At the northern end of the Pittwater Peninsula, Barrenjoey Headland commands the entrance to Broken Bay, the Hawkesbury River and The Pittwater. Throughout the 19th century The Pittwater (see my separate review) was an important shipping route giving access to Sydney, used by legitimate traders and smugglers alike. It also provided temporary safe anchorage for passing ships seeking to escape a storm. Safe access to it from the ocean was an imperative.
Such were the priorities of the day that rather than first building a lighthouse to assist in the safe passage of ships, a customs presence was first established at the base of the Barrenjoey Headland in 1843 to deal with smugglers, whose landing of illicit alcoholic beverages had gotten out of hand.
It was not until 12 years later, in 1855, that a signal lamp was first displayed on top of the Barrenjoey Headland. In 1868 two wooden lighthouses, called Stewart Towers, were constructed, one at either end of the headland to guide ships in.
The lighthouse, which stands today, was designed by James Barnett, colonial architect, and began operating on 1 August 1881. Its original light was a non-flashing, red, kerosene 700 candle-power light. In 1932 this was replaced by an auto-flashing acetylene gas powered white light with a 6,000 candle-power strength. The automation of the light sadly did the lighthouse keepers out of a job (as it did everywhere) and a home.
The adjacent keeper’s cottages soon fell into a state of disrepair, hastened on by the anti-social activities of vandals and assorted louts. The cottages were reoccupied in 1960 and have more recently been restored to form part of the lighthouse museum (unoccupied again).
In 1972 the light was replaced with a 75,000 candle-power electrified affair.
About 50 metres along a short extension of the walk up to the lighthouse and along the headland is the grave of the first head lighthouse keeper, George Mulhall.
According to the graveside signage, the death of George Mulhall is one of the “Tales from Barranjoey” written by Jervis Sparks (the lighthouse ‘historian’). “On a stormy night in June, 1885, George Mulhall venturing out for more firewood, was struck down by a tremendous bolt of lightning, and as the journalism of that day recorded, was burnt to a cinder.” Mulhall’s death certificate stated (probably correctly) that he actually died from a stroke after 3 days of illness – no mention of lightening.
Mulhall’s son, George Junior, the second lighthouse keeper 1881-1891, was in fact stuck by lightening resulting in a badly burnt arm which Mr Sparks tells us ‘form that day was bound in snake-skin to ward off further celestial visitations’.
It is also reported (by the Sydney Morning Herald this time – not by Sparks!) that George Junior’s brother, an assistant keeper, was also killed, ‘almost entirely consumed’ by fire, when lightening hit one of the keepers houses in which he was staying on the evening of the 26 March 1888.
Apart from the unfortunate fate of its early keepers, what makes this lighthouse stand out and of particular interest to me is that it is not the standard white colour. It and the keepers cottages were built from sandstone quarried on site and have remained unpainted throughout, showcasing the beautiful original stone finishes.
While the lighthouse is of itself interesting the majority of visitors come up onto the headland for the stunning 360 degree views available to the Pittwater, the main part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (west), Broken Bay/ Central Coast (north), the coastline, including Palm Beach south-west towards the City and the Pacific Ocean(east) – see below.
Given the limited opening hours of the lighthouse, I was unable to time my visit such that I could avail of the tour offered. Most visitors find themselves in this position.
Getting to the Lighthouse
You need to walk.
While it is a short walk it does require a bit of effort on the part of the walker. The effort is richly rewarded with spectacular views both from along the walk and from the Lighthouse, when you get there. Barrenjoey was so named (actually Barrenjuee) by Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, and it translates from the local Aboriginal language to ‘little kangaroo’ or ‘wallaby’. There was no evidence of either here when I visited.
By way of slight diversion, if I may?
The fact that I did this walk when I did is evidence that senility is setting in (it’s probably to late for a mid-life crisis now) in that it was, for me, the beginning of what will be a coastal walk from Barrenjoey Headland to Cronulla Beach. Barrenjoey Headland is the northern most point of Sydney’s stunning Northern Beaches while Cronulla Beach (sadly perhaps best known to people as the site of nasty race riots in 2005) lies some 40 plus kms to the south of the city centre. The total length of the walk will be 100kms and up, depending on what detours I do and how far I venture into Sydney Harbour, in particular. The walk up to the lighthouse already added a few kilometres to the 100 on day one!
Back to the Barrenjoey walk.
Should you take the L90 bus (90 minutes) from Wynyard Station in the city you should alight at the Palm Beach Golf Club. The bus turns around for its return trip to the city a short distance after this, at the southern end of Palm Beach. Do not be tempted to get off the bus at the public wharf, a little before the golf club, with the intent on walking up to the golf course – it’s quite a climb on a busy, winding road. There is ample (expensive) paid parking at various points along Palm Beach and around the golf club should you chose to drive here.
From the bus stop, head towards Pittwater (left on alighting the bus) and within a minute you will be on the beautiful, sheltered Barrenjoey Beach. Walk along the beach, past the Boathouse (café/restaurant), or under it depending on the tidal situation, to some houses at the end of the beach. Here a sign will direct you inland a hundred metres or so to another sign where you will have to chose between two paths, each of which will bring you to the lighthouse.
Walking along the Barrenjoey Beach, whilst easy, is the most ‘dangerous’ part of the walk as there is a real risk you will be hit by an errant golf ball. While the Palm Beach Golf Club members are some of the richest people in Australia the quality of some of their golf strokes is inversely related to the size of their bank accounts. At least two balls crossed my head before plunging into the Pittwater estuary in the 10 minutes or so it took me to pass the golf course. This may explain when no one was sun bathing on this part of the otherwise beautiful beach.
Back to the walk and choosing which path to take to the lighthouse. The shorter (400-500m) path, called Smugglers Track (pictured above) is the steeper, and more exposed, of the two options and comprises mainly steps – a bit of a slog. The other path (Access Trail) is about twice as long and while there are a few steep parts it is a somewhat easier walk than Smugglers Track. Incidentally Smugglers Track was so named by customs officers who built the track in around 1850 so that they could identify, and later capture, those who sought to smuggle contraband (rum amongst other things) into Sydney via Broken Bay and the Pittwater. Other than a few chimney bricks and a sign marking the location of a former customs building, at the start of the walk, nothing remains to suggest that customs and smugglers were once active in this area.
Unless you have masochistic tendencies, as a number of walkers did – mainly young ones, I suggest you do as I did and take the longer path up and return via Smugglers Track. This loop walk is just over 2kms in length.
Either way, the views along the way to the main part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (west), Broken Bay/ Central Coast (north), the coastline, including Palm Beach (pictured below), south-west towards the City and the Pacific Ocean(east) are stunning and get better with each step upwards, as you pass through this small part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Certainly more than sufficient to take my mind of the incline.
I did the walk in December. Should you do it in winter, between May and August, keep a more active watch on the ocean and you may spot a whale or two passing by or frolicking in the water. If you have them, take your binoculars.
Note that there are no facilities on the Headland so take care of your ablutions before you set out on the walk. Also, take sufficient water and wear sturdy shoes and sunscreen. Strictly no smoking permitted.
If you want to go into the Barrenjoey Lighthouse which contains a small museum, it is only open on Sundays (11am – 3pm by tour only, $A5).
The exterior of the lighthouse and the Barrenjoey Headland can be visited, free of charge, at any time.