To the lighthouse

Inspired to write by an Australian lighthouse, author Justin Somper picks some of his favourite spots across the continent


Each year my Australian husband and I spend a month visiting family and friends in Australia, strategically positioned around the continent’s hotspots.

This March, we made it back to the UK from Perth with what felt like minutes to spare before lockdown. In the circumstances, who knows when we’ll be back — but until then, allow me to share a few magical memories of this great continent to inspire you.

Social distancing is pretty effortless in Australia: a population of 25 million inhabits an area 32 times greater than the UK. And impressive as the cities are, for my money it’s Australia’s natural beauty that really makes the memories, much of it just a stone’s throw from the urban hubs.

I have a special place in my heart for Byron Bay, around 500 miles north of Sydney, not least because the lighthouse there, marking Australia’s most easterly point, was a huge inspiration for my Vampirates books.

If you’re not driving — back in 1997, I arrived sardined on a bus of 20-somethings — there’s a small airport at Ballina, around 20 miles south of town.

I remember an eventful surf lesson on Byron’s Main Beach, abruptly curtailed when one eager boarder cut her foot in the water. Fearing sharks, our instructor removed the injured party and ordered the rest of us back onto the sand.

Back then, Byron had an emphatically hippie vibe but today it’s a somewhat slicker proposition. Dubbed ‘Little Hollywood’, since the arrival of the Hemsworth brothers and other A-listers, Byron still offers myriad opportunities to get close to nature.

The eight-mile round-trip through forest to Minyon Falls is best undertaken following rainfall, to see the waterfall at its fullest before cooling off in the rock pool at its base. The town still retains its eco credentials though.

The Farm is an 80-acre community where producers grow food using traditional, sustainable methods. There are workshops for kids and adults plus the opportunity to taste the zero food miles produce at the Three Blue Ducks.

You needn’t start in New South Wales either. No sooner had we hinted to our close Melbourne mates about a desire to see the Victoria countryside than we were driving to the southernmost tip of the Mornington Peninsula.

The 1859 lighthouse at Cape Schanck (I do love a lighthouse) was on our to-see list but our friends had other plans.

Armed with packed lunches, a two-hour bush walk to Bushrangers Bay — a short hop from the road into a landscape of parched rolling hills — led us to kangaroo country. We got up close (but not too personal) to observe them observing us right back, in mobs of four or five, before we all bounded off on our way.

On the cliff path to the dramatic bay, we encountered first emus, then an ambling echidna, before descending into the sweeping beach itself.

No wonder film-maker Spike Jonze chose this as a key location for Where the Wild Things Are. Raw, rugged and otherworldly with jagged cliffs, meaty banks of seaweed and shimmering turquoise ocean, this was a lunch stop to be remembered. With the bay to ourselves, we were picnicking at the edge of the world.

Next stop, Antarctica — yet it’s only an 80-minute drive out of Melbourne.

It’s a similarly short 45-minute flight from Melbourne to Tasmania, where we have family near Launceston. We’re still newcomers to Tassie but we’re hooked on this incredibly peaceful island, reminiscent of New Zealand but more compact.

It’s easy to eat up the miles here, but there are so many distractions, from the vast skies at Greens Beach to the adorable wildlife at Platypus House.

And then, the jewel in the Tasmanian crown, the Tamar Valley wine route. The cool climate is the perfect recipe for excellent Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

Stop by the cellar door at friendly Goaty Hill wines, to taste their Botrytis Riesling along with a Tassie cheese plate.

Tasmanian food and wine is exceptional and the welcome uniformly friendly. In Launceston, book a table at Hallams Waterfront. This informal boatshed, simply decorated with kayaks and oars, serves the freshest and most delicious fish I’ve tasted anywhere, including blue eye trevalla.

If you can look up from your plate for a second, soak up the view of Cataract Gorge.

Back on the mainland but staying with the grape, treat yourselves to a wine tour of the Barossa or Margaret River. Both regions — one down south, the other out west — offer an enticing combination of spectacular landscape and stand-out wines.

Barely 45 minutes from Adelaide takes you to the heart of the Barossa and world-class Shiraz (other grapes are available). My wine-guzzling Vampirate captain, Lady Lola Lockwood, would love it here!

In a single day, you can visit many wineries. Or for Australia’s answer to Mary Berry, stop for lunch at Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop in Nuriootpa — Maggie’s farm is an oasis of olive groves, and lunch overlooking the lake is as unforgettable as her home-made ice-cream on the deck, overlooking turtles swimming languidly beneath.

Take home a pack of dried peaches or pears from the orchard to round off your day.

Three hours’ drive south from Perth to Margaret River and you’ve reached yet another wine region. For seriously good tastings in a stunning setting, two heavy hitters are Leeuwin Estate and Vasse Felix but I also implore you to head to Hayshed Hill for rolling vineyard views and delicious tapas at Rustico.

There is more to Margaret River than wine though. World-class surf attracts competitors from around the globe for the Margaret River Pro competitions, while you’ll share the coastline with dolphins and, from September to November, whales.

The captivating colours of the ocean and beach attract a diverse community of artists too. I treated myself to a painting by Jen Mellor, whose work you’ll find at the Margaret River Gallery, as a permanent reminder of our visits to this special spot.

As I’ve found, the more of Australia that you see, the more you want to return — and the more there still is to discover. My past dose of Aussie sunshine, coast and wine has helped sustain me through these past challenging months but I’m already dreaming about my next visit.

When Australia opens up once again, you’ll be spoiled for choice when you plan yours.


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