A lighthouse journey through Capes, Points and Spits

By Steve Sole

Cape Egmont lighthouse is closely linked to its namesake mountain. Photo / Steve Sole
Cape Egmont lighthouse is closely linked to its namesake mountain. Photo / Steve Sole

Despite, or perhaps because, lighthouses are in lonely, windswept, and inhospitable locations, they act as an attraction for many.

Visiting them is as good an excuse as any to see the extremities of our island nation.

You can explore lighthouses at the top of the North Island, the bottom of the South Island, and most of the sticking-out bits in-between.


If James Cook hadn't come along and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like Egmont, we would be calling Taranaki's most westerly cape as Abel Tasman named it, Cape Cabo Pieter Boreels. A pity, because Tasman's colourful title fits the colourful landscape better than Cook's.

Wind-whipped seas erode car-sized boulders on a defenceless shore, a few stunted trees lie prostrate, wire fences rust in the salt air. But the Cape Cabo Pieter Boreels lighthouse, I mean the Cape Egmont lighthouse, perched atop a 5m lahar mound, has somehow remained vertical since 1881.

It's a 20m, white cast iron tower, standing 33m above sea level that, on a clear winter's day, seems more connected to snow-clad Mt Taranaki than it does the sea.

Before the lighthouse was automated in 1985, its lighthouse keepers, Bryan and Janet Richards, bought 8ha of neighbouring farmland.

In 1985, they bought the keeper's house and adjoining sheds and, after 40 years of lighthouse keeping around New Zealand, continue to live a sequestered lifestyle there today.

On a prearranged visit, I walk past their well-maintained vegetable gardens into the front room. Bryan tells me, "We wanted a buffer between us and the outside world. I am a loner out of preference, not the easiest person to get along with. My wife is a long-suffering woman."

When the wind is bad, he says, "There's always something you can do in a sheltered place."

The trees they planted 20 years ago see that there's plenty of those.

In the paddocks, a few cattle and sheep help to maintain as self-sufficient a lifestyle as possible in such an exposed location.

Cook naming this cape as Egmont may have been unimaginative but what he noted in 1770 is still so: "The land seems to be everywhere a bold shore".

Latitude: 39 17deg south. Longitude: 17345deg east.

Location: Cape Egmont lighthouse is about 50km southwest of New Plymouth, 5km off Highway 45.

Where to stay: Accommodation is at various points along this highway.

Further information: See taranaki.co.nz.


On a map, the narrow peninsula with a fanning top that Cape Reinga lighthouse sits on looks like some geographic punctuation mark that says, "The end".

And it is. It's the end of the road, the end of the country, the end of the seas, and the end of a journey, literally and spiritually.

But the lighthouse, a 10m concrete tower, 165m above sea level, is the centre of attention.

Even in the 1960s, more than 200 people made the laborious road trip here every day during the summer months.

These days, when the hundreds of visitors already at New Zealand's most northerly lighthouse are joined by the hundreds disgorged by the daily convoy of coaches from the Bay of Islands and Kaitaia, it's easy to see that this is the most-visited lighthouse in New Zealand.

Most people feel a sense of achievement just getting here. At low tide, I drive up the sands of Ninety Mile Beach, hoping my car doesn't become one of the skeletal remains protruding from the sand.

It's worth the trip. At the end of New Zealand, everything feels majestic - the wind, the rain, the grass, the colours.

The end of the Tasman Sea, emerald green, meets the end of the Pacific Ocean, Polynesian-lagoon blue.

I spend days walking one of New Zealand's great coastal walkways, traversing pohutukawa-studded clifftops, down valleys to streams, and along white sandy beaches.

I share a couple of nights at a basic campsite with the mosquitoes.

For Maori, this is where the spirit of the dead bids farewell to Aotearoa before returning to their ancestral homeland, Hawaiiki-A-Nui.

That's why Cape Reinga is also called Te Rerenga Wairua, or the leaping place of spirits.

Reluctantly, I drive south, realising that the end, like death, is the birth of another journey.

Latitude: 3426deg south. Longitude: 17241deg east.

Location: Cape Reinga lighthouse is 116km north of Kaitaia.

Where to stay: Accommodation is available between Kaitaia and the DoC campsite at Tapotupotu Bay, 10 minutes' drive from the Cape.

Further information: See northlandnz.com or doc.govt.nz.


The alarm goes off close to 4.30am. It's still dark. The rest of the Te Araroa Camping Ground is still asleep. I turn the cabin's light on and try to put both legs through the same trouser-leg before falling on the bed. A coffee nudges me over the line from half asleep to half awake.

I'm soon on the dirt and sand road that follows the coast from Te Araroa to the East Cape lighthouse. At longitude 178 33deg east, this is New Zealand's most easterly point and, therefore, is the first place to see the sun every day.

Although there's a hint of light in the morning sky, it's still tricky to see the black cattle that treat paddock, road and beach as one. I climb the 500-plus stairs to the lighthouse, take a seat, and wait for the sunrise.

Not far offshore, I can see East Island, where the lighthouse used to be. The four men killed during its construction were the only casualties in New Zealand's lighthouse construction history. The 14m white cast iron tower started flashing every 10 seconds in 1900. Within 20 years, landslips threatened the lighthouse and it was moved to the mainland. Morning light increases and I can see that my dream of watching the sun rise from the sea has been thwarted by cloud. At least I was the first to see it.

Latitude: 3741deg south. Longitude: 17833deg east.

Location: East Cape lighthouse is about 20km from Te Araroa. It hugs the coast and is a trip in itself.

Where to stay: The nearest accommodation is at Te Araroa.

Further information: See gisbornenz.com.


Farewell Spit, a 30km stretch of sand forming a protective arm across the top of Golden Bay, is a bird sanctuary, a nature reserve, and a wetland of international importance. You need a DoC permit or tour ticket to go. I choose the Original Cape Farewell Safari from Collingwood. Owner Paddy Gillooly's ancestors arrived in Collingwood's 1857 gold rush and never left. His tour is the legacy of the 1946 mail run to the lighthouse.

There's a moment of transformation as you leave the green paddocks behind and, within a few metres, enter the spit's amphibious environment, heat melting the horizon. Nine-kilometre-wide mudflats support about 90 bird species that number in the millions and became a bird sanctuary in 1938.

The original 12m diameter lighthouse was built of wood. Within 20 years its supports were rotten. Today's iron lighthouse started flashing in 1897 and the stoic macrocarpa and pine trees that surround it make a welcome wind oasis on land that's flatter than the sea.

Frank and Dorothy Shepherd were lighthouse keepers for 13 years. She told me later, "Visitors would just walk right into the kitchen without any invitation. Boy, it got me mad!" She pours another cup of tea and sighs as she sits down, saying, "But I would never change that life. I don't regret it."

Leigh Gamby, an 11-year-old boy when his father became the lighthouse keeper in 1952, told me, "When we lived there, there were three houses all with little white picket fences around them and each one had a garden. A real little community. We rode horses, we'd go fishing, we'd pop the occasional swan for Christmas dinner. I loved it out there." I can see why, but I'll leave it to the birds.

Latitude: 4033deg south. Longitude: 17300deg east.

Location: Farewell Spit lighthouse is at the end of the spit. Public access is available only through tour companies. This is strictly enforced.

Where to stay: Accommodation is available at Collingwood and throughout Golden Bay.

Further information: See nelsonnz.com and doc.govt.nz.


Visiting the Waipapa Point lighthouse is a solemn affair. Not because of the wind that howls like a wounded dog as it blows through the wire-mesh fence that imprisons the dowdy wooden lighthouse, but because of the tragedy that took place there in 1881, three years before the lighthouse was built.

From the grass-entwined sand dunes, buffeted by Southland's legendary winds, I look over the beach where only 20 of 151 souls scrambled ashore safely from the wreck of SS Tararua. Only 64 bodies were recovered. They are buried nearby in what is known as the Tararua Acre.

It was a regular trip for the ship between Bluff and Melbourne when it struck the reef. Later, a wave swept over the ship, taking about 20 people with it. The ship continued to break up and, by evening, survivors were forced to seek refuge in the rigging. From the shore, one witness said, "Up till 11pm lights in the rigging were occasionally seen, as though matches were being burned".

Meanwhile, those who had made it to shore were helpless, despite hearing the desperate cries, as their only lifeboat was also wrecked. By morning, the Tararua was all but gone and bodies were washing ashore.

Two weeks later, a Mr Rennie told the Tararua Disaster Committee, "No one could possibly imagine the terrible sights those who had to bury the dead had to look upon."

However, some good came from this disaster. From 1882, all ships had to carry enough lifebelts for everyone on board and crews had to practise life-boat evacuation procedures. Plus, the South Island's most southern lighthouse was built at Waipapa Point. Standing 21m above sea level, it started flashing five times every 20 seconds on 1 January, 1884.

Latitude: 4640deg south. Longitude: 16851deg east.

Location: Waipapa Point lighthouse is about 60km west of Invercargill.

Where to stay: Accommodation is in Invercargill and at various places along Highway 92 through the Catlins.

Further information: See southlandnz.com.


Maritime New Zealand has 23 lighthouses, 15 of which are publicly accessible. All lighthouses are locked and entrance is prohibited. For more information, visit msa.govt.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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