A day in the life
Is it easier on Maatsuyker Island?
Taylor and I were asked this question recently, and at first it threw us. We don’t have fixed work hours, aside from the weather observing, but there are no traffic jams and bombardment of useless information. We choose when to use the online space, when to be connected, as opposed to a society of connectedness in private and work life, without good balance. The ways we follow are older, more primitive and much more satisfying for the soul.
It’s not easy, but it’s easier than Melbourne.
A day in the life:
I read an account here of a typical day in the life written by a past caretaker. It was well-written, and if I can get permission, I will post it up here. It was actually so well-written that I hesitated when attempting to write my version of what life on Maatsuyker Island is like. However, I realised that every caretaker sees things differently on the island. This is my take on the work, the life and living here on Maatsuyker.
At 0600 we have our first weather observation to complete for the Bureau of Meteorology. When we first arrived in September we would wake up at 0520, get dressed in the dark with every layer conceivable, and plunk our trusty head torch on our beanies. We would then walk up the 20 or so steps from our house to the Meteorology office, with the lights off, in order to keep our night vision. During the handover week, I made the rookie mistake of turning the lights on when we woke up, which completely ruined our night vision. I never made that mistake again!
Once we make it to the weather office, we logon to the bureau laptop, it's sole purpose is to display weather data and submit reports. It’s ancient! We have a 10 minute window to observe the weather. At this point, one or both of us will be attempting to determine visibility in kilometres, if it’s still dark, this is difficult. We have a diagram that illustrates distances to all landmarks and heights of landmarks, which is helpful. We look for obscured outlines of landmarks with binoculars. This can signify drizzle, rain or low cloud. We try to make out the landmass that is Southwest cape, part of mainland Tasmania. Eventually, we determine a visibility range that can be as low as 50 metres in fog, or as high as 26km+ in good conditions.
As well as visibility, we record cloud types, cloud heights and direction, wind speed and direction, barometer pressure and sea conditions. Recording sea conditions can be relatively stressful in the dark. We record swell height, wave period (seconds between sets of waves) and sea state. To get the swell height we use two rocks, moderate rock and heavy rock. We use binoculars to see what happens to the rocks in the swell. If water gushes through certain notches, we know the swell height. If water crashes over one or both rocks, we also know the swell height. This is all thanks to a very useful chart some previous caretakers made, which outlines exact swell heights using obvious features on the two rocks. It sounds simple but it is actually incredibly accurate. It’s also not foolproof. Southwesterly swells are the most common, and that is what the chart provides for, but we can also get Westerly swells and swells with secondary swells. The ocean doesn’t give it up that easily!
Did I mention that it can be dark too? In this case, you rely on what little experience you have. It’s actually possible to hear different types of swells. I’m convinced I can close my eyes and identify a 4.0 metre swell. Unfortunately for me, swells have ranged from 0.5m up to 7.0m in our time here! Therefore the ability to hear one swell type is cool but relatively useless! Generally, we rely on binoculars to make out faint outlines, it’s amazing how well white foaming water shows up in the dark!
After we have all our observations, we write them down manually and also submit them via the computer just after 0600. If we have any trouble, we can call up Hobart airport and talk to a bureau employee 24/7. Taylor and I began rotating the 0600 weather observations after a few weeks on the island. This means every other day, one person can ‘sleep in’ til say 0700 (or 0800 if they are stuffed!). On the really miserable days we might both go back to bed.
After the 0600 weather obs, certain jobs may be done depending on the climatic conditions. If it’s nice weather with lower humidity, we may open up all the houses to air them out. On Maatsuyker, there are 3 large houses, all built in the 1890s. Due to the extremely high humidity (we get 100% frequently) and low temperatures, all houses are prone to mould. Arriving here on Maat it was extremely weird to experience such high humidity in such low temperatures, it’s hard to describe in words! In any case, it causes really bad mould and one of our roles is to prevent it.
So assuming we have good weather after the 0600 weather obs, one or both of us will make the walk (few hundred metres) up the hill to the other houses (Quarters 2 and Quarters 3). We will crack all the windows in the house to let air in, making sure they aren’t cracked too much for birds to come inside! The Tasmanian Green Rosellas will try over and over to get in! Some of the windows have flatscreen mesh inserts we install too. Both Quarters 2 and Quarters 3 are close together and we are now experts at opening the houses up so it’s done quickly.
Ever watchful, we look for mould, damage, and signs that the weather is winning the war on our dwellings. The other day, the door handle at Quarters 3 crumbled in our hands. No matter, we have spares for everything here. We check gas bottle levels (3-4 at each house); and if it’s Monday, we drop a septic tank additive in the toilet and flush it down at each house. Once we have opened all the houses up, we walk to the lighthouse and open the bottom door to air it out. If the sun has been shining, we will be keen to see how many amps the solar system has soaked up, or hasn’t! To do this, we enter the generator shed adjacent the lighthouse. The ‘gen shed’ houses 3 decommissioned Lister Diesel generators, a newer 13kva diesel generator, a battery bank of approximately twenty 2000ah gel batteries, old diesel tanks, a compressor, and pumping equipment. We check out (and log) generator hours, voltage, kilowatt usage, fuel stocks, and equipment condition. This system is our livelihood. We look after it like previous caretakers, Chris and Irene taught us. This generally involves cleaning everything, topping up the fuel in the generator, pumping diesel into Jerry cans from a 200L drum, checking batteries with a multimeter, and making sure the solar panels haven’t blown off the roof! We always prop the door with a smooth piece of timber, in certain winds it can bang shut if you forget - reminders from the island to not be so careless.
By this point it’s around 0630. Sometimes if the weather is bad and we’re worried about the state of charge of our batteries, we will check the gen shed at 0530 before the weather. But by now, we can both smell the coffee we want so badly! Morning coffee is a big part of the routine here. It signifies the beginning of a new day here on Maat. The morning is when we try to write too. There are 6 coffee pots in our kitchen and they all get used. I usually eat a big bowl of oats with mine, Taylor likes to eat after the coffee. We ration out some fresh fruit (apple or orange) and dried fruit with breakfast. There is plenty of yoghourt, as we make our own with a yoghourt maker. From 0730-0800 we tune in to the Tasmanian Maritime Radio SKED (forecasts, etc). This is an invaluable service run by volunteers. We write down the weather observations for our coastline and check in with the operators. We both have Long Range Radio Operators Certificates to operate the Marine VHF radio. We are slowly learning the volunteers names and personalities as time goes on. The advantage of checking in is that it’s a safety mechanism. If they don't hear from us for a period of time, the alarm will be raised. The volunteers are also very good to us, and very knowledgeable! After the radio SKED, the day is ours to shape, nearly! We have one more weather observation at 0900, which we do together or alone depending on what we want to achieve work wise.
On a wet, rainy day, we may head out and clear the 1.5km network of drains. This involves using straw brooms, homemade and bought to sweep the rock drains by hand. The drains are a work of art. Built in the same era as the house and lighthouse (1890s), they were made by hand with explosives and hand-tools. As we kneel down on our hands and knees in all conditions, scooping mud from them, I remind myself that it was much harder to build the drains than it is for us to clean them! Walking around the island, we constantly remove sticks from the drains too. As an experiment, I left one piece of wood in the drain to see what would happen. After a few weeks of rain, the dirt and sediment slowly built up around the stick, as it piled up, grass began to grow. The grass caught more sticks and repeated the cycle. After a few metres of dirt built up, I excavated it with a long handled shovel. Experiment over, I realised just how quickly the island reclaims lost territory.
On a sunny day, we mow or brush cut - the cycle of grass cutting needs to be repeated around every two weeks. As well as 1.5km of grassed road linking the South end to the North end of the island, there are two helipads, the light-keepers tree track, the pig face garden track, around Quarters 2 and Quarters 3, around the secret garden, the modern lighthouse track, the radio repeater track, the vegetable garden, and all around Quarters 1 (our house) and the weather station. We have three brush cutters and three mowers to do all this. Of course, there are only two of us caretakers! The grass grows vigorously here in summer, really it’s a battle we can’t win. Luckily, we have a self-propelled Deutscher mower that eats up grass like it’s nothing. Its a bit of a handful, but it’s worth its weight in gold. Both Taylor and I use all equipment equally, this means neither of us is exposed to too much of one task. As well as battling the grass, we fight with ruts on the road. The mower slips into them and scalps the grass, meaning dead patches. It’s satisfying to learn which sections of the road require which blade height. Sometimes we mow in weather you usually wouldn’t in normal circumstances. If we didn’t, the grass would be over our heads! And of course, with machinery comes maintenance. We oil, grease, lubricate and maintain all our equipment regularly.
As well as the mowing equipment, we also have a 4WD Daihatsu van named Dave. Dave is an incredibly versatile vehicle - he has diff locks, low range and high range and a 350kg payload limit in the back. We use him for shunting gas bottles around, timber, dirt, building supplies, mattresses, rocks and jerry cans. Of course, we maintain Dave too. We have a workshop with three rooms here on Maatsuyker. Within it is every tool imaginable and scrap everything. Scattered around the island lies more scrap: timber, PVC pipe and metal. We use the scrap and the tools to make and fix everything. Previous caretakers have been ingenious in their creations. Most notable for us are the ‘Poly houses’. One was built by stranded kayakers and one by previous caretakers, Robyn and Gary.
As part of our routine, we include repair type jobs regularly. We paint, repair loose wooden panels, silicone rusting metal tanks, build things like steps with concrete, lay down steps with scrap lumber, fix rock walls, fix Poly houses, build nets for the vegetable garden, run water hose for gardens, fix broken hand tools like drain brooms, and troubleshoot everything. To date, there hasn’t been something we couldn’t fix with stuff found on the island. There is something about being forced to do these things that is incredibly satisfying. We are a jack of all trades, master of none duo, with a Maatsuyker apprenticeship in plumbing, building, carpentry, cleaning, painting and metalwork!
One other job, which is likely my least favourite, yet a regular, is cleaning the houses I mentioned (Q1, Q2, Q3) to prevent or get rid of mould. I won’t lie, it’s tedious, mundane work that is tiring. Basically, we use clove oil on long handled mops and cloths to clean every single wall and roof panel in every house. We also clean other buildings, where possible and safe to do so. We spray the clove oil on the walls and roof and leave it, then mop it off. We have all the safety gear on the island. It’s a big job and a good one to do together with music turned right up. The clove oil smells amazing, but I'm sure I will have nightmares in the future when I smell it and it reminds me of scrubbing walls for hours and hours!
In amongst the three main tasks: mowing, de-moulding and drains, and all the side jobs, we fit in a lot of creativity and eating! At some point in the mid morning, we either head back to Quarters 1 and have a hot drink and some sweets, or we sit down where we are with a thermos and a bag of instant coffee. It doesn’t matter where you are on the island, it’s beautiful and different each day. If we don’t head back for the morning, we generally do for lunch, which is usually later in the afternoon. Lunch is basically pre-dinner for us, we are always hungry due to the physical work! Coming back to the creativity, however; living here has made us do things we otherwise wouldn’t or didn’t do enough of! Things like reading, writing, painting, drawing and making stuff! I am most proud of a lighthouse I made for Taylor's and my anniversary out of an old tap, piece of scrap ti-tree from the island track, light globe, paint, and some scrap copper. I made sure to check before using anything! Taylor drew me a lighthouse, which is remarkably accurate in scale - she should have been an architect! I realise now that making things with your hands is good for wellbeing.
On the topic of wellbeing. Once a week, we check in with Parks Tasmania (or whenever we need to). Our manager is Jeremy, and he is a legend! Parks are unbelievably supportive. I cannot stress enough how good the support network is for Maatsuyker caretakers! Between Friends of Maatsuyker Island and Parks Tasmania, as well as ex-caretakers, you really do feel like part of a family! I did mention the three main tasks, but before all of those is our wellbeing. Looking after ourselves takes more time than anything! As a wise man once said, “you will be surprised at just how much time it takes to look after yourselves!” For example, there are no shops here. If we want to eat a pie, we have to make the pastry from scratch, leave it in the fridge for a day, cook the filling, bake the pie, then eat it about 8 hours later! The same goes for bread. We bake it ourselves. Kneading, resting, rising and kneading again are now part of our lives. We brew beer, spend days in the vegetable garden (a job in itself) weeding and planting and sometimes spend 12 hours in the kitchen baking! Our last bake was 2 lasagnes, one fruit pie, one meat pie and a ginger cake! We froze both lasagnes so we have ready-to-eat meals for those busy work days!
Late in the day, we water the vegetable garden, at other times we spend entire days in the garden working. Neither of us were expert gardeners before we came. In fact, we’d describe ourselves as amateurs! Again, the island has forced us to learn, grow and develop ourselves. After we water the garden we harvest anything we need for that night, usually some greens. Since arriving we have eaten from the garden every day. After the garden watering, we shut up the windows in Quarters 2 and 3 on the way back to our house. We usually make it back to the house between 5pm and 7pm, sometimes earlier and sometimes later. Making sure we take time for ourselves is something we actively try to do. After all, there are no weekends here, we do the weather 7 days per week, which means our routine is also 7 days per week. It is easy to get lost in the never-ending projects here on the island.
We are usually fairly tired at the end of the day, after cooking dinner and enjoying a home-brew, we will either go for a walk or watch an episode of something on this laptop. At night, we switch on the $4 fairy lights that brighten up our lounge room and charge the battery that powers our radio equipment. Most nights, I film the sunset looking out across the needle rocks. At last light, the Mutton birds swarm in searching for their burrows and we head to bed not long after. On a clear night the Aurora pulses in the sky, on a normal night the clouds cover everything and the wind soothes us to sleep.