Mysterious and enchanting, the guardians that stand on our coastline are worth a visit, writes Helen van Berkel
A childhood literary diet of Famous Five led me to believe there would be more lighthouses – and smugglers – in my life than has turned out to be the case.
Mysterious and enchanting, these magical monoliths blink into the darkness from prominent headlands that can demand quite a climb - more than 700 steps for the East Cape Lighthouse - but they're always worth the effort.
For such a coastal country we have surprisingly few lighthouses – only 23 according to Maritime New Zealand. As for smugglers, we didn't find any on a recent road trip around the North Island.
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Cape Rēinga: Right at the tip of the north you'll find the Cape Rēinga Lighthouse, which has been guiding ships from the Tasman and Pacific for more than 80 years. The original lighthouse was on Motuopao Island off Cape Maria van Diemen – and, in a delicious Famous Five twist, accessed by flying fox. Even the lighthouse-keeping family would zip across the meeting of two oceans in a basket to get home. The lighthouse is now fully automated and run by solar panels. At the foot of the cape, you'll see the famous line between the greener Tasman and the blue of the Pacific. To get to Cape Rēinga, hop on State Highway 1 and head north until it stops.
East Cape: The road to the East Cape Lighthouse is one of the most beautiful you will ever roll along. Great volcanic cliffs come to an abrupt end in the same place the Pacific finds its first landfall since South America. Contented cows graze in emerald green paddocks punctuated by beaches of sand and rock fringed with white ocean spray. It's a 700-step climb to the lighthouse, mostly through very welcome shady bush and with views that get broader with every kink in the trail. Like Cape Rēinga, the East Cape Lighthouse was also originally offshore, sitting on that little scrap of land you can see off the point. Its new mainland site gives a view of surrounding ranges, farmland and, of course, the gobsmacking coastline.
Wairoa: In the centre of Wairoa, guiding no ships whatsoever, is the old Portland Island Lighthouse that once stood on Māhia Peninsula. In a triumph for the public enchantment with our lovely lighthouses, the mayor of the time persuaded the Government to spend the equivalent of about $1 million to dismantle it and move it into the town when it was replaced by an electric version. It's a squat little thing, less than 10m tall and topped with a copper dome. And the light still shines.
Cape Palliser: The 252 steps to the red-and-white-striped lighthouse is a doddle after East Cape's scramble. It's a near-vertical climb up a wooden staircase to the 18m structure that still stands in the place where it first shone a light in 1897. While you're puffing and panting and stopping to "admire the view" (i.e. breathe) think of the early lighthouse keepers who had to climb the treacherous rock itself, sometimes in the dark and rain. The remains of an old pulley system at the top reveals how they hauled up the oil originally used to light the lamp. Still in operation but, like the country's other lighthouses, fully automated, the lighthouse stands on the southeastern foot of Wellington's rugged Wairarapa Coast. It's another stunning drive along a rocky coast where seals frolic in the sun.
Cape Egmont: Also built elsewhere, the Cape Egmont Lighthouse is only a five-minute drive down Cape Rd from SH42. It was originally on Mana Island, off Wellington, but actually contributed to two 1870s wrecks. The captains of the City of Newcastle and the Cyrus confused it with the Pencarrow Lighthouse and grounded. So the lighthouse was moved to Cape Egmont. In its early days at the cape, armed soldiers were stationed at the lighthouse because of the Taranaki land wars, much to the disgust of the lighthouse keepers. They found little sympathy from the Government who told them to "exert yourself to get on amicably" with the force and to stop the "trivial" complaints. The lighthouse keepers all lost their jobs when automation came in the 1980s. Cape Egmont Lighthouse is built on a raised mound in a paddock a short distance from the beach. The landscape around here is characterised by curious grassy hillocks, caused by lahars from nearby Mt Egmont.