Life on an Island (Shipwrecks, Cyclones and Lighthouses)

Stay with me here dear readers. This is a big story which needs some context and has some more relevance now I have got hold of my Poppa’s photos and records:

One of my earliest, earliest memories was visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins on Lady Elliot Island – which was an island at the very lowest point of the Great Barrier Reef. Actually, Lady Elliot isn’t even an island – it’s a coral cay. If I knew this at the age I was – 4 I think – I might have been even more impressed.

See my aunt and uncle were professional lighthouse keepers – just in the twilight of that career before the job was automated and relegated to a romantic history of times gone by.

They managed lighthouses on Booby Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Pine Islet, and Dent Island in the Whitsundays.

So as a kid visiting an ISLAND meant I wasn’t just “impressed” – it was actually pretty profound. And this is not an exaggeration cause these events have stuck with me all these years later. Even smells of the island have travelled with me and brought me back over the years.

The trip there was supervised by my Aunt Em and it involved my very first plane flight (to Bundaberg), then a wait for a tiny 5 or 6 person carrying Cessner to complete the journey. I remember the pilot showing me the ocean around the island and saying the sea melted away and all this I could see was land at low tide. I didn’t believe him. It was too fantastic. At that age it was perhaps the only time an adult told me stuff I dismissed as ridiculous. And this was said by a pilot. I must have had a pretty healthy sense that adults lie. (Even though as it turns out he was telling the truth).

So we landed on the Island. And I was a 4 year old mind you and don’t remember very much. But I will tell you what I can. I met my cousins – Steve (8 months older) and Coralie (12 months younger) and immediately I was introduced to the wilds of island life. Us three kids jumped on the tractor’s trailer. It was just a flat bunch of planks with no rails. My uncle Phil was at the tractor’s helms. Suddenly it was bumping along at an incredible speed. I screamed in protest. I was buffeted around so much, and no one seemed to care about my distress, I dove against the wood – lying completely flat, prone, and I desperately stuck my tiny fingers into the grooves between the planks in some vain attempt to hold on lest I be thrown off. Meanwhile my two cousins laughed at me in uncontrollable fits, managing to stay on this ridiculous contraption effortlessly.

After that there was a trip to the top of the lighthouse. After the many steps was suddenly a ladder to the top. I baulked. It was only a one storey ladder. Maybe 10 steps. But we were so high and I just lost it. My cousins just did it without any fear and I was left behind. Meanwhile I was just a puddle of patheticness stranded below while they all made it clear they were having the best time upstairs.

I KICKED MYSELF for ages after. I can remember back at kindy a few weeks later and seeing a ladder and deliberately climbing up it and thinking, “That was so easy – what were you thinking before?” UGH!

The other incredible thing about that visit was that there was a real-life SHIP-WRECK on the island. We went for a walk one day around the beach to visit it and although I wasn’t allowed near it – I was still gobsmacked.

And finally, thanks to my Poppa keeping all my Aunt’s correspondence – here is some insight into life on the island.

It was tough going there. As a lighthouse keeper you often shared the island with other keepers and often they weren’t such good neighbours. There was no phones, just radio. All water was by tanks – so shortages were common. Mail was sometimes lost in delivery and sometimes lost in outbound transit. Ships to deliver supplies sometimes didn’t arrive on time or not at all.

The kids needed to be taught a curriculum by their parents, and later there was a “school of the air”. So “school” was never quite regimented.

Isolation was pretty profound. My aunt sent lists of incredibly basic goods for my poppa to buy and send to her. Just news we take for granted with the internet or daily tv news was never a given.

So here is an extract from one of my aunt’s letters about a cyclone and subsequent shipwreck.

Dear Granma,

I think that you may have been worrying about us the last few days so I am writing this to assure you that all is well with us…You have no doubt heard of the arrival of the missing yacht here yesterday morning on the news.

At 8:30am one of the tourists noticed the yacht off-shore heading for the island and came over to let Gordon know. Phil (my uncle) then went over to the other side of the island while Gordon stayed at the radio to keep in tough with the rest of the world. Phil had his 2-way radio with him so there was no need to run back and forth with messages. It was still fairly high tide when we got there, but quickly dropped enough for Phil to walk, or wade, or swim, he did all 3, to get out to the yacht. The main problem was that it was shallow out there, but the men did not know that and someone had to go out and show them as we couldn’t talk to them on the radio. As soon as they saw that they could walk to shore, they jumped overboard and made their way in. They are now safely rested, fed and bathed, and sleeping at Robyn’s place. They were at sea without sails or motor for 34 hours, in a cyclonic sea, so little wonder they kissed the ground first thing.

As far as the cyclone went, it was scary for a while, I’ll admit, but then we went through as bad at Booby (Island), just sounded worse here because of the noise of the wind in the trees. The cyclone actually passed within a mile or so of the island…unfortunately when morning came and we could see the damage, it made me cry. There were trees uprooted, branches broken off everywhere, big ones too, and so much general damage, it was heart-breaking to see. 

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6 thoughts on “Life on an Island (Shipwrecks, Cyclones and Lighthouses)

    • Hello David. I am Steve, one of the children mentioned in the story above. I have vague memories of your visits. My cousin has written a vivid account of what life was like on the islands at times. Obviously, not every day was like that, but one was distinctly aware that mother nature wasn’t exactly on our side most of the time.
      We were stationed on Booby Island when I was born, but I don’t remember too much about it. Lady Eliot Island came next, then Dent Island in the Whitsundays and finally Pine Islet in the Percy Isles. We hold a dubious record of being on the last three automated lighthouses in Australia. Welcome to the club. My parents have since passed away, but I still have many fond memories of the lights.

      • Steve I remember you too, and I’ve found a picture of your Dad here with John Milne, who also passed away quite a few years ago. I’d kept in touch with John and June Milne, they were nice. June went off the grid as many older people do when faced with technology. The photo of your father is partial, and with that hat he wore and that beard there’s not a lot to see! He took us on a pub crawl or three in the tinnie as I recall to the Whitsundays, which was fun. Dent was my favorite of all islands as it was so very pretty and I slept well there as it was so quiet.

      • Hello again David. I remember John and June Milne. Sadly, my father wasn’t too fond of them as I recall. I remember the Paiges and their kids too. Dent was an amazing place indeed. I remember the old tinnie (a 3.6 metre Fishfinder, if I recall well, modified with a central fishbox). It nearly got me killed when I got trapped in the gully trying to winch it up after we went to see the Oriana cruise ship when it got grounded near Hook Island. The wake from the Oriana was huge and my father miscalculated how long we had. Scary stuff!
        Is there any possibility you could scan the photos you have of John Milne, etc and send them to me? My email is: sdtfbcn@yahoo.co.uk. Anyway, it would be great if you want to stay in touch. Cheers, Steve

  1. Many thanks for the interesting account. I would be very grateful for anything I can find about Booby Island. Selfish of me because I have very little to offer on the subject. My father spent much of the war years on the island as 2IC of the RAN Signal Station. Before his passing he indicated that there were some interesting stories to be had. Regards, Allan Bruse (Perth, WA)

    • So, it was your father who left that graffiti in the cave! 🙂 It was quite good really. I spent many days and nights there maintaining the old radio beacon. There’s nothing left of any military base there. I imagine it was al demolished after the war, as there was only the purpose-built lighthouse keepers cottages. I’m ex-Army myself, Signals too, so I kept an eye out. There are very few records about, but CARO (Central Army Records) are bound to have some data, surely?
      Good hunting

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