The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it (Moliere).
We arrived on Maatsuyker Island on a champagne-clear morning. The hour-long flight in our crimson-shiny helicopter over Tasmania’s South-west World Heritage Area and southern seas was sublimely smooth. Landing on Maatsuyker’s tiny helipad of green, green grass amongst the tea-tree happened all too soon. Blue plastic Nally (fish) bins filled with our 620 kg of clothes, gear, food and provisions (everything we need for eating, sleeping, abluting, living and fun for the next 6 months) followed us in a helicopter sling load. All in perfect order. Not even an egg was cracked.
Our arrival was disconcertingly quick.
Years of dreaming and anticipation. Many months of planning and preparations. Then pandemic hurdles in the last weeks came close to thwarting all hopes of getting to the island. Canberra went into COVID lockdown a week before we were due to depart for Tasmania. On the third attempt we managed to secure a COVID travel permit – allowing us exactly 24 hours to pack up our home and get to the Spirit of Tasmania ferry 10 hours drive away (we arrived at the ferry terminal with 15 mins to spare). Much creativity was then required to finalise buying, arranging and packing 6 months of food, supplies and gear under strict quarantine in Hobart. Finally released from quarantine, we had just two days to complete what usually takes two weeks in training and provisioning in order to get the jump on weeks of gigantic weather that was forecast…
Getting to Maatsuyker Island has never been straightforward.
The first people to travel to Maatsuyker, the Nuenonne people, built bark canoes to get to the island to hunt for muttonbirds (shearwaters) and fur seals. The Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, was the first European known to reach Van Diemen’s Land. He sailed past Maatsuyker in 1642 giving it its European name, likely after a member of the Council of the Dutch East India Company. As shipping increased with British colonisation, the Hobart Marine Board started thinking about the site of a lighthouse for the Tasmanian southwest coast in 1884. By 1888, planning for a lighthouse site on the island had commenced.
Before construction of the lighthouse or cottages could begin, a huge amount of work was required just to get people and construction materials on to Maatsuyker. A jetty and crane were built at the only site on the island that allows landing – Alomes Gulch where the Nuenonne once camped and their middens remain. From the completed jetty, a track was cut 500m up the steep cliff and a wooden tram line built with a winch house at the top. The poor horses that were used for powering the winch – or whim – had to make their own way up the cliff.
From then, when the weather allowed, everything arrived on Maatsuyker Island using the whim. The horses spun the whim to move two trolleys, one going up, the other going down, along the wooden tram line. And it really was everything that came up that cliff – 100,000 bricks to build the lightkeepers cottages and the lighthouse, the lighthouse lenses, iron mechanism, castings and cement, and then the lightkeepers themselves and their families and all their provisions – goats, pigs, sheep, crockery, furniture, food, diesel generators, fuel tanks and fuel.
Over the years, the jetty was destroyed several times by storms, earth tremors and landslides, and there are stories of heavy seas washing away supplies and lightkeepers’ possessions before they could be hauled up the cliff. A diesel-powered winch replaced the horses in 1930 – we haven’t found what happened to the horses – and haulage up the cliff continued until 1983.
For a wonderful archival ABC story of lightkeepers arriving on Maatsuyker in 1966 via the whim (and also Tasman Island which was equally precarious for landing, if not more so), see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJyz3r816r8
From the top of the cliff, everything still needed to be taken to the other end of the island where the cottages and lighthouse were built. This was initially done by a horse and sled along a track cut into the steep island flanks. Later a short-wheel base Land Rover did the job along the same track. Unlike the horses, the Land Rover did not have to make its own way up the cliff – it was hauled up by the diesel winch.
Parts of the tram line remain as well as the whim shed and old iron whim. It is still possible to walk down to where the old jetty was. These days, chains have been bolted to the rocks for anyone clambering up or down the cliff. Fur seals have taken over the few concrete pilings supporting the old crane which is all that remains of the jetty….
Helicopters were first used to get to Maatsuyker Island in 1976. These days, choppers are the only way caretakers, supplies and everything needed to maintain the lightstation, come ashore. This includes the tiny (550cc!!) Daihatsu ute – called Dave – that arrived in 2010 by helicopter sling to replace the old Land Rover. Dave is now used to carry 45kg gas bottles and 200 litre diesel drums from the helipad to the generator shed and cottages. The old track is still used – it is so narrow and muddy that Dave never gets beyond low range second gear and he can only turn around at either end or the helipad. Deep wheel ruts prevent any need for steering.
Our flights to and from Maatsuyker are arranged by Parks Tasmania, but caretakers must arrange all the food and any other supplies needed for 6 months on the island. Because everything arrives by helicopter, weight limits are strictly enforced – a 750kg top limit for everything that has to include sheets, doona, pillows, toilet paper, shampoo, whisky, computers, coffee, salami, vegemite, gumboots, whisky, bath towels, flour, books, camera, whisky, potatoes, home brew beer, whisky, biltong, butter, toothpaste, chops, dried banana, seeds for the vegetable garden, clothes washing detergent, socks, binoculars, whisky, eggs, sleeping bags, yoga mat, whisky…..etc, etc, etc (by the way, we definitely did not pack enough whisky…..).
Climbing out of the helicopter to finally stand on this emerald drop of rock was a strange feeling – the roller coaster adventure of years and months anticipating and planning had come to an end in minutes. The new and unknown adventure lay ahead. I guess that nothing easily won is ever as satisfying as that which takes a bit more effort….we are, very, very pleased to be here.