Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011

The Road to Cape Reinga

By Chuck Graham


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After clearing the Coromandel Peninsula, our wobbly camper van chugged northward for three hours on State Highway 1. My wife and I and our three kids were in the midst of a three week trip on the North Island of New Zealand, soaking in as much of the isle’s adventure lifestyle as we could.

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The lighthouse at Cape Reinga had been on our radar the entire trip, sort of the climax to a grand excursion of hiking, surfing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, bungee jumping and more fish and chips than we could handle. We pulled into a small campground located at the breathtaking Bay of Islands on the Pacific Ocean, knowing before dawn we’d be driving northward to the small town of Kaitaia. From there it would be another 62 miles of rural countryside along the spindly finger to Cape Reinga, and the northwest tip of the Aupouri Peninsula.

The name of the cape comes from the Maori, the native people of New Zealand. The word Reinga, means ‘the Underworld.’ Another Maori name for the cape is ‘Te Rerenga Wairua,’ meaning ‘the leaping-off place of spirits.’ Both refer to the Maori belief that the cape is the launching point where the spirits of the dead enter the underworld. According to Maori lore, the long, great curve of Ninety Mile Beach stretching along the Tasman Sea on the northwest side of New Zealand, traces the route taken by the dead on their journey to their homeland of Hawaiki. The Maori’s final departure point is said to be from the branches of an ancient pohutukawa tree (also known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree) located at the tip of Cape Reinga.

Once past Kaitaia, we were splitting the Tasman Sea and the Pacific, two bodies of water that converge below the lighthouse like mighty titans. Swirling currents consistently eddy around the rugged peninsula’s windswept beaches and secluded coves, and from the lighthouse we watched this natural wonder unfold before us where the seas collided below daunting, wave-battered cliffs. Also seen from the lighthouse on clear days are the shadowy forms of the Three Kings Islands 35 miles further to the northwest. The group of 13 islands are situated above a submarine plateau called the Three Kings Bank and are part of New Zealand.

Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s first automatic lighthouse was built in 1941, and was lit in May of that same year during World War II. It’s a short, easy walk from the car park along a paved path. The lighthouse attracts over 120,000 visitors a year with around 13,000 cars arriving per day during the peak season. We were fortunate enough to be the only ones visiting there that chilly morning in January.

The Cape Reinga lighthouse replaced the lighthouse on nearby Motuopao Island, which was built in 1879. It was too difficult to access the island, so the new one was constructed at Cape Reinga. In 1987, the Cape Reinga lighthouse was fully automated and the lighthouse keepers were withdrawn. The rotating beacon can be seen offshore 32 miles away, and is often the first light in New Zealand sailors see. As of 2007, Cape Reinga is on the tentative list of UNSECO waiting to receive World Heritage Site status.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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