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Cape Willoughby Lighthouse on Kangaroo Island

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by Paula McManus (subscribe)
Photography obsessed writer and urban explorer. Lover of nature, art and long weekends. Adelaide, South Australia. https://www.facebook.com/paula.mcmanus1
Published January 14th 2017
South Australia's First Lighthouse
The lighthouse at Cape Willoughby, on the far eastern coast of Kangaroo Island, was the first to be built in South Australia. It was erected in 1852 and was originally known as the Sturt Light, named after explorer Captain Charles Sturt.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island (©paula mcmanus)


Shipping was the only means of transport in the early days of the new South Australian colony. The lighthouse played a vitally important role for the ships that navigated the treacherous and often turbulent waters of Backstairs Passage.

Backstairs Passage is the area of water between the Fleurieu Peninsula on the mainland and Kangaroo Island and, at its narrowest point, is 14kms wide. The stretch of water was named by Matthew Flinders on 7 April 1802 during an exploration and mapping voyage of the coastline of South Australia. Flinders noted that this body of water was separate from Investigator Strait and that "it forms a private entrance, as it were, to the two gulphs; and I named it Back-stairs Passage".

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island (©paula mcmanus)


The lighthouse was officially opened in January 1852 and was manned by 3 lightkeepers who worked 24 hours a day to make sure the light was working 7 days a week.

The lighthouse, located within the Cape Willoughby Conservation Park, took 2 years to build. Granite was mined from a cleft in the cliff at a nearby gully - Devils Kitchen. Holes were hand drilled into the rock walls of the gully. The holes were filled with wood, which would get wet and then expand. This would cause the rock to crack, be mined and then be used for the lighthouse construction. The lighthouse walls are 1.4 metres thick at the base, 0.86 metres at the top. The tower stands at 20.5 metres high (67 feet, 3 inches) and is circular to ease wind resistance.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse and Devils Kitchen quarry, Kangaroo Island (©paula mcmanus)


The original lights were a combination of 15 wick oil burner lamps powered by a weight driven motor. The light flashed once every 1 and a half minutes.

The lights received an upgrade in 1912 and then again in 1925. The new and modern light installed in 1925 was a pressurised incandescent kerosene lantern with a three-ton revolving Fresnel lens, which floated in a bath of mercury to reduce friction when turning. The weights which drove it needed to be wound up every couple of hours to keep it running smoothly. Unfortunately, the mercury proved to be a health hazard to the lightkeepers and this system was replaced in 1959 by two diesel powered generators.

This historic and iconic lighthouse nearly met its demise in 1974 when it was deemed not worthy of the upkeep and maintenance and that it was not aesthetically pleasing. Talks of replacing the lighthouse were thankfully halted and our history was restored. The sheer number of tourists who visit the site each year is an indication that the decision to keep the original lighthouse was a good one.

Cape Willoughby Lightstation was one of the last manned lighthouses in Australia. It was officially automated (unmanned) in 1992.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island (©paula mcmanus)


Although the lighthouse operated to prevent shipwrecks, a number of ships and boats did unfortunately sink and many lives were lost. There are more than 80 wrecks littered around the Island coastline and remnants can still be found in the area.

In June 1942, it was reported that a RAAF Anson W2425 bomber aeroplane was "forced down" into the sea off Cape Willoughby. Little is known of the incident apart from the fact that all of the crew perished and that the wreckage was never recovered.

The lightkeepers lived at the lighthouse with their families and the original houses are now available to be booked as tourist accommodation. Their original homes were in a valley, approximately half a kilometre from the lighthouse. The original settlement offered more protection from the elements and was a safer landing spot for supply boats. Due to deterioration, the homes were rebuilt on the cliff top adjacent to the lighthouse, where they still stand today.

A visit to the Lighthouse and the Conservation Park gives you a great opportunity to learn about our State's early settlers and the harsh environments that they lived and worked in.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island (©paula mcmanus)


The Conservation Park is open 7 days a week from sunrise to sunset (except Christmas Day). There's a cafe with a magnificent view! Stop in for something to eat and drink and spend a while exploring this beautiful end of the Island.

This park is closed on days of Catastrophic Fire Danger and may be closed on days of Extreme Fire Danger.

Tune in to Kangaroo Island's radio station to listen to some great music as well as receive the the latest updates and information on fire safety.

The Cape Willoughby Conservation Park Visitor Centre is open Thursday to Monday from 9am to 3.30pm and Lighthouse tours run every day during school holidays and Thursday to Monday outside of school holidays. A small fee is charged to enter the lighthouse area and also to climb inside the lighthouse.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island (©paula mcmanus)


The lighthouse is 17kms from Pennesahw and 40kms from Kingscote. The road to the lighthouse is dirt, but is accessible for any type of passenger vehicle. Drive to the conditions and please take care and watch for the local wildlife.

A visit to Kangaroo Island just isn't complete until you include a visit to this iconic and stately lighthouse.

You can get to Kangaroo Island from mainland South Australia on the SeaLink ferry. This vehicle and passenger ferry operates daily (except Christmas Day) between Cape Jervis (two hours south of Adelaide) and Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. The boat journey takes just 45 minutes.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island
Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, Kangaroo Island (©paula mcmanus)
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Why? Visit South Australia's first lighthouse
When: Thursday through to Monday: 11.30am, 12.30pm, 2pm. Daily during school holidays: 11.30am, 12.30pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm
Where: Kangaroo Island
Cost: Self-guided tour $3. Adult $16. Concession $13/ Child $10. Family (2 adults & 2 children OR 1 adult and 3 children) $42. School group (per student, no min people) $9. Adult group (per adult, min 10 people) $14.
Your Comment
Great story and beautiful photos Paula, congratulations on your gold!
by Dave Walsh (score: 4|10448) 307 days ago
Stunning photos Paula!
by Lorraine A (score: 3|1566) 307 days ago
Well done Paula, well deserved. A great place to visit, and with the new cafe within walking distance, everything is now catered for
.
by Steve Hudson (score: 3|1240) 306 days ago
I love the Island and the lighthouse Paula but your photos are absolutely stunning as usual!
by Kate Blake (score: 2|723) 307 days ago
Stop at Dudley Winery on the way too - fabulous spot. Try their unique golf challenge!
by Mike. (score: 0|7) 303 days ago
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