The Eye of the Needle
The narrow gap between Cape Otway and King Island, which is less than 90km, was so hazardous at least 18 ships were wrecked near the western entrance to Bass Strait. It caught out even the most experienced mariners who likened the perilous stretch of water to “threading the eye of the needle”.
In 1835 almost 250 lives were lost and there were very few survivors when the convict ship Neva foundered on Harbinger Reefs off King Island. The ship, which was predominantly carrying convict women and their children, was attempting to enter the Strait when it came to grief.
It took another major shipping disaster almost ten years later before action was taken to overcome the deadly entrance to Bass Strait. The Cataraqui was wrecked on the west coast of King Island on August 3, 1845, claiming the lives of more than 350 people. Only nine people survived. It remains as Australia’s worst peace-time maritime disaster.
News spread to London and emigrants became reluctant to board Australian-bound ships. They preferred the safer passages to the colonies of America, Canada and Africa. Newspapers and the Legislative Council demanded lighthouses be built at the western approach to Bass Strait.
Even the British Admiralty recommended both migrant and convict ships be prohibited from navigating Bass Strait until lighthouses were built. In response Port Phillip District Superintendent CJ La Trobe, who considered himself an amateur explorer, decided to take on the arduous task of reaching Cape Otway by land.
After two failed attempts to penetrate the forests, rivers and gullies of the Otways, La Trobe, with the help of Henry Allan, Native Police, and a local Aboriginal man Tommy, reached Cape Otway and marked the proposed lighthouse site. It had taken La Trobe a whole year.
The challenge was then to find a suitable way to transport men and construction materials to the Cape. After several failed attempts to find a route, William Roadknight was able to map a road in the winter of 1846. George Smythe was appointed by La Trobe to survey Cape Otway from the sea and determined a landing place at the mouth of the nearby Parker River for stores and materials.