and lighthouses on the NSW coast. The smooth and shapely white painted lighthouse tower and the grey houses are all constructed of concrete made using the rock of the island. There are thick protective walls and paths from the old jetty up to and around the lighthouse tower channelling water to subterranean tanks. A carpet of spongy green vegetation and windblown grasses otherwise drapes the island.

In the early days of the kerosene fuelled lighthouse’s operation a small wooden launch would come close to the rocky shore of the island and then cargo, human and otherwise, would be lifted up to the high jetty in a wicker basket by rope and pulleys. The ‘lighthouse group’ of buildings and structures on the island consists of the lighthouse tower with store and one detached house and two semi-detached with a system of connecting concrete paths, tanks, storage shed and the jetty all designed for three families to live and, work semi-permanently on the island.

I had just four hours on the island with much work to do but found time to savour the essence of the place. The island is deserted, yet displays evidence of a busy, remote past life of ‘keeping the light’ in all weathers and all conditions for 130 years now, manned and unmanned. Inside the extremely thick walls of the tower I climb up the heavy cast iron spiral stairs and out to the basalt stone balcony 17 storeys above the sea. The wind grinds around the tower, the isolation apparent in the vast vistas, the irregular soft smashes of the waves, the slight sting to the air and the squawks of the birds wheeling past.

Modernity has come to the lighthouse in the form of solar panels, batteries and helicopter landing pads however the historic nature and the stories attached to these places are worth every effort to preserve to help us honour the sacrifices and endeavours of our predecessors. There have been wrecks in the area notably the loss of the Kielawarra in 1886, the MV Fairwind in 1950 with 48 and 17 dead respectively. Today the lighthouse still beams out from South Solitary Island, resolute, high above the swell, preserved for future generations.

About the island:
No public access although guided tours only now occur once a year; South Solitary Island is administered by the NSW Marine Parks Authority and is in the Solitary Islands Marine Park. The lighthouse itself is maintained and operated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

About the author:
Kevin O’Sullivan is a Heritage Architect with Woodhead theoretically based in Adelaide but working across the country for national clients.

Credits:

  • Australia Maritime Safety Authority
  • NSW Marine Parks Authority
  • Digital colour images by Kevin O’Sullivan, Heritage Architect with Woodhead Pty Ltd. (Permission will be granted this article only).
  • Black and White historic images from the State Library of NSW (permission required).
  • Historic Plan of Lighthouse from the National Archives of Australia, Canberra (permission required)
  • Precision Helicopters, Coffs Harbour (flights and tours 2011 tbc)
  • Qantas Link (Sydney to Coffs Harbour)
  • Brindabella Airlines (Coffs Harbour to Brisbane)
  • Pacific Towers Apartments, Coffs Harbour NSW (views to South Solitary)

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