Live in lighthouse keepers were phased out in Australia in 1996, but we still thought it’d be funny to ask one what the ten worst things about living in a tube were.
We tracked down veteran lighthouse keeper, Mark Sheriff, to find out what drove him up the curvy walls, but sadly he turned out to be a self-described ‘eternal optimist. “I loved living in a lighthouse and I’d do it all again tomorrow for nothing.” Mark was so smitten by his 20-odd years experience with lighthouses that we had to vainly suggest things that might be annoying.
I’m a bit of an optimist, so the worst things for other people—I find them just part of my life, y’know? Even if it was blowing 30 knots for three weeks straight from the southeast, I thought, ‘well this is bloody nice isn’t it?’ And I’d shut the door at the end of the day and fill the bath up and sink me head under it. So I sort of coped with wind.
Probably the biggest thing was people. Pesky tourists. But, you know, I used to give them a run for their money. I learnt that if there was a knock at the door you never say, ‘Coming!’ because what they’d think was, ‘Oh! We can come in!’ and I’d end up with the house full of bloody people. It was almost like a sideshow; I’d get up in the morning and they’d all be lined up along the fence, and sometimes I’d be nude, having a quick piss, and I’d have a complete conversation with these people—in the nude—on the other side of the fence. They’d be the early starters, y’know? And I’d think, ‘Well, this is going to turn into a good day.’
This is another thing that other keepers might’ve found challenging. I know a lot of keepers never got along with different families. Initially you had three keepers at one station, then it went down to two, and then there were one-man stations. I was on a lot of one-man stations, but when I started I was on a two-man station. You’d work all day with this bloke and then when you knocked off you were his neighbuor. I was never struck by the personal conflict that a lot of keepers were. Sometimes they literally hated each other.
Sometimes keepers were bothered by the office or by bureaucracy. You can imagine what that’d be like. You’re stuck on this island, this remote outpost, and once a year you’d have an inspection, y’know? So you’d normally have a couple of busy weeks bringing the place up to standard. Never bothered me, personally. But if you were one of these blokes who just went fishing and surfing, your place fell down and then the inspectors would roll around.
Another thing some people might not have liked is painting. You paint a lot when you’re a lighthouse keeper. You painted, painted, painted. If it stayed still you’d paint it; if it moved you’d oil it. If you don’t like painting I guarantee you wouldn’t like to be a lighthouse keeper. And if you don’t like heights you couldn’t do the job either.
Give me a bloody break. Lighthouse keepers aren’t lonely, they love being on their own—when they were. Remember they had the general population annoying them on visitor’s days—Tuesdays and Thursdays. The thing about lighthouse keepers is they’re great pervs, they loved perving on all the chicks that would come visit their big phallic-symbol tower. They’d keep the windows squeaky clean and have their binoculars for scouting the beach. All these things I’m telling you, they don’t necessarily apply to me. I was a good, honest keeper… but I did have the occasional gawk. I was in was Cape Byron Bay, which is sort of the jewel in the crown. God, you’d walk out the door and someone’s doing the ‘downward dog’. It’s all happening there.
Boredom? Give me a break! I never had a bored day in my life. I remember once I had a wet week at Green Cape and I got all my lawnmowers lined up and I painted them zebra-stripe. That’s an example of the sort of things lighthouse keepers do to keep themselves entertained. Keepers are never bored.
Sometimes keepers might drink too much, and that can be a bit of a worry. Becoming a drunk was a definite hazard. I didn’t have that problem but some did.
Now UV rays, I always safeguarded against UV rays with white zinc or a hat or a long-sleeved shirt, but it’s definitely an occupational hazard, y’know? You’re out there in the weather all the time; no different to being on a ship, a lighthouse is like a ship. But yeah, sun damage: you bloody betcha.
Running out of Stores
Oh, running out of stores! Being out of town, being on an island, miles from the general store, and suddenly you run out of eggs? You don’t want that. You have to keep a good pantry and keep it organised. But you know, if I ran out of eggs I just thought, ‘I didn’t really want eggs anyway,’ you know what I mean? You have to be an optimist. It’s survival skill. I loved and cherished everything: the loneliness, the boredom, the wind, all of it. I’ve lived in a dozen lighthouses from the Torres Strait to the Bass Strait and I’ve loved every second of it.