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May 2019 Issue
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Castlepoint lighthouse, Wairarapa; a 30min return trip. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Lighthouses are an important part of New Zealand’s maritime history. Here are five of the best.

There’s something unquestionably romantic about a lighthouse standing as a slender signal on an isolated headland, offering a beacon of light spearing through the night. I’m fortunate to live with a view of two lighthouses: those at Baring and Pencarrow heads, which guard the Wellington Harbour entrance.

All of New Zealand’s 23 active lighthouses have long been automated, but for more than a century, lighthouse keepers lived at these usually remote locations. Keepers didn’t live in the towers but in nearby houses. Only a handful of these survive to represent this period of maritime history, two of which have been converted to public huts, and are available for trampers to stay in – Cape Brett and Kahurangi. Other lighthouses make excellent destinations for a walk.

Maritime New Zealand operates and maintains the lighthouses, and it has an excellent free poster at

1. Cape Brett, Northland
The rugged cliffs of Cape Brett are the culmination of a long peninsula that juts into the Pacific Ocean on the eastern boundary of the Bay of Islands. The historic lighthouse, built in 1909, has been restored in recent years. Nearby Cape Brett Hut is one of three former lighthouse keepers’ huts and is reached either as an overnight tramp on the Cape Brett Track (6-8hr each way) or as a return day-trip from Deep Water Cove (allow 5hr return). The hut must be booked through DOC’s online booking system.

2. Castlepoint Scenic Reserve, Wairarapa
The Castlepoint Lighthouse occupies one of the most spectacular settings for any in New Zealand; set atop a wave-battered limestone reef, with views of Deliverance Cove and Matira/Castle Rock beyond. A causeway across the sand leads to a set of stairs, which are climbed to the lighthouse (first lit in 1913), beyond which a loop track leads to a viewpoint and around the reef. Allow 30 minutes return, or extend the walk to include the Deliverance Cove Walkway (1.5hr)

3. Matiu/Somes Island, Wellington
The largest of three islands in Wellington’s harbour, Matiu has a fascinating history, having served as a base for iwi, a quarantine station, an internment camp during both world wars, a military defence site and, most recently, as a predator-free nature sanctuary. A regular ferry service operates to the island from Days Bay and Queens Wharf, allowing an enjoyable and easy half-day walk around the island, with the lighthouse (the second on this site, erected in 1900) located on the southern shore.

4. Kahurangi Keepers House, Kahurangi National Park
The Kahurangi Lighthouse also occupies a rugged section of limestone, one located at the western edge of Kahurangi National Park. Reaching the lighthouse (built in 1903), and the nearby hut, involves a few logistical challenges, not least the very long drive in, and the right tide and river levels for fording Big River en route. Allow 4hr each way from the end of Cowin Road, south of Westhaven Inlet.

5. Waipapa Point, Southland
On a benign day, the Waipapa Point Lighthouse is a tranquil spot, where the waters of Foveaux Strait lap the rocky shoreline, and gulls wheel about. However, a nearby line of macrocarpa trees, battered into a stunted hedge, give blunt testimony to the more usual weather. These sorry trees were the sole line of defence from storms for the keeper’s house. The area’s story is explained well at a shelter near the car park, from where it is a 20-minute return walk to the lighthouse. Authorities erected the beacon in 1883, two years after the Tararua was wrecked on a nearby reef claiming 131 lives.