Last of the lighthouse keepers
Automation has brought to an end the tradition of lighthouse keeping in New Zealand. By mid-1990 the switch will be complete and the manned lighthouse will be no more. Tony Reid visited four of the remaining keepers to discover what draws these people to their unique and seemingly romantic way of life.
Alan Martin suddenly decided it was not too late for the truth. He sat up in bed, tapped his wife on the shoulder, looked her in the eye and admitted his secret.
“Remember at the beginning when I asked if you would like to live in a lighthouse and you became so enthusiastic? Well, I just meant it as a joke, Shirley. But you took the whole thing so seriously that I had no choice but to follow through.”
She looked back at him sleepily, grinned and said calmly, “Then it has been a joke for 27 years of our lives and now it looks like the joke is on you!”
They stared at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing.
Alan Martin is New Zealand’s longest-serving lighthouse keeper and now, like all the others, he is about to lose his way of life. By June 20, 1990, the last of our manned lighthouses will be automated. But after Alan’s admission that night the Martins felt completely released from anxiety about the future. Jobless, middle-aged and happy they would go back to civilisation for one final adventure.
Mr and Mrs Martin of Nugget Point lighthouse delight in telling this story. It seems to epitomise their image of themselves and other couples in the lighthouse service — people who help rather than need help, maintain solidarity of spirit against the odds and hugely enjoy life because they are uncrushable survivors.
However, the Martins admit that earlier they had felt confused and exhausted by a very long public row concerning their professional future. When Alan Martin began his career it seemed a totally secure occupation. After all, even 2000 years ago beacon fires were being lit on high cliffs to guide mariners, and over the last five centuries in Britain the Elder Brethren of Trinity House had developed the most reputable and valued manned lighthouse service in the world.
That tradition flowed on to New Zealand. During our early history shipwrecks became common on the unlit coast and by 1845 more than 100 vessels had been totally lost. The first lighthouse began operating at Pencarrow Head (near the entrance to Wellington harbour) in 1859. By 1881 another 20 lighthouses had been shipped from England and erected, and in 1911 78 keepers were tending some 42 lights around the coast from Cape Maria Van Diemen in the north to Centre Island in the south.
As late as 1974 25 manned “lights” remained, yet at the time this article was researched just six stations had fulltime residential staff. Technology has subverted this long and honourable tradition.
The lights were originally powered by colza oil, a derivative of rape. Later vaporised kerosine did the same job. Inside the glass lenses the actual light looked like a large Tilley lantern. These were the days of night watches, and every few hours keepers wound up a clockwork mechanism to ensure the lenses continued to revolve.
By 1957 all the main lights had been electrified and the paramount importance of keepers slowly eroded. Eventually, nearly all lighthouses were connected to the national mains supply, and now the only stations using diesel-electric generating plants are those on remote islands.
Elsewhere the generators became silent backups for emergencies. Various technological advances made the job less labour intensive; two or three families were no longer required to operate a station, and a staffing policy of natural attrition slowly whittled away the number of keepers.
By the end of the 1970s “demanning” had become a buzz word within the offices of the keepers’ employers, the Ministry of Transport. The Baring Head lighthouse keeper and Public Service Association representative, Steve O’Neill, says keepers “objected, fought, placated, pleaded”. Eventually they refused to supply weather observations and, as a final protest, threatened to turn the lights out.
A Commission of Enquiry eventually recommended that nine of the lighthouses should remain manned and their full automation be considered only when the current resident keepers had retired. Those very keepers will bitterly tell you that even in May, 1987, the then Minister of Transport, Richard Prebble, had informed the PSA that rumours about the destaffing of all lighthouses were without foundation.
But uncertainty gnawed deep into the family lives of keepers. Then the Martins of Nugget Point were tipped off that officialdom would drive in the next day to announce their redundancy.
“When we heard about the visit . . well, I have no words except to say that it felt as if someone had hit us,” says Shirley Martin. “We had just 24 hours to find our composure and prepare ourselves for the worst.
“Oh, with all the hassles about the future of Nugget Point over the years I had already told my husband that I no longer cared whether I stayed or left. I got to the stage where I just felt, `to hell with it’. Everything seemed poisoned. But I now know that nobody can take our happiness away. While we’ve been so cushioned by this lifestyle we can also be happy in the wider world.”
The keepers are very practical people who advance very practical arguments about the preservation of their jobs. These include the necessity for visual observations to supplement automated weather readings on some stations, the role of keepers in search and rescue operations, the cost of manning versus demanning, protection from vandalism and protection of wildlife on some stations.
They are grateful for a surge of public support when it was finally decided their jobs would go. They are also a bit bewildered by the highly emotional reactions.
“It’s great to see the public upset and sad about what is going to happen,” says Alan Martin. “But if you listen to some people you’d think our demise is like the pyramids falling down.”
The keepers are suspicious of such romanticism. For city people our remote coast can be a Kiwi equivalent of the Australian outback — a place of primitive beauty where people are reduced to the correct, human proportions by a huge, wild landscape. The manned lighthouses stand in places where our very survival would usually be threatened. Their simple shapes rising out of barren landscapes are matched by a purity of function; they symbolise a vigil by mankind to protect and guide all who might be lost or endangered.
The keepers see something quite different: a workplace they also call home; an everyday environment where life is pretty routine and similar to the experiences of many country people.
“The standard questions,” laughs Steve O’Neill’s wife, Lynley, “are how do you cope with the terrible isolation, how often do you see shipwrecks, what do you do all day, aren’t you frightened, how do you manage without any of civilisation’s comforts.”
Yet when you start looking into those questions it becomes clear that the patterns of their lives are often extraordinary. They are a breed of people with different delights, problems, family ties and expectations.
“It’s so difficult for us to tell you about how we live,” says Steve O’Neill. “Every lighthouse station is different. Different duties, different weather, different personalities living on the place, a different atmosphere. And we are so isolated from one another that we often only know of our own experiences in certain places. The rest is just reputation. As you visit some of these last manned lighthouses and hear about others you’ll realise that we all live in very separate worlds.”
You have travelled down to Baklutha and out to South Otago’s Catlins Coast. Now the car is on Kaka Point Road and heading towards Nugget Point lighthouse. In midsummer the weather is freezing and a wild sea throws solid mats of bull kelp and froth on to a beach only metres away from the road. Ahead you can just make out the lighthouse through mist and rain.
It looks such a tiny manmade addition to the vast landscape — a small signpost of warning clinging to the tip of Nugget Point’s massive bluffs. You wonder how the road could possibly have the temerity to find a route up to the 119yearold structure. You wonder what sort of house could possibly survive up there and who would ever choose to inhabit it.
Arrival at the home of resident keeper, Alan Martin, is a sudden, shaming corrective to such romantic notions. This is a lovely bungalow surrounded by flowering shrubs, a clipped hedge and an extensive garden. Although a sign, “Elsewhere,” is neatly attached to the gate it seems the visitor might be anywhere in the suburbs.
You enter the house through a conservatory and walk through spotless rooms full of sophisticated comforts. Microwave, video, Robert Carrier cook books on the shelves, soothing music playing on the stereo.
In the lounge you sip from crystal glasses and chat about overseas holidays. Beyond the large windows lies a breathtaking elemental seascape; wind and rain lash these windows but cannot disturb the ordered, domestic comforts within.
Their conversation reflects the house’s indifference towards the anarchic power of what lies outside. The Martins are almost determinedly happy and during 27 years of lighthouse service have never felt the beginnings of eroding loneliness. Why, says Shirley, the very thought of isolation originally attracted her towards this life. In those days she actually thought keepers lived in the lighthouse and had circular furniture. And, yes, it was a bit of a disappointment to find that was an illusion.
She describes their very first appointment as keepers at Moko Hinau lighthouse. The very bumpy boat trip out was an adventure, getting ashore while soaked was another adventure, trying unsuccessfully to light the coal range in their old cottage became an “hilarious experience”. On another station where the wind so shook the house that their bed shifted across the floor the Martins would merely cuddle up and giggle.
“They say that if you can stand it for a year and remain sane then you’ve got the makings of a keeper,” she explains.
Each station staffed by the Martins has offered a different set of routines. It is a life dominated by duties, and the sequence varies little from day to day. To the outsider the endless repetition of certain things at certain times of day seems oppressive; for the keepers the certainty of that pattern is savoured as a pleasure.
At 6 am Alan Martin delivers the first of the three-hourly weather reports required throughout the day: wind direction, wind speed, rainfall measurement, cloud patterns and heights, visibility, sea conditions, barometric pressure.
Because the light at Nugget Point is now semiautomated he no longer needs to turn it on and off. But the light’s efficient operation remains any keeper’s main responsibility. If it fails alarm bells ring in the Martins’ house and Alan has 15 minutes to fix the problem. Otherwise marine authorities must be notified.
But that sort of emergency is extremely rare. Alan Martin’s days are usually devoted to the official weather reports, answering the phone to boaties who want unofficial weather reports, looking after the backup generators, mowing lawns and maintaining buildings, paths and fences. At night it’s time for television, reading or hobbies. Most keepers have a passionate attachment to various hobbies and Martin’s special interest is bone carving.
“The day goes so quickly for me,” says Shirley. “Over the years there has been looking after Alan and the kids, doing correspondence school with them or smoking fish, curing meat, making butter … actually, I’m not quite sure what I do except that it’s idyllic. Everything is controlled for you or by you.”
The Martins echo the standard sentiments expressed by many lighthouse’ keepers. Isolation is merely a state of mind. If people are idle, friendless or incompatible with their surroundings then they are likely to feel lonely. If you are unsuited to the lighthouse life then you succumb to that feeling; if people are unsuited to city life they feel lonely in a penthouse.
And yet they also admit that isolation can impose different conventions and warp social patterns. During the days of three-keeper stations a small group of people totally removed from wider society avoided friction by avoiding one another’s company.
The principal keeper’s family occupied “Number One” house. Next door “Number Two” house would look not quite as nice. “Number Three” house, for probationary or relieving keepers, was noticeably inferior.
“You achieved cohesion by keeping out of the others’ way,” says Alan Martin. “Too much contact would lead to imagined slights, things festering in the mind, molehills becoming mountains. So we would not go into the other keepers’ homes very often. Occasional morning teas for the wives, occasional social evenings for everyone. But nothing much more than that.”
Shirley is astonished by my automatic assumption that life on a remote station must be intensely communal. Oh no, she counters, the very thought was quite impossible. Why, when she first arrived at a station nobody dreamed of using her Christian name in conversation.
“I would always be called Mrs Martin for quite some time. You see, if you have three families it is very important that two of them don’t become close and exclude the other. The same went for relationships among the children. Otherwise you faced resentment and jealousies. I can remember when two keepers swapped wives and the scandal spread among us all. From one end of New Zealand to the other. If you get too close to other families in a very isolated place I would think that sort of incident must always be a danger.”
Throughout his career Alan has encountered only two keepers he could not get along with at all. “Not a bad record, eh,” he adds with triumph. Nor had the Martins’ children suffered at all. Now grown up and living in town they remain extremely grateful for that privileged upbringing.
After a splendid meal we sit in the Martins’ lounge, sip Grand Marnier and watch that amazing view. I suggest that the pattern of their lives seems to invert most of the romantic cliches about the mystique of the lighthouse keeper. Haven’t they ever felt deprivation or tension?
The Martins look at each other and smile conspiratorially. Words like “deprivation”, they suggest, are inappropriate. But facing problems? Certainly. Heaps of problems that have to be solved without outside support.
Search and rescues. Pregnant women suddenly giving birth. Medical emergencies. Each station was supplied with a comprehensive medical kit and could always get expert advice. However, in extreme emergencies aircraft, helicopters or boats needed to come to the rescue.
“Remember, Al, that first week after we arrived on the station at Cuvier Island?” laughs Shirley. “One of our lads fell on his head and suffered concussion, another one got stuck up a cliff and someone else had a badly poisoned foot. Then there was also that earthquake and the fire the neighbours started that might have wiped us all out. All in seven days. And every time that sort of thing happens there’s always a screaming gale so outside help can’t get in .. .”
Alan — “Yes, but mostly it has been like being paid to be a dropout. Twentyseven lovely years and now it comes to the end for us.”
Shirley — “It will be good for us, Al. We’ve been too cushioned.”
Alan — “Still, it might take a week or two to adjust. We’ll find something. The redundancy deal will pay for a home in this area. After all, you might as well be redundant among the people you know.”
He gets up and goes out to the kitchen.
“I’m not at all frightened of the future,” says Shirley with determination. “If we’d been in town when the kids left I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t even know if we’d still be together. However here, on our own, we just grow closer and closer.
“He only has to get out of my sight and I wonder where he is. Silly really, isn’t it? But he’s my best friend in the world. That’s why nothing has ever gone wrong. Why nothing can ever go wrong.”
At fiordland’s Puysegur Point lighthouse the relieving keepers would gather at the edge of a mighty cliff. Even getting there could be a major feat. Winds of 6570 knots might be sufficient to keep the millions of sandflies down, and steady gales of more than 100 knots were not uncommon, but walking in such conditions was almost impossible. Often the men had to crawl to the cliff edge.
There, at the very brink, they staggered to their feet, held their oilskin coats out wide and leaned so far forward that they lost balance. The wind would catch their falling bodies and flip them back so heads smacked hard, safe rock.
Puysegur is now an abandoned (and recently vandalised) station. But the relieving keepers miss this strange sport — they reckon that if a man had sufficient nerve to follow the Puysegur ritual he learned not to be afraid of anything in life.
Mention this story to resident keepers on the other stations and they might smile sardonically or suggest the relieving keepers were probably too drunk to know what they were doing. It is certainly true that relieving keepers are not top of the lighthouse service’s pecking order. All sorts of stories — many unprintable — are told about them, and one of the senior relieving keepers, Ian Hargreaves, says submissions to the 1980 Commission of Enquiry branded the men as “alcoholics, drug addicts or degenerates”.
In the past, when there were more than a dozen relieving keepers, that description might have accurately described a few of the staff. Now there are just six left and most are older people who have worked on the job for years. All are single men who stand in for resident keepers going on holiday as well as permanently staffing the Brothers Island lighthouse in Cook Strait. They have also served the Stephens Island lighthouse, automated at the end of March 1989.
The Brothers is a bit tamer than Puysegur Point, but not much. It is New Zealand’s only equivalent to an English “rock station”; access by sea is difficult and the keepers need to be winched ashore by crane in often hazardous conditions.
Hargreaves says Brothers Island is shaped like an inverted ice cream cone. The top (about 250 feet above sea level) is crowned by the lighthouse and a comfortable old house. Walk 60 or 70 paces in any direction and you are at a cliff edge.
The keepers work a roster allowing two weeks off after a month on station. In the past three staff would be together on the Brothers.
“But that has now been cut to two,” says Hargreaves. “I think it was worse with three of us out there. Two would gang up on the third who would start to get ‘rock happy’. Troppo. Or some people would bring town values, get depressed and want to hire a helicopter so they could fly out girlfriends.”
Hargreaves admits he has had “very bad spells”. Everyone did. Some “really strange” people had apparently been recruited straight off the street. They arrived, took one look at the place and pleaded for the boat to come back. After all, the men couldn’t even go for a proper walk outside the house.
“People have to be a bit crazy to take the job and, if they’re not, they tend to go a bit crazy. It is an unnatural environment. No feminine influence at all and the shocking weather means you can’t often leave the house. And you must understand that the job attracts individualists powerful personalities that cause big frictions.”
He doesn’t remember any fist fights during recent years. Anyway, an experienced relieving keeper practised tolerance and, if he saw pressure building, withdrew to his bedroom. Incompatible personalities might not speak to each other for weeks as the alternative to an explosive row.
“In your room you can do what you like. If there is a mile high stack of dirty socks that is nobody else’s business. But the rest of the house has to be tidied and polished so it squeaks with cleanliness.
“If someone is in their room you knock and wait to be invited in. If the door is open you still knock and ask if it is okay to enter. This is one of the unwritten house rules. You never invade because his bedroom is the only place where a man can retreat.”
Hargreaves is not happy about automation. He insists that Puysegur, Stephens Island and the Brothers are vital weather stations and automation of weather data will not compensate for the loss of visual observation.
He is convinced that lives will be lost. And he is also worried about the wildlife on some of the island stations. The Brothers have a selfsustainable colony of about 500 tuataras. Stephens Island features a very rare species of frog, giant wetas and at least 10,000 tuataras. “Go outside at night and you are likely to trip over them,” he says.
“Okay, the Department of Conservation has made noises about stationing someone out there. But when? In the meantime anybody could get ashore and poach the tuataras. A few years ago it was estimated that a single tuatara was worth $10,000 on the black market. I reckon that anyone who knew what they were doing could get about 15 to 20 in an hour.”
“It’s a very worrying situation. At the very least the conservation role was just one of the services we did as part of the job that will now have to be paid for by other Government agencies. So, yes, I’m pretty bloody angry about it all.
“I’m the first to admit the job has just about driven me out of my head at times. But I joined the lighthouse service to see a New Zealand other people don’t know. Even during the bad times it has been a different sort of occupation and mostly I’ve loved it.
“Being a relieving keeper has taught me something important about attitudes to life. Not just liking what you do — but doing what you like. They are not the same things at all.”
At baring head Steve O’Neill is packing up and getting ready to leave. Tomorrow the MOT bigwigs will arrive to negotiate the nitty gritty of final financial arrangements and Steve is both nervous and angry about the impending visit. Like all lighthouse keepers he hates “bureaucrats”. He is unhappy about the whole “devious” saga of automation, uncertain about his own future and depressed by a mess left behind by the automation team working at the lighthouse.
To prove his point he takes us down to the lighthouse. Once upon a time Steve ran stock on the station, kept chooks, had a horse and cultivated an extensive vegetable garden. But, as his job future faded, so did his commitment to all those extras which made the place feel like home.
Yet when he arrives at the lighthouse the mundane mess and misery is soon ignored as Steve’s true love takes over. He runs his fingers caressinhgly over the tons of marvellous lenses as he searches for grime. Got to keep them absolutely dust free for maximum efficiency, he murmurs. Got to climb inside those lenses and polish, polish, polish so the glass is perfectly clear.
The 54yearold station was one of the last to be constructed in New Zealand and the first to become fully electrified. But the magnificently simple optical principles remain unchanged from last century. The lenses are adjusted to collect light and squeeze it into a beam projected horizontally through clear glass at the centre of the apparatus. This particular light is a “Blinking Billy”. The lenses do not slowly revolve; instead the bulb turns on and off to show a nine second flash every 15 seconds.
All operations of the light are now controlled by a computer in Wellington linked by microwave circuit. But, says O’Neill with some disdain, that system is full of technological complexity.
“The true wonder of my light is its mixture of precision and simplicity. A 1000watt bulb produces light that can be seen for 19 nautical miles. And the whole beautiful setup does not need any moving parts.”
That, insists Steve, is the only bit of romance about Baring Head. Otherwise the place falls heavily under city influences. Busy rather than remote. Why, the lighthouse is just 12 miles from Wainuiomata and ranked as this country’s most accessible manned station.
“That means thousands of people walking up here to look around”, he says. “School parties. The lot. We’ve even had to look after jokers who have attempted suicide and then staggered up here soaked and bleeding.
Then there’s the vandals. You would have encountered the locked river bridge back down the road. But they’ve rammed the gate, smashed padlocks and tried to burn the bridge. The hoons came up here in four-wheel drive vehicles or trailbikes. Who knows what will happen when we go and the vandals really move in.”
Out at sea the population is just about as dense. Fishing boats, fizz boats, yachts, large oceangoing vessels. O’Neill can document a resident keeper’s involvement in 52 search and rescues during the past 12 years. During such incidents the keeper became co-ordinating eyes and ears on the spot. But he claims the MOT has downplayed that role as part of its campaign to de-staff lighthouses. It now promotes a policy of not notifying the keepers during search and rescue emergencies.
Baring Head is so close to suburbia that Steve’s wife, Lynley Marwick, can work as a senior teacher at the local school. Close enough to produce real frustration. Friends ring up and ask them to go to the theatre in Wellington. While Lynley could easily drive in, Steve is required to be on station 24 hours a day. So, in the end, they both stay home.
“You’re isolated and yet not isolated at all,” says Lynley. “I have often wondered about life on the really remote stations where there are just two people together all the time. But for me the pressure was coming home from work and then finding 90American tourists wandering around the place. I tended to value the limited time I get with Steve and to fight for it.”
Already Steve O’Neill and Lynley are talking about lighthouse station life in the past tense. Steve says he feels as if he has already gone. But to what? He has ordered the rhythms of his own professional life and feels totally incompatible with urban society.
“So there I am. A jack of all trades and master of none. It’s a bit scary really and it all seems so senseless when losing this job doesn’t just rep resent another redundancy. It’s the country chucking away a necessity. I don’t know what I . . .”
His voice trails away. Then this extrovert, likeable man brightens and decides he is not going to end his career with a public whimper.
“Look,” he says, “Baring Head is a ratbag place. The worst station I’ve ever encountered. People complain about Wellington’s weather. But when it’s blowing 10 knots there you can guarantee it will be 40 out here. Hell, even on the rare nice day I’m hassled by nosy visitors.
“No, I’m a diehard who likes it remote. What I’d really like to do is get some bloody great chainsaw and somehow cut out Baring Head from the rest of the coast. Then I’d tow it 600 miles north and well away from everything. At that stage we’d be fine. I might yet do something like that. Otherwise it just looks as if I’m going to have to find a job.”
The two residents of Foveaux Strait’s Dog Island don’t know about the history or significance of the name. But for visitors flying into that destination its geographical title seems appropriate. The lighthouse is New Zealand’s tallest (36 metres) and also one of its ugliest. This bullet shaped structure is painted in thick black and white bands; it totally lacks the elegant architectural proportions of most other 19th century lights.
Viewed from air the rest of Dog seems just about as graceless. The 28 acre island is 50 feet above sea level at its highest point and lies about three miles from Bluff Harbour. You search without success for any symmetry of shape or distinguishing natural feature. Tussock, some sheep, much scrubby grass and rock. If it weren’t surrounded by sea Dog would be the sort of nothing in particular place which doesn’t attract a second glance.
Wandering around on a nice, still day you encounter the legacy of No 1, No 2 and No 3 houses. Vegetable gardens and a henhouse enclosed by taupata trees. The lighthouse. A storage shed cum office .. .
Pause and the profound silence suddenly becomes more oppressive than releasing. Surrounded by 360 degrees of seascape it is possible to feel the edge of claustrophobia; I find myself walking faster and faster with nowhere in particular to go.
There aren’t many of these sunny, windless days. Dog Island’s weather records show that last year featured just 78 days without rain. When the wind really blows it might burn the tussock black, rip sheets on the washing line and threaten to shatter windows. Shallow rocky outcrops offshore prevent great waves that could otherwise endanger the keeper’s home.
“You get really rough white water around the island and spray so thick that it’s hard to see”, says the resident keeper, Warren Russell. “Then I get phone calls from Bluff asking if we are all right. From that distance all you can see of Dog is a wild whiteness and the very top of the lighthouse tower.”
If weather permits, light aircraft drop in domestic supplies every fortnight and helicopters will deliver heavier items or cope with emergencies. Apart from those friendly pilots Warren and Mary Russell don’t have many visitors. Dog Island doesn’t offer easy sea access and, lighthouse aside, it is hardly the sort of place to inspire great curiosity.
Warren Russell feels perfectly tuned to this “hard, pioneering life”. He loves his wife, the sea and the beautiful lenses at the top of the lighthouse’s 155 steps and is dedicated to constructing model aircraft. Russell is acknowledged as an authority on the colour schemes, markings and histories of RNZAF planes, and a cabinet full of his models takes pride of place in the family’s dining room. Indeed, his writing on this specialised subject includes a book documenting the history of every Corsair ever manufactured.
The precision of research and craftsmanship seems complemented by a fascination with the precision of the prisms at the top of that very tall lighthouse. For those unfamiliar with the esoteria of optics the Dog Island light is an astonishment. Four and a half tons of lenses float in a bath of mercury and a small electrical motor slowly revolves this huge glass jewel. Each section of lens is shaped like a bullseye and they are joined together by thick, polished bronze.
“Hand ground,” says Russell. “Wonderful. You would have to agree about its beauty. I never tire of it. It’s one of my interests and in this sort of life everyone is an individualist who has very strong interests. You sort of guard them, keep them to yourself. That’s how a person becomes fit to live in this sort of place.”
And then there is the giant, permanent presence of the sea. At first it overwhelmed Russell and made him feel more placid. Always, he feels like a privileged outsider observing the ways the sea and sky might separate or merge. The weather that has been, is, might come.
“You know those corny stories about people getting married to the sea? Well, of course you do. I can see you smiling. But it’s true. If I had to live away from the sea I would truly mourn the loss.”
Later we are inside the house, sipping tea and still looking out at that sea. The Tiwai smelter is straight ahead. Back on our left lies Bluff Hill with various buildings scattered around its base.
“Look back at Bluff,” says Mary, “and you’ll clearly see where the tourist buses pull up. Those tourists must get out and take hundreds of pictures of this place. There they are so far away pointing their cameras at me and there I am staring back.
“Some days it can be so frustrating sitting here. I look and there’s no bridge or road. I look away and it seems a bridge should be there, that it would be natural if it were. I might not care to use it. But why isn’t it there? That sort of crazy thought.”
Warren — “You have to be totally self supporting. There’s no backup. No bridge there at all.”
Mary — “No neighbours either. So, although everyone has their moments, we have to get on reasonably well.”
Warren — “Yes, on our own. But when people do come here I get antisocial. They are invaders … stupid of me really. But you do become very selective about people.
“Once upon a time they would never have dreamed about leaving one family on an isolated station. We all figured they did it to drive us crazy — right out of the job. But that hasn’t worked because out here we’ve had time to grow closer.”
Mary — “That’s right. Still, sometimes I would like to go to a really good show in town. I can’t and that’s it. Okay, it is not possible to have everything. Yet sometimes it’s not enough to go down to the garden or talk to the canaries over there in their cages. Not enough. On some days I’ll get a bit depressed. I’ll want to see my family, say hello to someone else. It’s just for a moment but sometimes that moment seems to last for the whole day.
“But I don’t want you to feel that it’s all too bad. Some days I hate the place. I truly do. But 95 per cent of the time I like being here.”
Warren — “I find no stress on Dog. Stress is made by other people and we are without them.”
Mary — “Still, it has affected me. I’ve become wiser, harder and very open about how I feel. If you didn’t say what needs to be said you’d end up in the funny farm .. .”
At Dog Island visitors loom large and are either resented or savoured. That night we all sit up late and talk, talk, talk. The opportunity for conversation seems prized and the exchanges are inclined to become remarkably candid and intense.
When the plane leaves Dog in the morning everyone seems both shy and sad, perhaps even close to tears. The aircraft takes off, circles and heads back towards Invercargill Airport. I look back at the two, tiny figures standing so still and very close together on the island’s landing strip. Very soon they become tiny dots.
Just a few minutes later the entire low-lying island seems to sink back into the horizon and disappear. The people and the land out there are so quickly rendered irrelevant. All you can see is the ocean and the lighthouse.
What do you hear?” asks Ann.
“Nothing at all.” ‘Are you sure?”
“Yes. It’s absolutely silent.”
Ann Schroeder giggles and then apologises for teasing me. Listen, she suggests, in my suburban environment and I might hear the identifiable sound of a neighbour’s car, a dog with a familiar bark, a tread on the pavement which could be instantly recognised.
Those surburban noises would signal nothing to her. But here on Foveaux Strait’s Centre Island Ann could listen and tell. Hear the tiny rattle of the window telling her that the wind had increased by a few knots. And listen to the faint honks of the island’s wild geese. That almost certainly meant they had just seen a boat offshore.
“It’s just that we are sensitised to different things,” she says. “Out here even silence is something else. Say there’s a big storm that goes on for days. All this tremendous whistling and smashing that makes the adrenalin pump faster.”
Then the wind might drop to 40 knots. In comparison this is a mere soughing and Ann Schroeder can at last sleep peacefully.
“The storm ends and the silence wakes you. It produces a moment of panic which makes me sit bolt upright in bed. I can hear it. The silence sounds deafening, awesome .. .”
Ann’s grandfather was a lighthouse keeper. So was her father. So is her husband, Gary. The stations have been this woman’s life and she remains genuinely afraid of necessary adjustments after Centre’s light is automated in January, 1990.
At the end of last year the Schroeders attended a family gathering at Blenheim. Ann became overwhelmed in a room full of people. She suffered from overload and found all the threads of cross-conversation utterly disorientating. Eventually she could neither speak nor listen and merely watched mouths moving meaninglessly.
“I had to go for a walk outside. I know they were thinking, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ It was so embarrassing because, you see, it’s not that I don’t like people. But then if, after Centre, it gets to be so much for me that I can’t even sit in a crowded room . . .
“That’s serious. A real problem. I know I will have to accept all these things when I go back to civilisation. But I also feel I will never get used to it.”
Gary Schroeder nods in agreement. He’s an enormously fit man who is inclined to talk a lot. Yet move around that frontal bluster and Schroeder is like so many of the keepers — gentle, open and eager for contact.
“I worked for 12 years as a linotype operator,” he says. “Then I thought I would find out what this lighthouse lark was all about. Well, I discovered a life which has given me independence, dignity, mana. For me those are the most important things in life.
“Here, no man can be a run-of-the-mill person. You have total responsibility and you are always geared up. There are emergencies and you know what it is like to be under pressure for a long time.
“I have never panicked. Maybe I have yet to discover that I could panic in certain situations. Or perhaps I am one of those fortunate people who are always prepared psychologically.”
Take away the infrastructure of stress and accomplishment, Gary suggests, and he might be as personally adrift as Ann in that room crowded with people. Ah well, he sighs, after Centre is automated they’ll go back to Blenheim “and just have a long think about the future.”
He produces a few bottles of homebrew and everyone chats. After a week of visiting lighthouse stations the topics have become familiar. Battles with Wellington’s office wallahs, triumphantly bringing up the kids on remote stations, the rigid social hierarchies on three-keeper stations that could produce bitter enmities, search and rescue operations And, of course, the weather. During a big blow the wind lifts small rocks from the surrounding cliffs and they might pockmark buildings or shatter windows. Remember that time the wind skied his upright body across the grass and then smashed it into a stout fence post at the brink of a 200ft cliff? Although the post snapped it acted as sufficient brake to prevent him from plunging to his death.
“Yes, I remember”, says Ann. “You don’t forget that sort of thing.”
During search and rescue alerts Schroeder spends two and a half hours checking the perimeter of Centre Island. The hail might be horizontal and the inside of his oilskins becomes a sodden mixture of water and sweat.
“Ah, but what a journey,” he adds. “You just wait until you see the place.”
He’s right. Centre lies off Colac Bay and boasts this country’s most southerly lighthouse. The 500acre island is full of superb surprises — giant cliffs, Maori middens containing bones and adzes, rocky inlets full of subtle delights.
A colony of yellow eyed penguins occupies one end of the island. At the other black oystercatchers, pied shags, red-billed and black backed gulls and white-fronted terns breed together in such close proximity that fights are inevitable.
For the city dweller this is a magical place. The blackest of black rocks wind smoothed into shapes that are both bleak and exquisite. Clumps of seaweed revealing. a wonderful fusion of purples, greens, blues, almonds, pinks and olives.
The residents compete for your attention. Look over here, says Ann. Look over there, says Gary. See that old river bed stratified into the rock wall? It is full of an amazing variety of beautiful stones that we polish up at home.
And here, says Ann, is the place where the Schroeders sit. This sheltered stone platform at the top of the cliff. Holding each other down in a great storm and watching sea swells smashing right up the cliff face.
They are proprietorial and proud to point out the detail of what you are privileged to view. It is as if this couple is showing you around some utterly unique back yard. A place so few other people know about. Theirs.
“Come with me and I’ll show you something,” says Ann.
We clamber around the slippery rocks until the open sea is at our feet. She points to a cave almost masked by boulders thrown against the cliff. You step in and realise this place must be almost full of roaring water at high tide.
The light is poor and when she asks you to look around carefully at first it is impossible to see any detail of interest. And then you feel a wave of anger. Boaties have defiled even this remote place and carved their inane initials into the cave walls.
You look again. A chiselling of names, initials and dates extends right around the cave. All the lettering is neatly exact. Many of the inscriptions are so worn that they cannot be deciphered. But others are clearer. 1887. 1895. 1925. 1963.
“Yes,” she says. All the keepers over the years. It took us ages to stumble across this place and now we’ve also chiselled in our names. The Maoris who were originally here would have known about this place. And the keepers. No one else.
“After we leave it will be forgotten. But not by my grandchildren because I believe the little ones must be told. We’ll be gone. But all these messages will still be here.
“You can’t put it into words, can you … but this is what all our lives have been about …”
She strokes one of the older, worn inscriptions, turns, and you meet eyes full of great sadness and dignity.
“Kings and queens of this place,” says Ann Schroeder. “That’s what we’ve been. Kings and queens.”