Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse Credit Tim Campbell

The pristine coastline of the Margaret River Region was a wild and dangerous place to navigate for ships sailing blind 125 years ago, and scores of boats ended their journeys wrecked on our reefs.

After much negotiation and a lucky gold rush, lighthouses were commissioned at Cape Leeuwin then Cape Naturaliste and have kept sailors safe ever since. 

Take a guided tour to hear tales of the lighthouse keepers and the hardships they faced. Climb the original teak stairs, feel the slap of the salty sea gusts and hear the roar of waves crashing against rocks. 

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse Photo: Scott Slawinski

Lighthouse Construction

Until gold was discovered in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia simply didn’t have the funds to construct lighthouses, and the Eastern states weren’t interested in helping foot the bill. Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse was first mooted in 1881 to protect shipping between Fremantle and Albany, and in 1896, the Premier Sir John Forrest turned on the lamp at the new lighthouse, mainland Australia’s tallest. Eight years later in 1903, Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse was commissioned. 

They were built from locally quarried limestone, but the design was distinctly British. The Chance Brothers in landlocked Birmingham, England, engineered mechanical and optical components for approximately 2,000 lighthouses around the world. The ship carrying the original 12-tonne Fresnel lens for Cape Leeuwin disappeared after leaving England and the mystery of its fate remains today. It never reached its destination, but the replacement is still working perfectly, 125 years later. 

Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse Credit Elements Margaret River

Lighthouse Keepers: The Early Days

Visit either lighthouse and you’ll note three small, stone cottages. Three lightkeepers and their families called the cottages home, and they’d grow their own veggies and home school their kids, as the respective towns of Dunsborough and Augusta were a half day journey by horse and buggy, and food was only delivered once a month. 

The keeper’s lives revolved around night watches, winding the clockwork and pumping kerosene into the burner. It was a hard and isolating job, but essential work to protect the passing boats. 

The lighthouse keepers were no stranger to tragedy; Cape Naturaliste’s first keeper, Carl Hansen lost his wife as she gave birth to twins in 1904, then his son died five years later of rheumatic fever in cottage one. Families got along because they had to, there was no other choice. Gradually over time, life became more comfortable and less dangerous; electricity was connected and sealed roads made it easier to visit town. 

Eventually the romantic era of manned lighthouses ended and both Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste were fully automated. Operated, like other lighthouses, by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, these towers remain a vital beacon to guide shipping and warn of the dangers of coming too close to the rugged coastline. 

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse Credit Ross Wyness

Experience the Lighthouses on a Guided Tour

It’s easy for us to forget what a harrowing experience it must have been, rounding Cape Leeuwin in a timber ship 200 or so years ago. The Lightkeepers Cottage Interpretive Centre opened at Cape Leeuwin in December 2019, and won a WA Heritage Award shortly after. You can browse old photos and possessions, practice Morse Code in an interactive game and hear amazing stories from the keepers, their wives and children. 

Both Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin Lighthouses are open to the public each day and guided tours include plenty of historic stories and a climb to the top of the lighthouse where you’re treated to a fabulous ocean view. 

Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse Credit Hamish Stubbs