I had been to Cape Leeuwin once before in 2009 and I remember very clearly walking up to the lighthouse and looking for the imaginary line on the ocean before me that divided the Indian Ocean from the Southern Ocean. I couldn’t see the line then nor on this windy day 11 years later…perhaps because the rest of the world does not believe the Southern Ocean laps on the southern coastline of Australia. Everybody except for Australia believes that the Southern Ocean starts at the edge of Antarctica, and finishes at the 60 degrees south latitude (a long way south of Cape Leeuwin) and this coincides with the Antarctic Treaty signed by Australia. I suppose the Western Australian Tourist Bureau clings to their belief in the line between the oceans to ensure tourists keep coming to Cape Leeuwin
I also remembered that on the same day back in 2009, the wind was blowing fiercely and the rain was making for a miserable day. Luckily it was nearly lunchtime on the day of our 2021 visit so we were able to make a sensible decision and get out of the wind and rain before taking the walk up to the lighthouse on the headland.
Its interesting to note that back before 1900, the year of the Federation of Australian states, the eastern states of Australia were not interested in assisting with funding infrastructure projects in WA. Lighthouses to protect shipping heading to the eastern states seems like a good idea but it took until 1895 for the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse to be built; its current claim to fame is that it is the tallest lighthouse on mainland Australia. The tallest lighthouse in Australia pverall is in fact on King Island, Tasmania which is 9 metres taller than the one at Cape Leeuwin.
A cold, windy, rainy day in May at Cape Leeuwin gives visitors a good idea that the lighthouse keepers’ job was not an enviable one. Their houses and sheds are still part of the landscape today but the lighthouse light is now run automatically. A visit to the on-site museum later in the day also revealed that tragedy was often just round the corner as this lighthouse protected a treacherous coastline for sailing ships needing to round the cape, often in hideous weather. Perhaps the saddest story was the incident in 1945 when a rogue wave washed 10 sailors off the deck of HMAS Nizam, 11 miles off the cape. Despite an extensive search, the sailors were never seen again. You had to be a seriously dedicated individual to be one of three lighthouse keepers that took any of the three shifts a day looking after the lighthouse. The last hardy soul retired in 1992.
The first European ship to report on this area was in 1622 when the Dutch ship Leeuwin (lioness) visited this area and attempted to chart the coastline. Australia’s most famous sailor and navigator, Matthew Flinders, came to this part of the coast of Western Australia in 1801 when he was circumnavigating the continent. Flinders knew that this area had been known to the Dutch as Leeuwin’s land and so he generously called it ‘Cape Leeuwin’. The Bay around the corner from Cape Leeuwin is today deservedly called Flinders Bay.
We made it to the lookout next to the lighthouse and admired the misty views out over the ocean, attempting to spot the meeting point of the two oceans which surely should have been marked by ‘buoys’ or perhaps red tape floating on the waves to mark the convergence. It was left to our imagination.
On the path up to the lighthouse, I passed a curious sculpture of a cow but I was too intent on keeping my head out of the wind and rain to take much notice. On the way back down from inspecting the lighthouse, I decided to have a good look. This appeared to be the sculpture of a ‘pirate cow’ sitting on a box, fully equipped with nose and ear rings, a hook in place of a missing hoof (cow sword-fight damage), a parrot sitting on his horn and best of all, eyelashes to die for. It was so mesmerizingly non sensical, I decided it was worth the trip alone, just to have a look at a pirate cow, scanning the horizon for, presumably, shipwrecked cows.
My astonishment at the pirate-cow was just an example of how I had just not been keeping up with changes in the art world over the last ten years. The year after my last visit to the area in 2009, the ‘Cowparade’ movement’ had arrived in Margaret River involving 80 sculptures of cows scattered around the region. The name of the pirate cow was ‘Moorine Marauder’; the locals clearly had a lot of fun in the process and this ‘pasteurised pirate’ was kept on to provide a few laughs for future visitors to Cape Leeuwin.
We spent some time having a look around the Museum on site and it was a well-researched and interesting collection of stories and memorabilia of the history of the lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin. Below are two stories of local shipwrecks from the walls of this museum. The first one is the story of the wreck of SS Pericles that sank in less than two hours after striking a rock in 1910 . Everybody escaped in the life-boats except for the ship’s cat The photo shows the life boast scattered along a nearby beach at Cape Leeuwin.