Your guide to Kangaroo Island’s most famous lighthouses

Your guide to Kangaroo Island’s most famous lighthouses

South Australia’s nation­al parks vis­i­tors sure love light­hous­es – here are two of the best on Kan­ga­roo Island.

From incred­i­ble tales of sur­vival and hard­ship to spec­tac­u­lar views, it’s lit­tle won­der light­hous­es spark so much inter­est in nation­al parks visitors.

On South Aus­trali­a’s Kan­ga­roo Island, the light­hous­es at Cape Willough­by and Cape Bor­da con­tin­ue to attract vis­i­tors more than 160 years since they were first lit.

Cape Willough­by: South Australia’s first lighthouse

Cape Willough­by Con­ser­va­tion Park is sit­u­at­ed on Kan­ga­roo Island’s far east­ern coast at the entrance to the treach­er­ous waters of Back­stairs Passage.

The light­house was first lit in 1852 at a time when most trans­port was car­ried out by boat. All boats from the east­ern states to Ade­laide passed through Back­stairs Pas­sage and the Cape Willough­by light­house was their guid­ing light to the entrance.

There were three light­house keep­ers liv­ing with their fam­i­lies on the site in the ear­ly 1850s ensur­ing that the facil­i­ty was manned 24 hours per day. The extreme iso­la­tion would have made life hard. These fam­i­lies need­ed to live off the land as a sup­ply ships would only stop by every three months and in an emer­gency they need­ed to flag down pass­ing ships to put out the call for help.

The high wind speeds on the Cape — of up to 140 kilo­me­tres per hour — would have also added to the chal­lenges of every­day liv­ing — and pos­si­bly of hang­ing out the washing!

Vis­i­tors to the site can enjoy the same amaz­ing views of those ear­ly inhab­i­tants which stretch across to Cape Jervis and Vic­tor Har­bor on the main­land — and even spot pass­ing whales or cir­cling eagles.

The ear­ly light con­sist­ed of oil lanterns and par­a­bol­ic reflec­tors. The lat­ter were mir­rors that would be posi­tioned behind the light­house lanterns to reflect the light out to sea. From 1925 the glow of Cape Willough­by light­house shone through a three tonne crys­tal lens which rotat­ed around kerosene-pow­ered lanterns. The light­house was auto­mat­ed in 1974 and is now pow­ered by an LED light but vis­i­tors can still see an iden­ti­cal ver­sion of the orig­i­nal lens at the site.

The light­house keep­ers have now been assigned to his­to­ry and the last one moved out in 1992. Cape Willough­by was one of the last manned light­hous­es in Australia.

Be a light­house keep­er for a night

Today’s vis­i­tors have the chance to rev­el in this his­to­ry and enjoy the sim­ple life in one of the two for­mer light­house keep­ers’ cot­tages on the site – Sey­mour Cot­tage and Thomas Cot­tage. The cot­tages are ful­ly fur­nished and heat­ed and tele­vi­sion has been replaced by plen­ty of board games and books. Book your stay now.

Take a tour

Step back in time and learn about what it was like to be a light­sta­tion keep­er at Cape Willough­by. The local guide will trans­port you as they nar­rate the his­to­ry of this icon­ic and rugged site. Guid­ed tours are avail­able dai­ly. You can take a 45 minute His­toric Light­sta­tion tour (10am and 1pm) or a 20 minute Express tour (12pm and 3pm).

Cape Bor­da: a square­ly dif­fer­ent lighthouse

Free from urban lights, Cape Bor­das night sky is daz­zling – with mil­lions of stars glis­ten­ing above while its light­house sends beams of light out to sea where 6 oth­er light­hous­es blink on the horizon.

Cape Bor­da light­house is sit­u­at­ed on the far north-west tip of KI, sur­round­ed by some of the high­est cliffs in South Aus­tralia. It was first lit in 1858 and is the last tra­di­tion­al­ly oper­at­ed light­house in SA. Although auto­mat­ed now, the light­house still has the old-style rotat­ing turntable with lens­es that focus a fixed light into sep­a­rate beams. From a dis­tance, its four rotat­ing beams appear as four flashes.

The archi­tec­ture is also strik­ing as this light­house is short and square rather than tall and round. As Cape Bor­da is 155 metres above sea lev­el it doesn’t need to be tall to be seen nor round to be strong. It is one of only three square, stone light­hous­es that exist in Australia.

It was an iso­lat­ed life on the Cape in the ear­ly days. With no road access to Cape Bor­da for near­ly 70 years, sup­plies came by ship once every three months. Harvey’s Return, 5 kilo­me­tres to the east, was the near­est place where sup­plies could be land­ed. There, a 150-metre-long, 45-degree rocky cliff face leads down to the water’s edge. Sup­plies were pulled on trol­leys through a horse-drawn cap­stan up the steep track and then hauled the 5 kilo­me­tres through the scrub to the lighthouse.

It wasn’t until 1933 – when two diesel motors were built onsite – that man­pow­er and horse­pow­er could be swapped for elec­tric power.

Being in such an iso­lat­ed place, light­house keep­ers and their fam­i­lies were com­plete­ly cut off. If some­thing went wrong, such as break­downs, machin­ery fail­ures, acci­dents or sick­ness, they were on their own. Many chil­dren were born on the site with­out any med­ical assis­tance. A few were still­born or sur­vived only a few days.

Despite the iso­la­tion and hard­ship there were amus­ing sto­ries. One horse learned to recog­nise the signs that the sup­ply ship had arrived. Know­ing that meant a cou­ple of days of hard work, he would wan­der away and hide in the bush­es. Anoth­er horse was tak­en by a light­house keeper’s daugh­ter when she left to elope. Yet anoth­er horse stole a fresh­ly baked loaf from the kitchen win­dow sill where it had been put to cool.

Take a self-guid­ed tour and the Clifftop Hike

The self-guid­ed tour around the Cape Bor­da Light­sta­tion set­tle­ment gives an insight into the ear­ly light­keep­ers’ liv­ing con­di­tions, and how iso­la­tion and a demand­ing rou­tine dom­i­nat­ed their often harsh lives.

After the self-guid­ed tour, enjoy a stroll along one of the walk­ing trails around the park includ­ing the Cliff Top Hike. This short trail through a pic­turesque rock gar­den takes you to a stone look­out that pro­vides an ide­al van­tage point for spot­ting whales and dolphins.

Park of the Month: 

Through­out Decem­ber, Parks of West­ern Kan­ga­roo Island are being cel­e­brat­ed as part of Park of the Month.

Join a free Ranger guid­ed tour on Sun­day, 3 Decem­ber 2022 at Cape Bor­da Light­sta­tion. Gain insight into the ear­ly light keep­ers’ liv­ing con­di­tions, and how iso­la­tion and a demand­ing rou­tine dom­i­nat­ed their often harsh lives. You will even have the chance to see the canon fired at the end of the 11:30 and 2:30pm tours! Find out more. 

Check the Nation­al Parks of Kan­ga­roo Island Vis­i­tor Guide: May 2022 for more infor­ma­tion to plan your trip to the island.

This con­tent was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with  Good Living