The fresh paint on Green Cape Lighthouse is dazzling in the sun. To the north rugged coastline juts away into a haze of sea spray, while to the south dense bushland stretches to the Victorian border and beyond.
From the lighthouse we’re heading north on a three day hike through Ben Boyd National Park to Boyd’s Tower––a lighthouse-like folly 31 kilometres away. The structures that bookend the hike give rise to its name: the Light to Light Walk. The track is well-marked and mostly level, taking in wind-pruned heathlands, dense melaleuca thickets, rainforest, rock platforms, dry eucalypt forest, rocky coves and sandy beaches. Plus there’s history, lots of history.
For example: Green Cape Lighthouse was inaugurated in 1883 ‘in the interests of the vast and increasing trade of these colonies’. Standing on a promontory that juts into the Tasman Sea it’s still an important aid for navigation, and although now fully automated, for many years three lightkeepers took four-hour shifts to keep the light running through the night. When they weren’t tending the beacon, they were repairing equipment, keeping records or attempting to protect their vegetable plots from the strong sea breeze. A lot might have changed since then but the view is still the same. Gannets and shearwaters still skim the restless sea, humpbacks and southern right whales pass by on their way south for Antarctic summer.
Together with my three companions – Yasmin, Kev and Benita – we set off through melaleuca and tea-tree thickets to the roar of the sea against the cliffs. A few hundred metres from the lighthouse we come across more history; a small clearing dotted with whitewashed stones. In 1886 the SS Ly-ee-moon struck the reef off Green Cape and broke up. The lightkeepers managed to rescue 14 people, but 72 drowned. The stones mark the graves of the 24 victims buried here, a reminder that ––even with a lighthouse––this remains a dangerous coast.
These sombre reflections begin to dissipate as we emerge into bright heathland. Tawny-crowned honeyeaters fossick in Banksia cones, pink-flowering boronias carpeting the ground. The closer the sandy trail comes to the wind-swept she-oaks near the cliffs, the lower the heathland becomes, a measure of the strength of the winds that often lash this coast.
Occasional markers with a lighthouse-and-tower logo indicate the route, until, about 2.5 kilometres from Green Cape, we turn towards the coast on a 4WD track, reaching Pulpit Rock car park in another 700 metres. Steps lead down to a narrow point overlooking a huge coffin-shaped rock. Fishermen cast into the swell, ignoring the plumes of spray from the waves heaving into the rock platform. Taking a seat in the shade of a wind-pruned melaleuca, we eat a snack and watch them pull in fish after fish after fish.
Retracing our steps to the turn-off, we soon leave heathland for taller eucalypt forest, the trail soft with she-oak needles, before plunging into shady stands of sweet pittosporum and blue olive-berry––rainforest species. This is to be a common vegetation pattern: the higher, more exposed heathy headlands descending into taller forest in the more fertile, sheltered gullies. It’s this constant variation––and the endless subtleties between them––that prevents the walk from ever becoming repetitious.
We cross the first of two small streams, a water skink scuttling into the shade of the sword sedge and king ferns. Near the second stream we encounter a lace monitor lumbering along the path like a dinosaur. It hastens––slowly––to a eucalypt and hauls itself up the trunk with its long curved claws, its wrinkled grey skin patterned with yellow spots and bands like a dreamtime painting. Only when it climbs higher can we appreciate its size; nearly two metres from tip to tail.
Seven kilometres from the lighthouse we arrive at Bittangabee Bay. The campsite on its southern side is accessible by car and busy with post-Christmas holiday makers. We pause just long enough to fill our water bottles from one of the two rainwater tanks.
More history: from 1880 to 1927 Bittangabee Bay was used to land supplies for the lighthouse, including the materials for its construction. Near the campground is the concrete shell of the storehouse used to stockpile the supplies for collection by the lightkeepers, who transported them to Green Cape on a horse-drawn tramway through the bush.
Edging further around the long, narrow bay, we cross a pitted purple-red rock platform to reach a small, sandy cove––the perfect place for a reviving swim.
Bobbing in the water, floating on her back, Yasmin points. ‘Look,’ she says. A pair of white-bellied sea eagles have set their wings to the breeze, patrolling the northern side of the bay in effortless sweeps.
Refreshed by the swim we continue around the bay, through tall, open forest, passing the stone foundations of a homestead, one of the many aborted attempts to settle this wild area. Crossing Bittangabee Creek, with its natural stone weir and swimming hole, we enter manna gum forest ringing with birdcall. Crossing another heathy headland gives us views back to the cruising sea eagles, and beyond, to the surprisingly distant lighthouse.
We follow a wide rock platform along the coast until a small cairn marks the return into dense melaleuca and she-oak. The track climbs and narrows before descending through low heathland to Hegarty’s Bay, our camp for the night (no facilities). The sloping, grassy campsites (marked with a sign) are a little past the bay, among the melaleuca, 11.5 kilometres from Green Cape Lighthouse. The ferocity and abundance of mosquitoes force an early night. We sleep to the sound of waves surging into the rocky bay.
In the morning Kev looks very pleased with his knee-high, green-and-red Victoria Bitter socks, which his shorts show off nicely. He strides ahead through the melaleuca, and we follow him to a rock platform leading to a small beach of tiny colourful shells.
About a kilometre from Hegarty’s Bay we enter burnt heathland. Vibrant new growth rises from beneath the black skeletons of hakeas. New sedges and lomandras burst from the scorched earth among a profusion of small wildflowers – fringe lilies, hyacinth orchids, bluebells, everlastings and daisies. Kangaroos and swamp wallabies browse the new growth, standing to watch us pass. The burnt area stretches for about three kilometres, until we descend into brown stringybarks near Saltwater Creek.
Leaving the forest we walk onto a broad, crescent of beach. Surfers paddle out through small waves and fishermen stand on the rocks. Saltwater Creek, at the northern end of the beach (17.5 kilometres from Green Cape Lighthouse), is another popular campsite accessible by car and a chance to replenish water supplies from rainwater tanks.
The trail continues on the north side of Saltwater Creek through a disturbed area of former farmland. About a kilometre from Saltwater we emerge onto another broad, purple rock platform beside the heaving sea. After a few hundred metres we climb back through chest-high melaleuca to heathland dotted with gnarled old saw Banksias, with bark like crusted lava. After three kilometres we come to yet another rock platform beside the sea, this one flat and covered with fragments of reddish rock like a scoria tennis court.
Rocks are a feature of the track, and the source of some excitement for geologists. They include a type known as ‘Devonian’ laid down between 410 and 345 million years ago––among the oldest in southeast Australia. But it’s their variety, shape and colour that will interest most hikers: immense tongues of rock, folded and twisted through the eons, pitted and worn by the elements, shattered and fissured like clumps of dried mud.
We eat lunch on one such rock platform, looking over the white-caps to Mowarry Point, a rocky headland about a kilometre ahead. Kevin discovers the first tick, which leads to a general bout of self-inspection, in which four more are discovered (but we find only two more for the rest of the trip).
Resuming along the shore, over smooth, orange lichen-covered rocks, we soon turn back inland and over another heathy headland before entering more melaleuca. Near Mowarry Point we look past sloping tongues of reddish rock to Boyd’s Tower guarding the headland in the blue distance like a medieval fort. ‘Dolphins!’ cries Benita, and a moment later we see a pod darting and leaping in the surf just off the coast. They seem to circle and leap for the sheer joy of it and we watch them until they sheer off and out of sight to the south.
Shortly after, the trail enters old farmland, red-necked wallabies enjoying the sea views from the green, sloping paddocks. We had been looking for a sign that indicated the Mowarry Point campsite, and being well past the point we concluded that we had missed it. Knowing the official campsite had no facilities, we decided to camp in the paddocks where we could at least enjoy a view and a breeze that would keep the mosquitoes at bay (it didn’t). We pitched our tents in the lee of some wind-swept shrubs that overlooked a long finger of rock pointing out to sea.
It had only been another 11.5 kilometre day so there was still plenty of time for exploring. Walking through a nearby grove of coast banksias, yellow-tailed black cockatoos cawing and flapping nervously at a white-bellied sea eagle overhead, we discover a private paradise: a small, sheltered sandy beach. It’s the perfect place to while away the afternoon, lying on the warm sand, watching a seal just offshore, circling and diving, occasionally raising a flipper in a lazy wave. After dinner, as the sun sets in the forested hills, we play charades. Benita’s impression of a submarine has us laughing so hard we scare the wallabies.
Our final day starts with drizzle. We locate the track at the edge of the grassy area, the trail markers partly obscured by kunzea regrowth. Kangaroos graze in the open areas, straightening as we walk by, continuing to chew. At the western edge of the former farmland, where the forest restarts, is a sign marked Mowarry Point, even through, confusingly, the point is 1.5 kilometres further east. Shortly after entering the open, dry eucalypt forest, we pass a faint trail leading down to a small beach (this, rangers later tell us, is the ‘official’ Mowarry Point campsite – apparently a great place to stay).
We soon cross a creek, the trail turning inland before climbing to the Mowarry Point parking area. We head along the 4WD track towards Leather Jacket Bay through large manna gums and she-oaks, this section having some of the only hills on the walk. After 1.5 kilometres we ignore the unmarked track on our right (which dead-ends at the coast) and continue straight, descending to cross another creek then climbing steeply through open forest with a dense ground story of sedges and shrubs, all vibrant with the sun’s return. The 4WD track then descends through drier box forest, the sound of surf growing louder until we reach Leather Jacket Bay.
The bay is rough and rocky, its smooth boulders daubed neon orange by lichen. It’s beautiful but unsuitable for swimming, so we have a dip in the small, sandy inlet. Nearby there’s a potential campsite in a grassy clearing among the sweet pittosporum and Banksia, but no other facilities.
The trail continues––now foot-traffic only––on the north side of the inlet (look for the Light to Light marker). It winds through lovely mixed forest just behind the coast, butterflies flitting through beams of sunshine. About a kilometre from Leather Jacket Bay we re-enter heathland, coming to a T-intersection with a 4WD track after 500 metres. Turning left, away from the coast (turning right leads a short distance to a melaleuca thicket), we follow markers through several turns until the trail resumes parallel to the coast, with the occasional view of Boyd’s Tower guarding the promontory ahead, still blue and hazy in the distance.
Steps lead to a dry riverbed beside a rocky cove, the path, slightly indistinct, continuing on the other side of the riverbed, lined with pale-flowering westringia shrubs. We cross a second cove on pitted red-rock platforms, which make a striking colour contrast against the grey-blue sea. The trail continues along the cliff, skirting the coastline, passing over a large midden studded with shells and bones. In a wispy tangle of melaleuca the sunlight reaches the ground in liquid pools, before we enter taller forest scattered with hyacinth orchids, the path strewn with Banksia cone fragments from the yellow-tailed black cockatoos in the trees above.
And then suddenly stairs lead up to Boyd Tower car park. The tower that marks the end of the walk is another 300 metres towards the coast along a sealed track. Signboards inform us Benjamin Boyd was a Scottish entrepreneur who arrived in NSW in 1842 determined to create an empire. Armed with little more than his determination, he quickly became one of the largest landowners in the colony. With his business interests expanding into whaling and shipping he began work on the tower in 1846, which he planned as a private lighthouse. Never one to do things by halves, he had special sandstone shipped in from Sydney and a team of skilled masons to craft the 23 metre structure, carving Boyd’s name in giant letters on all four sides. His plan for a lighthouse was refused by the authorities, but he successfully adapted the tower as a whale-spotting platform, giving his teams of whalers an advantage over their competitors. But by 1849 Boyd’s fortunes had waned, so much so that he abandoned his Australian interests to try and renew his fortune on the Californian goldfields.
We touch the tower’s gritty, pinkish stone, feeling the pockmarks of chisel-blows, then walk a short distance to look back along the wild coast. Whatever became of Boyd, he couldn’t have wished for a better legacy than this.
This article originally appeared in Wild 113.