Historic Cape Reinga

The afterlife is a spiritual concept shared by many cultures.  Visit the site of departure for Māori spirits.

Cape Reinga represents the top of the North Island.  From Kaitaia it is 1 hour north on State Highway 1. 

Maori history and legend

For Māori, Cape Reinga is the most spiritually significant place in New Zealand.

An ancient pohutukawa tree and a lonely lighthouse mark this special place. 

It is here that after death, all Māori spirits travel up the coast and over the wind-swept vista to the pohutukawa tree on the headland of Te Rerenga Wairua.  

Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) and Spirits Leap.
Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) and
Spirits Leap

They descend into the underworld (reinga) by sliding down a root into the sea below. The spirits then travel underwater to the Three Kings Islands where they climb out onto Ohaua, the highest point of the islands and bid their last farewell before returning to the land of their ancestors, Hawaiiki-A-Nui.

Everywhere you look in the surrounding landscape of Te Rerenga Wairua, you can find evidence of human settlement, hundreds of years in the making.

The Far North is the nearest in climate to the tropical home of the first Maori settlers. They could garden here with plants like taro, gourds, and yams. Forests, coasts and wetlands were abundant sources of food for hunting and gathering too.

Kupe, known as the great navigator, is said to have discovered the Far North when he thought he was heading towards a whale. In fact, he was travelling towards Mount Camel in Houhora. Kupe’s crew, upon landing, settled from Cape Reinga to Parengarenga Harbour.

Many places Kupe named range from Te Ara Wairua (the spirits pathway) to Te Rerenga Wairua. Kupe established Te Rerenga Wairua as the point from which his descendants would travel in spirit form back to Hawaiiki-A-Nui.

Cape Maria Van Diemen. Photo: L Forester.
Abel Tasman named Cape Maria Van
Diemen after the Governor of Batavia's
wife 

European contact

Maori had occupied Northland hundreds of years before Abel Tasman sailed in for water to the Three Kings Islands on the eve of Epiphany 1643. He named the islands after the biblical three wise men. He was the first European to sight North Cape and was responsible for naming Cape Maria van Diemen in honour of the Governor of Batavia’s wife.

Captain Cook and the French captain, Jean de Surveille sighted the north coast within a few days of each other in 1769. In 1772, Marion du Fresne anchored his sailing ship in Spirits Bay (Kapowairua) and landed in quest for fresh water.

It was not until the arrival of trading and whaling vessels in the late 18th century that European contact with the area really began to have an impact. Close behind the whalers and traders in the 1830s came the missionaries who sought to convert Maori to Christianity.

The first European landowners in the region were Stannus Jones and a young English lawyer, Samuel Yates, who acquired ownership of a large tract of land in 1873. Yates married a local Maori princess and became farmer, storekeeper and gum trader. He became known as “King of the North” and his homestead as “Paki” from which the name Te Paki derives.

In 1930, the Keene family bought up half of the northern headland (16,000 hectares) and they grazed the hilltops and broke in large tracts of land for farming. In 1966, the entire area of farm was bought by the Crown and today only 2,900 hectares has been kept as farmland. The remaining area has been encouraged to return to its natural state.

Lashed by winds, pounded by surf and sand or soothed by the calm of sunlit days, the whole area of this northern tip of New Zealand has a wild and unpredictable nature.

Around its shores, sweep the currents of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean that meet in a foaming swell of broken water over the Columbia Bank just west of Te Rerenga Wairua.

Cape Reinga lighthouse

The Cape Reinga lighthouse is one of the most important landmarks of Te Paki, and stands on the edge of a steep rocky cape, lashed by the Tasman Sea (to the west) and Pacific Ocean.

Originally, Motuopao Island was chosen as the site best suited for the location of a lighthouse to protect ships passing through the dangerous, turbulent waters at the northern tip of New Zealand.

The iconic Cape Reinga lighthouse.
The iconic Cape Reinga lighthouse

However, by the beginning of WWII, it was decided that the light was in the wrong location, so in 1941 the glasshouse and light mechanism on top of the lighthouse were removed and re-erected at the new lighthouse settlement at Te Rerenga Wairua. The remains of the original tower can still be seen on the northern end of the offshore island.

First used in May 1941, Te Rerenga Wairua was the last watched lighthouse to be built in New Zealand. Standing at an impressive 10m in height and 165m above sea level, it is one of New Zealand’s iconic landmarks.

The Cape Reinga light today is electric, with the last lighthouse keeper being withdrawn in 1987. It is now managed remotely by computer from Wellington.

The 1000-watt light bulb magnified by the lens system throws a signal of warning 49 km out to sea and is often the first light in New Zealand that sailors see.

Cape Reinga today

Cape Reinga has become a popular tourist destination visited by over 150,000 visitors annually. 

From the car park a short walking track leads down to the lighthouse. 

From here there are outstanding views of the ocean, the Three Kings Islands, and Cape Maria Van Diemen.


Further reading

Beaglehole, H. (2006). Lighting the Coast. A History of New Zealand's Coastal Lighthouse System (Canterbury University Press, Christchurch).

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