Conversations

Lighthouse Bound: Six months on a remote island without a soul in sight

By October 31, 2019 No Comments

Moving to a remote part of Tasmania’s south coast to be the only inhabitants of a wild and woolly isle might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for the caretakers of Maatsuyker Island, Hannah Sutton and Grant Ryan, it has been a six-month adventure that has given them a rare insight into the profound importance of the simple joys in life.

Top:  Hannah and Grant @lighthousebound
Bottom: The very few buildings on Maatsuyker Island.

We talk to the courageous couple about the highs and lows of taking on such a mammoth task.

LU: Can you tell us a bit about both your backgrounds and what you were doing before you moved to Maatsuyker Island off the remote south coast of Tasmania?

H: Grant owned his own fire sprinkler business in Perth and I was living in Indonesia doing research and sustainability projects. Nine months before our stint we sold everything (including Grant’s business) and packed all our belongings into our troopy and set off driving around Australia, exploring the incredible coastline. We’ve converted our troopy to run on waste vegetable oil so we stopped off at a fair few fish ‘n’ chips shops along the way!

LU: How did life lead you there? Were you formally involved in wildlife care-taking or park ranging?

H: We answered to an article we saw published – sent in our applications and crossed our fingers for the best. I guess a passion for open ocean sailing and exploring untouched and isolated areas of the world is what inspired us to apply.

“…a passion for open ocean sailing and exploring untouched and isolated areas of the world is what inspired us to apply.”

LU: Your roles were official caretakers of the island… Can you tell us about some of your responsibilities? What does a typical day look like?

H: Our main responsibilities are ensuring the general maintenance and upkeep of the island and to provide a presence on the island.

Every day we wake up and the scene changes. Fog, rainbows, sunshine, gale-force winds, incredible cloud formations, beautiful sunrises, hail, rain blown vertical from strong winds, still quiet days, sea mist – you name it!

Our day begins at 6am when we get up rain, hail or shine and take the first weather observations for the Bureau of Meteorology. We hold tight to the handrail of the lighthouse one step at a time, careful not to let the strong, sometimes-86-knot-winds sweep us off our feet for swell check, clouds types and heights, wind direction and visibility. We then layer up and walk to the other end of the island checking the track for any fallen trees or branches blown over by the strong winds.

Porridge and hot tea when we return home helps defrost the body as we sit and listen in to the friendly folks at Tasmaritime delivering the weather forecast for the coming days. We check in with them each day, grateful for a chance to chat with the outer world.

Soon enough 9am comes around and it’s time for the second weather observations for the day. The wet weather gear goes back on and we grip the handrail again. This time we also take the rainfall readings, dry bulb and wet bulb readings as well as minimum and maximum readings from the Stevenson screen.

The rest of the day we leave up to the weather gods. There’s never a dull moment as we upkeep the heritage buildings, monitor the power systems (diesel generator and solar power), watch the shearwaters come and go, listen to the howls of the seals, clear out the kms and kms of drains, mow the lawns (this can take three days!), painting and more!

Top to bottom:  Taking care of the lawns; breakfast in the back of the island’s truck “Dave”; early morning weather observations.

“Allowing yourself time to watch the clouds change and float by, to follow the pink breasted bird that beckons you along the path or to watch the seeds you’ve planted grow into tasty treats.”

LU: There are bound to be many challenges taking on a role like this. What have been the biggest, physically and emotionally?

H: It’s important to note that this stint is not a holiday. It is hard work. As it is surrounded by water and is often humid, the old heritage houses accumulate mould and so one of our roles is to de-mould the houses. This can take a few days to do, getting into every crevice and wiping down the walls and ceilings.

There are 16kms of mowing in total on the island and as the paths are wide enough to accommodate the island’s car “Dave”. It takes about four trips up and back to mow each section of the path. Then of course there’s the areas surrounding the houses and garage, lighthouse and garden! It takes a couple of days, each with a mower in hand. Great exercise! And next to the paths are drains which also need to be cleared out. This is not a glamorous or easy task and is best done during a downpour of rain to make it easier! But we always try to make fun out of the less-fun jobs.

Funnily enough our only fight on this island was related to chocolate. We bought 15 kgs of organic, sugar-free, dairy-free dark chocolate thinking we would take the opportunity to cut out processed sugars from our diet. However, at resupply our families sent over delicious sugary chocolate. It was something that made our taste buds dance. There were arguments surrounding whether or not the chocolate was divided up evenly.

Top to bottom: Training with Dave and Di @mastersofmaatsuyker; the lighthouse; waving to a boat on the horizon; a local seal.
Below: Hannah the homo sapien.

LU: You committed to six months of isolation. Did you have to take provisions for the whole period?

H: The island is only really accessible by helicopter and is one of the most isolated areas in Australia. It is Australia’s southernmost lighthouse station and while there is an anchorage it is in an area highly populated with seals and is not a safe anchorage. During our time here we have had a handful of visits and have spent most of the time just enjoying each other’s company. To put it this way, it is so isolated that when we hear a helicopter, see a plane or even a boat on the horizon we immediately run out with our hi vis on and try to wave to them to say hello. It becomes the peak of excitement for the day even though we only see the fellow humans as specs in the distance.

But we are not lonely. While the island may be isolated the community that surrounds it is incredibly warm and welcoming. Friends of Maatsuyker Island are a group of dedicated individuals who volunteer their time to the upkeep of the island. And of course Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife are always here for us and make sure we are going well and have everything we need. We also check in daily with the volunteers at Tasmaritime who provide weather updates three times a day to marine vessels and are always up for a chat. We are proud to be part of the magical community that surrounds this island.

For the provisions we bought all our provisions for the entire six months. We were only allowed to bring 700kgs between both of us for everything – food, clothes, hobbies, etc. We were pretty cautious to make sure we didn’t forget anything, but as we have realised here on the island if you forget things, you make do. All you really need is some warm clothes (which you can wear over and over again – no one will judge!), some toiletries, toilet paper, some bits and pieces for entertainment and some staple foods.

LU: Can you describe the island for us?
H: There are shearwaters, melaleucas, antechinus, pigface, pepperberry trees, Australian and New Zealand fur seals, sometimes elephant seals, whales, red breasted robins and two homo sapiens.

In terms of man-made structures, there’s the lighthouse, three houses – known as Q1, Q2 and Q3, and they all used to belong to the various lighthouse keepers and their families. There are leftover chicken coops, and other buildings that used to have generators and machines in place when the island used to be serviced by boats and the cargo had to be hauled up the steep cliffs, but now the island is serviced by helicopters, the buildings and the old machines inside are a part of the island’s heritage.

“This island has taught us a lot, but most importantly it’s taught us to just ‘be’. Be patient, content, creative, thrifty, flexible, motivated, understanding, present, hardworking and grateful.”

LU: What are some of the things you have missed about conventional living that you previously took for granted?

H: Apart from friends and family, our answer would be nothing. Honestly. Before the stint we were minimalistic and did not have many “things” we couldn’t live without. You don’t need much in life. The garden provides us not only with plenty of food and nutrition but also entertainment and enjoyment.

But we have missed the beach. We spent the nine months leading up to this stint driving around the coast of Australia living out of our van and swimming at every opportunity we had. While Maatsuyker is an island, there are no real places to swim and due to security reasons it is not allowed. So we are excited to take a dive in the salty water when our time here is up.

I suppose one thing we did miss about conventional living was being able to vote. We tried every option possible but a postal vote simply didn’t work unless it was delivered by helicopter – a costly exercise.

LU: What are some of the things you haven’t missed? Are there things you could get used to living without?

H: Queues, haircuts (includes beards of course), peak-hour traffic, supermarkets, pollution, billboards, and TV (not that we have ever had one anyway).

LU: What are some of the simple joys you are taking more notice of since being on Maatsuyker?

H: This island has taught us a lot, but most importantly it’s taught us to just ‘be’. Be patient, content, creative, thrifty, flexible, motivated, understanding, present, hardworking and grateful.

Another great joy is gardening and cooking. We germinate the seeds, watch them grow, and if we’re lucky pick the produce, then save the seeds for the next season’s garden. You appreciate what sits on your plate so much more, especially the wonky carrots and funky looking tomatoes! Everything that you grow is saved and cherished. The carrot tops are turned into pesto, cucumbers into pickles, cabbage into sauerkraut, the excess tomatoes become relish or passata, the leftover bits of veggies become veggie stock or compost. The bread is freshly baked – and Grant has really mastered his GF recipe! As we moved into our van we gave up our garden and ability to grow things so this was a beautiful delight for us. When we first arrived we were so also excited about having a full sized bed, an oven, a toilet and a shower! During our months on the road we had learnt to live without so much that coming into this house felt like luxury. (This was much to the entertainment of the previous caretakers, I’m sure!)

LU: We see you have set up some little luxuries such as a projector for movie night. What are some of the other creative and fun ways you are keeping yourselves entertained?

H: It’s the small joys in life that make moments memorable and ones you will cherish forever. You have time to get a little creative with adventures, picnics or “date nights”. Date nights have got creative with picnics on the balcony of the lighthouse, a glass of wine or a home-brew in hand as we toast to another glorious sunset. Whenever there is a clear night without the threat of rain we would put the mattress in the back of Dave – Australia’s southernmost car – and we would have a night under the stars or sometimes we are treated to an aurora. We would have hot water bottles, a thermos full of hot chocolate and even a heater blanket at the ready to keep us toasty throughout the night. We wake to dew settled on our blankets, the sounds of the shearwaters leaving for the day in the thousands and the sun beginning to peak over the mountains. A truly magical experience.

We also love to brew beer and it is a long tradition on the island. We have a table tennis table set up inside which is a bit of fun, ukulele, reading books, playing cards, painting, cooking etc etc are our favourite past times.

Crocheting also keeps me busy. My more recent project was weaving the leftover wool from previous caretakers and lighthouse keepers into a blanket, which was like weaving in the experiences and inputs of dedicated individuals together. A nice wholesome project.

There is also a nudey-run tradition where you run from one end of the island to the other with only two pairs of socks and shoes allowed. It was fun to expose ourselves to the elements, and is something that is not always acceptable back in “reality”. We did this on the winter solstice, so it was pretty darn cold!

Even cloud watching has become a really nice pastime for us. We report on the cloud types, directions and heights twice everyday so tend to gaze towards the skies watching them pass by.

Top to bottom:  Aurora Australis; homegrown produce; Grant enjoying some home-brew.

LU: What does a Life Unhurried mean to you?

H: Decluttering your life to focus and give time to what is most important. Allowing yourself time to watch the clouds change and float by, to follow the pink breasted bird that beckons you along the path or to watch the seeds you’ve planted grow into tasty treats. Nature is a constant source of entertainment and wonder.

Thank you to Hannah and Grant for all of the photos in this story @lighthousebound

Katie Gannon

Katie Gannon

Triple threat Katie has leapfrogged from running her own eco-conscious fashion label to writing and now managing graphic design projects across a gamut of industries from her back porch in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, from branding and logos through to websites, ebooks a magazines, right up to poster and billboard concepts.