Back from the brink

Colin Kerr | VOLUME 27, ISSUE 6

The famous Busselton Jetty has cheated death on several occasions, but with a recent restoration its future looks assured.

It’s nearly 150 years old and has almost been destroyed twice, but there’s plenty of life left in WA’s Busselton Jetty. In fact, with the jetty recently reopening after a multi-million-dollar renovation, its future has never looked brighter.

When the first 158m of Busselton’s famous landmark was built out into Geographe Bay way back in 1865 at a cost of £80, no one would have imagined the old girl would still be standing, let alone enjoying a new lease on life, well over a century and a half later.

Originally constructed to service the busy timber trade in the southwest of Western Australia, the jetty at first saw thousands of tonnes of timber (mostly jarrah) loaded from its long wooden platform onto sailing ships and later steamers heading both interstate and to Europe.

In those days timber was hauled from the local timber mills into Busselton and then out onto the jetty by horse-drawn wagons. This slow and very cumbersome procedure was revolutionised in 1909 when rail was introduced, and for the next 50 years steam locomotives were part of everyday life on the jetty. In its early days, Busselton Jetty also played host to the American square-rigged whaling ships that operated out of the town for many years.

By 1911 the jetty’s length had been increased in various stages to allow bigger ships, both in length and draught, to berth at the port. Half a century then passed before a further small extension to the jetty was carried out in 1960, bringing its total length to an amazing 1.8km.

DOUBLE BLOW

Although other ports in WA’s southwest, like Albany and Bunbury, had largely taken over from Busselton and the road transport system had improved, Busselton Jetty still continued to operate as a working jetty until 1972, when the old girl suffered a double blow. A devastating fire partly destroyed her and then, in that same year, the Busselton port was officially closed. Ongoing maintenance ceased and the jetty slowly began to deteriorate.

Then, on April 4, 1978, Cyclone Alby roared down the WA coast, unleashing its full fury on the old jetty and other parts of the state’s southwest. With some 60 per cent of the main structure completely washed away the jetty’s fate appeared to be sealed, and plans were made for it to be totally dismantled.

COMMUNITY ACTION

The local community, however, refused to see their town’s famous landmark destroyed – and they were prepared to help pay for its resurrection. The Busselton Jetty Preservation Committee was formed and immediately set about raising funds to help restore the jetty to its former glory.

Little by little the project came together and the committee (with help from the WA State Government) raised over $2m to get the reconstruction underway.

By April 1995 a quaint little red open-air jetty train had commenced operation. This helped raise more funds, as it regularly carried up to 40 passengers every hour or so to the end of the longest timber jetty in the southern hemisphere.

ANOTHER DISASTER

Just when the structure’s future was looking good, a further disaster struck on December 12, 1999, when a fire took hold approximately 1.6km from shore. Thought to have been started by a cigarette butt (but unconfirmed), the fire destroyed a 70m section near the end of the jetty, resulting in an estimated damage bill of around $900,000.

More money was needed urgently and, once again, the committee set to work – and it was more determined than ever. The train trips were cancelled due to fears over the structural integrity of some sections – in recent years walking the jetty has been a visitor’s only option – but the fund-raising efforts continued.

MAJOR REPAIRS

At a cost of around $27m (including $24m from the WA State Government) an extensive refurbishment of Busselton Jetty has now mostly been completed. Much of the old wooden decking has been replaced with concrete and many of the jetty’s support piles have been replaced. To retain some heritage, a small timber section of the jetty’s decking has been restored.

Along the jetty just 50m or so from shore is a free-entry, boatshed-style Interpretive Centre and Eco Museum. A wide variety of jetty and Busselton souvenirs and mementos (including furniture crafted from recycled jetty timber) are available here and the centre also has a splendid record of the jetty’s history, as well as a section dedicated to the recent refurbishment project. A fully restored crane originally put into use on the jetty back in 1885 is also on display.

In addition to its historical value, the old structure has long been a splendid fishing and crabbing spot. Fish-cleaning tables, each supplied with water and lighting, have been installed at several locations along its length and, almost regardless of the time of day or night, keen anglers of all ages can be seen catching a feed. Dolphins and sometimes even seals are occasionally spotted playing in the water under the jetty.

SUPERB DIVING

A few metres below the water lies a spectacular array of colourful soft corals, sponges, sea squirts and other marine growth, as well as exotic fish and sea life that have colonised the jetty pylons and thrive in the clean, clear, warm waters of the Leeuwin current that flows close to this part of the WA coastline.

This underwater world is reputed among snorkelers and scuba divers as one of the best dive sites in the country. With more than 300 different marine species to be discovered, many who have experienced this sublime world rate it as the equal to many other diving hotspots found around the world, giving rise to the jetty’s claim of being ‘Australia’s most spectacular artificial reef’.

UNDERWATER OBSERVATORY

To capitalise on this aspect of the jetty, yet another brave venture was embarked upon: the construction of the Underwater Observatory, located 1.7km from shore.

Extending to a depth of around 8m to the ocean floor, the cylindrical concrete observation chamber measures 9.5m in diameter and was constructed off site before being lowered into place. Since its opening a couple of years ago, it has proven to be a very popular tourist attraction.

An information/reception centre is located on the top level and from there a spiral staircase or a lift take visitors down below. With numbers on each tour limited to just 40 people, visitors descend through four different levels, past 11 large observation windows from which a number of vibrantly coloured marine-encrusted piles can be clearly seen. In this beautiful natural aquarium, hundreds of fish can be seen swimming close to the observatory windows – a colourful and truly fascinating experience.

The good news is that the historic jetty is once again open. The Underwater Observatory and jetty train are back in full operation and it seems the heart of Busselton is now beating strongly once more.

With well over 200,000 people visiting the jetty each year, Busselton’s most famous landmark, having come back from the brink of destruction and despair time and again, looks set to be a source of interest and enjoyment for years to come.

FAST FACTS

• A submerged ‘marine cam’ films the underwater world at the end of the jetty. Its footage is screened in the Interpretive Centre Museum, or can be viewed at: www.busseltonjetty.net/WebCam-Feature.aspx.

• Some ongoing jetty reconstruction work is still in progress at the end of the jetty beyond the Underwater Observatory.

• Divers are not allowed to come closer than 10m to the Observatory and a 150m fishing exclusion zone applies. Local diving and snorkelling tours of the jetty are available.

• Walking access to the jetty, including out to the Underwater Observatory, is $2.50 for those 17 years and older.

• The Underwater Observatory tour is $29.50 for adults, $14 for children (three to 14 years), or $75 for a family pass (two adults and two children). Prices include a return train ride.

• The return train ride along the jetty is $11 for adults, $6 for children (three to 14 years).

For reservations or more information, tel: (08) 9754 0900 or go to: www.busseltonjetty.com.au.


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