Monday, August 9, 2010

Stuart Buchanan - the light of Bustard Head

G'DAY, once again, people. Sorry for the lack of blogs over the last couple of months, but I've been away a bit and pretty busy, including my annual month-long stint caretaking Bustard Head Light Station for my old sailing and drinking mate, author and former lighthouse keeper Stuart Buchanan.
And the following blog is about that old mate and I'll tell you why in a minute.
Stuart is one of the toughest, most uncompromising blokes I've ever known.
We're good mates, but if we are stuck together on his yacht, Pluto, for more than a couple of weeks, then things could turn nasty.
If he wasn't such a tough nut the 152-year-old Bustard Head Light Station, between Bundaberg and Gladstone, would be no more.
Oh! Sure! The grand old lighthouse would be still standing on the point, flashing out its warning to passing ships. But the two cottages which held the lightkeepers, their wives and kids and helpers, and the four work sheds, would have been demolished and the grounds once again covered with scrub, unfortunately a lot of it not natural to that beautiful Aussie area.
Stuart and his wife, Shirley, were lightkeepers there from 1974-1981 and grew to love the place. But when lighthouses became automatic in the 80s and stations were de-manned around Australia, something had to give. In the case of Bustard Head, it was theft and absolutely destructive vandalism that eventually destroyed the station.
The cottages and sheds were wrecked, with walls, roofs and floors smashed and anything of value, like the stainless steel guttering and beautiful rosewood doors, stolen. You see, it's not hard to act like an idiot in an isolated place like Bustard Head, which can only be reached by boat, helicopter or the LARCs of the excellent tourist trips of the 1770 Environmental Tours, which travel up from Town of 1770 several times a week.
Stuart and Shirley had seen the destruction growing as they sailed Pluto up the Queensland coast in the 90s, and by the late 1990s Stuart decided he was going to restore the station to its original condition even though authorities had decided to clear the station of the wreckage and leave it to nature to take over.
It took Stuart several years to fight bureaucrats and the system before he finally gained permission for restoration. When permission finally came it took him three years to rebuild the station to better than its former glory. He did it all for nothing, working daylight 'till dark seven days a week.
Shirley even put $130,000 of her own money into the restoration, which I believe she will never fully recover. Read Stuart's book, Light of Their Lives, if you want to see the full story of the trouble they had.
There was lots of volunteer help along the way, particularly by another former lightkeeper, Dudley Fulton (pictured wearing sunglass beside Stuart), who worked daylight to dark, seven days a week with Stuart for the last year of Stuart's three-year job.
But as I said Stuart is so tough and so uncompromising that many volunteers simply couldn't cop the discipline and took off after a couple of days.
I used to go up every couple of months for a week or two to help out. One time I got off the LARC only to find Stuart looking like a tired old man. He said he wasn't feeling well but was still working daylight to dark, seven days a week.
I made him get on the LARC and see a doctor back in Agnes Water. He returned with a packet of pills, said he had Ross River Fever, and kept on working.
How tough was he with the volunteers? One day, with just the two of us putting up fibro wall panels on opposite sides of the front cottage, I bent a nail on the fibro sheet which I was hammering on to a door frame. I swore, but it wouldn't matter because the bent nail would have been hidden forever once I put the architrave (the moulding board) over the fibro around the door frame. Hidden for-bloody-ever.
A few seconds later Stuart appeared.
"What were you swearing at?" he said.
"Nothing," said I. He looked around the fibro.
"You bent a nail," he said. "Get it out and straighten it."
"Like hell," said I. "It will be behind the architrave and hidden forever."
"Get it out," he demanded.
"Get stuffed," said I and stormed out into the front yard.
Stuart extracted the nail, straightened it out and hammered it back in.
I came back, hammered the architrave around the door frame and hid the formerly bent nail forever.
But if he wasn't like that Bustard Head would today have a lighthouse, but not a lighthouse station, which now attracts thousands of visitors a year via LARC.
He is a tough, tough bloke and no doubt that's what saved his life back in June this year.
I and my wife, Jan, had just arrived at the lightstation on June 2 to caretake the place for a month, as we do each year, when we got some very bad news from Brisbane.
The day before, Stuart had been working on Pluto in the Scarborough marina when he got a splitting headache, rang Shirley and said he could not drive home that night, but would sleep on the boat and be home in the morning. When he didn't call next day, Shirley rang the club and asked for someone to take a look for Stuart on Pluto.
They found him passed out in the cabin and very, very cold. He had had a stroke the night before. They thought he was dead.
He was rushed to Brisbane General Hospital where it was first thought there was no hope for his survival. But hours later there was a very slight improvement and it was decided to operate.
There followed many weeks of severe pain in intensive care and another operation, but he is making a slow - slow and painful - recovery, which I am sure would not be the case if Stuart Buchanan was not one very, very tough man.
His stroke left a big hole in the list of Bustard Head caretakers - mainly retired blokes like me and all volunteers - because Stuart and Shirley used to caretake for anything from three to four months a year.
It's not an easy job, particularly in summer when Stuart and Shirley used to caretake a lot of the time. There are a couple of hectares of lawn which need mowing, two cottages and four worksheds to maintain and a small cemetery to keep clean.
Part of the caretaker's job is to conduct tours through the great museum Stuart established in the front cottage (click on video above). 1770 Environmental Tours' LARCs usually bring tourists up three times a week, more in school holidays, and tourists pay $6 a head to be taken through the museum.
That's the only income the Bustard Head Lighthouse Association gets to maintain the whole station and under Stuart's astute - and tough - direction it just covers the annual costs.
As for Shirley's $130,000 loan to help the rebuilding program, after more than six years she's got a couple of thousand back. But I don't think any of us will be around to see the debt cleared.
In the meantime, Stuart continues to gradually improve. I take a bit of credit because, while he is totally off alcohol, I have a rum and beer for him every sundown, as we used to do on Pluto and at Bustard Head before he got crook.
But he frowns and still tells me to get stuffed whenever I mention my great generosity with the booze.
Anyway people, if you're ever up Town of 1770 way, you'd be mad to miss that Bustard Head trip.