October 6 - 12, 2013: Issue 131

 Jervis Sparks 

Jervis Sparks, born in Papua-New Guinea (Milne Bay) and educated at the Southport School, Queensland, once resided with his Canadian born wife Bridget, at cottage 2, Barranjoey Lightstation, Palm Beach, NSW.

Jervis and Bridget are well known for their commitment to the heritage, historical and environmental concerns of the community, especially the Barrenjoey headland. They completely self-financed and restored their cottage from a gutted ruin to a comfortable last century residence, still without electricity, and as volunteers with the NPWS Chase Alive program they guided tours on the headland and shared their cottage with visitors.

An international mining consultant, Jervis has travelled world-wide, working in more than 20 countries during the past decades, in such exotic locations as the Amazon, Borneo, West Africa, Central America and the Caribbean. He describes drilling as a  ‘passport to the world’ and has worked not just in mineral exploration, but geo-drilling for bridges and some of the biggest dam projects in the world.

Jervis’s books Tales From Barrenjoey and the Red Light of Palm Beach (on the Lighthouse keepers) are the definitive histories of Barrenjoey covering the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families, shipwrecks, the schools and many amusing and interesting anecdotes.

In 1995 Jervis and Bridget compiled The Barranjoey Lighthouse Track – A nature walk into history and in 1996 Jervis completed Archaeological Index of Significant Sites on Barranjoey Headland – still the only comprehensive work on this subject for this iconic Pittwater headland. All of these works can be accessed at Mona Vale Library and will be used by us in forthcoming and further pages on Barranjoey.

For their dedication and commitment to Barrenjoey Headland and Pittwater, Jervis and Bridget received the first Pittwater Medal ever awarded on August 24th 1998 ‘In appreciation of your Outstanding Contribution to Pittwater’s History and Heritage.

Still missed by many in Pittwater, still sharp as a tack and still working, one of Nature's own gentlemen and the fellow so many still refer to as ‘the Barrenjoey Man’ is our very special profile this week, Mr Jervis Sparks. esq.:

You were born in New Guinea and have a twin brother?

That’s right. I was born on the island of Samarai. My father ran Gili Gili plantation which was at the end of the Kokoda Trail and that’s where the Japanese were defeated – at that plantation.

We went to Moresby and were evacuated on the last Hospital ship to leave Singapore. We were dodging Japanese submarines all over the place and finally got to Sydney.

Did you go back to the Gili Gili plantation?

No. It was destroyed, so was Samarai. I stayed in Sydney. Under the terms of the Japanese surrender we were all repatriated back to PNG, so went back to Port Moresby but there were no high schools there so my brother and I became boarders at the Southport School, a Queensland GPS school.

What was it like being a way from home?

We were used to it, the Southport school is a great school. We were always surfing and swimming, it had all the sports, it was a great time.

What can you remember of your time in New Guinea?

I remember we had a pet Cassowary. I don’t remember any of the time on the plantation, I was too young. Back in Moresby, we used to go Hanuabada village – we knew quite a lot of the villagers and we used to go sailing on their Lakatois and then we had our own canoe and used to paddle around Moresby harbour on that. We were on the water a lot.

One of your books, Vamanos Let’s Go – 13 years of adventure – tells of the first years of your working overseas and you seem to be travelling by the seat of your pants…

What actually happened was, in 1955 I emigrated to Canada but it was too cold. So my buddies and I, we jumped the border and moved on to Los Angeles. From there it just went on.

Right: Cover of Vamanos, Let's Go with Jervis rigged out to dive in the Sao Paulo half-suit. This book was published in 2003.

So necessity made you create chances to work in the US?


What stands out from those times?

When I went to Arizona, that’s when I started my drilling career. I realised then that that was the passport to the world. Since then I’ve worked in over 30 countries and I’m still working. I have a job in the Philippines coming up next month plus others in Vietnam and Mali.

And you’re 80 now?

That’s right. I’m a specialist.

How many people are there, internationally, who could do what you do or have that depth of experience?

Not many, I’d be in the top hundred. I’ve actually been to about 150 countries, and I’ve worked in 30 of them. It’s a lot of countries. All continents except Antarctica.

What is the most difficult thing about going into a country you’ve never been to before and starting to work; what are the obstacles? Is it food you can eat, transport…

I don’t worry about food too much, and transport is always difficult. Accommodation is pretty rugged in the bush, very basic.

Have you contracted malaria?

Oh yes, many many times. My shot card, I have every vaccination on it except malaria. What I do is wait until I get malaria and then I take the antidote. (Because the side effects are so bad).

Of all the places you have lived in, could you share three that are your favourites and explain why?

We enjoyed El Salvador so much. It was such a new experience. We all started drilling there as well. There were so many interesting things about this country – the volcano, the people, and learning Spanish. You see, on these jobs no one spoke English so we had to learn to speak Spanish. I can still speak it conversationally. Other countries which I have enjoyed are Brasil and of course, the United States.

Was there a sense of isolation working in these countries?

Now with the internet the world has shrunk. I write Bridget every day or night, we keep in touch. The internet is fantastic for that.

How did you end up living on Barrenjoey?

I had a girlfriend who years before lived with a group of artists in the main cottage. One day we decided to walk up to the lighthouse. We were down the bottom at the old pier, which is not there anymore. We sat there eating prawns and had a bottle of wine and then wandered up to the lighthouse and had a look around. They were all closed, the cottages.

So we decided to write and find out from the Department of the Interior who had the leases and if anyone wanted to give them up. On cottage 2, that guy wanted to start a motor car business out in the west and he needed money so he said, you can have the lease for a thousand dollars, then jumped it up to two thousand. But I had the money and said ‘there it is.’ And gave it to him and the rent was only fifty cents a week, this was in 1968.

And you stayed?

Yes, what a terrific place. Ok, it was ruined and what I did was work and work and work to restore it. I had to put on new roofing and painting, there were white ants and so much that needed doing – I was busy all the time. 

There was no electricity or running water – that was the big problem. First thing I did was build a septic system. 

Anyone who speaks of your restoration notes that you worked hard on restoring the buildings as close to their original state as possible – how did you do that?

I went around a lot of second-hand shops and found a lot of Victoriana materials and of course I often worked in the field and would go to old farmhouses across the whole of NSW and would find all this old stuff thrown out in the junkyard. I still have some of those items here in Maleny.

There are also a lot of instances of you keeping records about the Barrenjoey environment.

It started off because there were a lot of birds there and I realised I didn’t know anything about them. So I started to study them and joined the Royal Australian Bird Society and used to update them every month. I did the first study of birds on Barrenjoey.

Then I started to look at the flora and realised I didn’t know anything about that as well. So I started to study that and did the first Flora Study of Barrenjoey and gave all this stuff to Council and Parks and Wildlife.

Then I did an archaeological study (Archaeological Index of Significant Sites on Barranjoey Headland. 1996)

Did you find out where all the wooden soldiers were placed?

Yes, all those sorts of things, the old Stewart Towers, the originals, you can see the footings.

What is your favourite bird?

I like Butcher Birds, Magpies and Kookaburras, because of their songs, their voices. And of course I was attracted to the Whistling Kite at Barrenjoey – I’d whistle them in and they’d come and take food from my fingers.

You then got involved in the Chase Alive Program?

We were in the second intake, Bridget and I. Our role was guiding people up to the lighthouse and telling them the history. We didn’t have any other role in the Chase Alive program but this was a good one to do you see, and people loved it. We always brought people into the house and served them tea and coffee. They would look around the house and sign our Visitors book.

So this was when you first noticed people were interested in an accurate historical record of Barrenjoey and began putting together your own books?

Definitely. That’s when I started writing the first book (Tales from Barranjoey). That was an effort because I couldn’t edit it properly. The guy who was the printer was anxious to get it done so there’s quite a few typos in that one, but the second one, The Red Light of Palm Beach (about the keepers) – I went over that a million times and there’s only a couple of mistakes in it.

What was the best thing about living at Barrenjoey?

Firstly, the sound of the surf, the wind and birds because they’re natural sounds. I work in the mining business where there’s a lot of noise and away from it I like quietness and these natural noises. I don’t like music for example. I think that’s unnatural. My wife likes music.

You married Bridget while you were up at Barrenjoey – how did you meet her?

I met her in Quebec, Canada. My buddy married her sister. I went up there and met Bridget and we were friends for a long long time – I was in Tunisia and we used to write – years later, when I was going through the States, I rang her and said ‘why don’t you come and live at the lighthouse with me’ and she said sure, so I bought her a ticket to Hong Kong and we met up there.

When we got to Darwin it was about two o’clock in the morning and the immigration guy said ‘who’s this woman?’ and I said ‘it’s my bride’ and he said ‘congratulations mate’ and shook my hand, stamped her passport and just let her into Australia ! How about that!

A few years later she became an Australian citizen. So she is able to have two passports – Canadian and Australian.

Why do you write Jervis – why have you bothered to make a record of Barrenjoey and some of your travels?

I find it easy to write. I used to write a letter to my mother every week. I just get on and do it. I like it. I like the English language, and as I’ve written more and more and more my skills have developed. I look at other authors, for example. I’m reading a book now, and so many authors nowadays start a chapter with someone having a dream – which I hate, or dialogue, and so, my little condensed novels are very very different – I don’t write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ – they’re more direct, (to the point).

All your books share insights of what is now called historical events – is that what you’re attracted to, creating a simple record?

The books I like to read are about places where I’ve worked. When I read those books I see how accurate they are – when I go to a place to work I’m actually living there and when you live in a place it’s a lot different then visiting it as a tourist.

For example, in Kenya – wow, how different was that – I found out the Masai were wonderful people.

How important is it to keep a record of people and events?

I write a log book everyday and I print them out into booklets. In this house I have two libraries – one whole room has my logbooks and other works, then there’s a secondary room, the den, which is a fiction library. I have a lot of books.

Why I do it – it started when I worked for the United Nations, and unless you wrote a Final Report they deducted $500.00 from your final pay. I realised that you can’t remember what happened two weeks past, so everyday I write one. Everyday I write it into the computer and there it is then, backed up of course.

What were you doing for the United Nations?

That was in India – I was the UN Drilling Instructor for the state government of Madhya Pradesh.

So you have also taught drilling as well.

Oh yes, I’m an instructor.

What does ‘drilling’ mean when you’re using it in the mining industry (or for bridges and dams construction)?

You have to drill a hole and take the core out and then the geologists examine the core and then these are put through various stages of mineralogy. We’d drill holes to thousands of metres. They’re trying to determine what minerals are there and in what quantities.

For example, in this upcoming job at the Philippines we’re drilling for magnetite, which is iron ore, and rare earths.

You’re a bit of a gypsy Jervis – have lived in so many places, done so many things – where does that stem from?

I’m a loner you see. I like my own company. I don’t have many friends here. I just have Bridget, my cat and myself. Now Bridget is the exact opposite, she’s gregarious and has friends everywhere and is always going out.

See, when I come home from overseas, this is my holiday, my house, my home – and I love my house so much. I always do the washing and wiping up, I do all the laundry, I do the vacuuming, I’m house-proud.

How often on average were you away?

On percentage it would be about eight months of the year a few decades back.

Why did you move to Maleny?

When we were evicted from the lighthouse we decided to move to Queensland. We first looked around to live on the Hawkesbury, around Patonga too, and then we looked into living on a houseboat and were going to do that but decided against that. We then came up and had a look around Queensland, the Sunshine Coast. We were at Eumundi and Noosa, just driving around and one day we drove into Maleny. I had to go to the bank and next door was a real estate agent and this woman came out and said to Bridget ‘ are you guys looking for a house?’ and Bridget said yes of course.

A lot of people when they look at Maleny, look for 40 acres or such without realising that 40 acres takes you everyday of your life just to mow it. We also could see, with getting older, that we didn’t want a Queenslander with all these steps.

This real estate agent showed us a round a few places and then showed us this little cottage we live in now, it’s more like a bungalow – there’s no steps apart from the one into the house – because when you get old, you need it flat. So I have one end of it and Bridget has the other end of it and the cat shares us.

What is your favourite place in Pittwater and why?

The headland – Barrenjoey. What a great place. Pittwater’s fantastic, all of Pittwater. I used to sail as crew, we used to go up the Hawkesbury – what a great place. Even when you hop on that ferry that goes all the way up the Hawkesbury just to have lunch – that’s unique.

We are still undecided, Bridget and I, whether we’d still like to be living at the lighthouse, it was such a wonderful life and we met so many people. But it had no electricity and no running water.

Here we have a totally different lifestyle in a lovely little town, a very friendly town. At least once a week we each have a dream about the lighthouse, obviously they’re distorted at times, but they’re amazing dreams.

If anyone has a query about the history of Barrenjoey they can contact me – I have so much stuff still here. I will make a copy of the Architectural Study and send that to you.

That would be fantastic – we’ll run those so people can access it permanently. 

What is your ‘motto for life’ or a favourite phrase you try to live by?

I’ve never been depressed in my life – couldn’t contemplate suicide – so ‘Be Positive’

The Red Light of Palm Beach is the second book of a lighthouse quartet written by Jervis Sparks, who with his wife Bridget, lived at Barranjoey Lighthouse, Palm Beach, Sydney for 31 years, from 1968 to 1999. This book is the story of some of the keepers who served at that lightstation and contains more than 150 illustrations, with the foreword written by Tom Keneally.

It is Available from us (Green Wing Press Pty. Ltd) for a mere $25.00. Please email greenwingpress@live.com.au with 'The Red Light Of Palm Beach' as your subject and include a delivery or postal address or telephone 9974 2874.

Bridget and Jervis Sparks - The Chase Alive Program. 

Jervis and one of his Whistling Kites.

Barranjoey Lightstation in August, 2013. 

 Copyright Jervis Sparks, 2013.