Leading lights in New Zealand

By Danielle Wright

Rain or shine, Danielle Wright discovers why any season is ideal lighthouse weather.

The lighthouse at Manukau Heads on the Awhitu Peninsula. Photo / Supplied
The lighthouse at Manukau Heads on the Awhitu Peninsula. Photo / Supplied

New Zealanders have had a long love affair with lighthouses. They suit our national image of standing apart from the crowd and have been featured on many sets of postal stamps, written about in our books and poems, plastered on our children's bedroom walls and are a symbol of hope, not just for sailors.

Though most of the lighthouses in New Zealand can't be entered, there's still a sense of place and history to be experienced by visiting them.

Heading to a lighthouse is as much about the dramatic landscape, closeness to nature, and romantic notion of the keeper's life of self-reliance, as the structure itself.

They are also a comforting reminder of constancy even amid the worst storms on the most dramatic windswept coastlines. Benjamin Franklin went so far as to say: "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches". Here are some favourites:

Manukau Heads Lighthouse
Open daily 9am-5pm, gold coin donation.

Guided tour available, as well as a 4WD service for people challenged by stairs. Just over 100km from the CBD, around an hour and 45 minutes drive. Ph (09) 235 1458 for more information or visit the website above.

"No weather is bad weather at a lighthouse," says Paul Dixon, historian and member of the Manukau Heads Lighthouse Trust.

"There's nothing better than a fierce storm to bring the mood of a lighthouse to life."

After a dramatic journey through the rolling hills of the Awhitu Peninsula, we reach this historic lighthouse perched proudly at the peninsula's edge, overlooking the rough Tasman Sea and the peaceful Manukau Harbour.

It's the perfect Sunday drive from Auckland with views from the lighthouse balcony taking in the Waitakere Ranges and reaching as far as Mt Taranaki on a very clear day.

Lovingly restored, it's one of our few remaining manned signal stations and one of the few you can climb to the top of and walk around. You might even see the world's rarest and smallest dolphin, the Maui dolphin, swimming in the sea below.

Look out: Every June, a special re-lighting ceremony takes place. Children take colourful lanterns up the creaky wooden stairs and the lighthouse is lit up by candlelight. An event to remember at any age.

Tiritiri Matangi Lighthouse
360 Discover Cruises does full day trips to the island from Auckland City (Pier 4) or Gulf Harbour. You can't enter the lighthouse, but there is a guided tour around the island to learn of its history. Ph 0800 360 3472.

Located on Tiritiri Matangi island, a wildlife sanctuary and popular day-trip from Auckland, this lighthouse is tall in comparison to many others in New Zealand and by all accounts was a busy station. One keeper in the 60s said of life here: "We had a constant passing parade to prove our use."

The cast-iron tower's light was first lit in 1865 and was once the most powerful lighthouse in the Southern Hemisphere, with 11 million candlepower. If you lived on the North Shore in the 60s, its 15-second bursts of light would have been a nightly lullaby.

The lighthouse buildings, including keepers' houses, workshops, three foghorns and the signal mast are still in good condition. The last keeper, Ray Walter, remained on the island after the lighthouse was automated and became its first conservation officer.

Cape Brett Lighthouse
26km from Russell in the Bay of Islands, accessed by land through the Cape Brett Track from Oke Bay, Rawhiti or by sea landing at Cape Brett Cove in calm conditions. You can also stay at the Cape Brett Hut, run by the Department of Conservation: $12.20 adult/night.

At the end of a walking track owned by the Department of Conservation is the Cape Brett Lighthouse, described by Marcus Lush as the "Beluga caviar of beacons". It's beautifully preserved, you can see islands dotted in the distance over a great expanse of ocean and there is the sound of whales passing at night. It's featured on our postal stamps, including some in 2009 with special glue that made its beams glow in the dark.

It's 14m high and made of bolted steel plates, majestically marking the entrance to the Bay of Islands and overlooking the Hole in the Rock and beyond, as well as World War II station remains.

The cape has a spiritual and traditional importance to local and Northland Maori.

Kaipara North Lighthouse
About an hour's drive from Dargaville or it can be reached by 4WD along Baylys Beach.

Built in 1884, Kaipara North Lighthouse sits on a sandstone outcrop overlooking endless sand dunes. The drive here is through farmlands, pine plantations and lakes, with the reward at the end of the last lighthouse in New Zealand to be built of wood, with a spiral staircase of iron and brass.

The moving sand made conditions unbearable for the keepers, and their families were moved to live at Pouto. At times, the lighthouse has been almost submerged in sand. Clearing the sand would have been quite a challenge for the keepers.

It has overseen many changes in the Kaipara harbour. In 1900 250 ships used the port, but by 1927 there were only 50, falling to nine in 1938.

Like many New Zealand lighthouses, Kaipara North had its light extinguished during World War II.

Cuvier Island Lighthouse
This island is accessible only by boat and by permit holders only or sometimes by eco tours from Auckland.

Trained carrier pigeons were used to carry messages between this remote station and the mainland. The pigeons weren't always reliable and radio telephones were installed in 1940.

The lighthouse sits at the southern entrance to the Hauraki Gulf, southeast of Great Barrier Island, right at the top of a cliff. The keepers had to climb an almost vertical zigzag track, especially dangerous on stormy nights, and one keeper in 1902 wrote: "This is the worst station I was ever at."

Maybe it was out of malice that the keepers introduced cats to the island. They wiped out the rare native saddleback (tieke) birds, but, once the island was cleared of predators, these almost extinct birds were reintroduced and the island now serves as a successful breeding ground.

The walk to the top would make the journey almost as good as the pristine white paint of the lighthouse standing out against the spectacular views across the gulf once you've reached the summit.

Mokohinau Islands Lighthouse
Situated on Burgess Island, the only one of the Mokohinau Islands with public access and 25km northwest of Great Barrier Island. Arrive by personal boat or charter. It is also a good diving spot.

One of the most distant lighthouses from the mainland, on the northern approach to the Hauraki Gulf, the Mokohinau Islands Lighthouse provided light for boats arriving in New Zealand via the Pacific Ocean and was first lit in 1883.

It's believed a German destroyer may have used the light as reference when laying mines that sunk the steamer Niagara in 1940. The light was extinguished and not relit until 1947.

Its remoteness meant a hard life for the keepers and their families with just three deliveries of mail and stores each year and no communication with the mainland.

One of the keepers got so desperate, he sent a tin boat with tin sails across the water to the mainland with three letters on it and mailing instructions for the marine department, the nearest general store and his friend.

It made the journey and the mail was delivered. The Auckland Museum has the tin boat on display, known as the "smallest mail boat in the world".

Cape Reinga Lighthouse
Drive to the tip of New Zealand, or take a scenic coach tour from Kaitaia or Paihia. It's about 60km north of Kaitaia and there's a Cape Reinga coastal walkway if you're feeling energetic. For more ideas click here.

The wind-whipped Cape Reinga lighthouse is like the cliff-face conductor, watching over the meeting of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. At times, this creates a crescendo of salt spray.

It's fairly new for a lighthouse, built as late as 1941 to replace the Motuopao Island lighthouse 3km away, which proved too difficult for keepers due to rough seas. It wasn't used for the first few years due to blackouts necessary for World War II.

Surprisingly, Cape Reinga Lighthouse was one of the least accessible lighthouse stations in New Zealand when it was built, but now it's one of the most frequently visited lighthouse in the country.

Maori legend believes it's the "place of leaping" where spirits depart on their journey to the homeland, Hawaiki-A-Nui.

If you want to make your mark while alive, there's also the opportunity to leave a living legacy by planting a native tree at Cape Reinga.

Bean Rock Lighthouse
Take a private boat, charter or water taxi for a closer look. Fullers also has trips close to the lighthouse (ph 09 367 9111) or view it from Bastion Pt in Auckland City.

Bean Rock has always looked to me like someone airlifted an old Devonport villa, plonked it on top of some wooden stilts in the middle of the ocean, stuck a light on top and called it a lighthouse. It's an odd shape, compared to a traditional image of a lighthouse, and is the oldest wooden lighthouse in the country.

And while lighthouses often seem lonely figures, Bean Rock always seems the centrepiece of the harbour hub of ships, yachts and ferries steadily streaming past in all seasons. It's also the only surviving wave-washed wooden cottage-type lighthouse in New Zealand and the only one people lived on.

The keepers, whose families were housed in Devonport, had a living area including a kitchen, a bedroom and the long drop toilet to the sea below. I always liked the idea that the keepers had a 5cm square window in the wall next to their bed to see the reflection of the light when waking from a nap.

Renovations in the late 80s revealed 20 coats of paint on one section of the lighthouse, showing how well the keepers had done their job.

It must have been the dream job for a lighthouse keeper's family and one they fought to keep.

Whatipu Beach Beacon
Drive through Titirangi and Huia to Whatipu Beach. No dogs allowed, but there are plenty of walks and a cave camping ground to stay for the night.

For a different perspective of the HMS Orpheus shipping disaster, cross the Manukau Harbour to Whatipu Beach, where the Whatipu Beacon sits high on a steep rock jutting out just off the black sandy beach.

At low tide, you can walk up the steep slope, a perfect setting for Mr Grinling in the Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch, but don't get caught out by the tides or you'll be spending the night there.

If the tide is high and the kids are still keen to get up close to a lighthouse, there's a large letterbox shaped like one on the drive into town. When we were there, groups of tourists were taking photos in front of its red and white striped frame.

Rangitoto Beacon
Take a 30-minute Fullers ferry ride from Auckland CBD and either a 4WD tour to the summit, where the driver will stop close to the lighthouse for photos on the way down, or walk there in around two hours.

This iconic harbour light has long been keeping a watchful eye over the Auckland Harbour and was electrified in 1931, powered by a cable from Takapuna. Two lights set back to back ensure an alternating beam is thrown out. There is also a siren, which is switched on by the weather station at Mt Victoria.

It's resplendent in red and white stripes and is accessible from the ferry terminal if you turn left off the boat. Head around the bottom of the island, past quaint baches, jagged black scoria rocks where holidaymakers once hunted for booty left by American sailors, mangroves, the largest black gull colony in New Zealand and emerald green glassy water.

Orakei Marina Lighthouse
If you want to cheat your way to a lighthouse, of sorts, skip the boat-trip or long drive and head to the Royal Akarana Yacht Club in Okahu Bay. It's a good place to stop on the way to Mission Bay for an icecream afterwards.

Kids can clamber over the rocks to touch the red and white striped tower, past the old Gull sign wishing you a safe journey. Just remember to bring proper walking shoes as the rocky walkway covered in fencing wire is hard on your feet.

Voluntourism

A lighthouse takes a lot of looking after. If you're a fan of these beautiful beacons, consider building a holiday around helping with the upkeep of one. Volunteer on a regular basis with plantings and re-painting by contacting the lighthouse keepers or get involved in planned activities through DoC. One group is the Friends of Cape Brett, where you can help out in return for on-site accommodation in the Cape Brett Hut.

- NZ Herald

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