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Cape Reinga (1941)




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Cape Maria van Diemen (1879-1941)

Located on Motuopao Island 

Cape Maria van Diemen, facing the Tasman Sea, is the westernmost of the three points of land at the northern end of New Zealand, the other two being Cape Reinga and North Cape. 

The cape was named by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642 3  January, 1643 10  15  after the wife of Anthony van Diemen, then Governor General of Batavia, Dutch East Indies, now known as Jakarta, Indonesia. 3  15

Motuopoa Island lies 1/2 mile (200m) off the cape, and consists of 84 acres of mostly sand dudes. 3

Tasman also named The Three Kings group of islands on January 6, 1643. Tasman anchored at the islands when searching for water and as it was the twelfth night feast of the Epiphany, the day the three wise men visited baby Jesus, he named the islands the Three Kings. 15  These are the only two geographic features in New Zealand to retain the names given to them by Abel Tasman. 15

Over 120 wrecks have occurred in the waters of Northland with a fair number of those in the waters surrounding Cape Reinga and Cape Maria van Diemen. In 1854 the Beacons and Lighthouse Committee recommended a lighthouse for either Cape Maria van Diemen or Cape Reinga and again by the Marine Department in 1863-5. An alternative suggestion was also made in 1873 that the lighthouse should be erected at North Cape. 10

In 1874, Nautical Advisor, Captain Johnson, surveyed the North Island for possible lighthouse sites aboard the government ship Luna. He reported back to the commissioner of customs in Auckland the following  "owing to a report that Cape Reinga would offer a good site for a light, the Luna after leaving Cape Maria, proceeded thither; on arrival we found a landing difficult, although the weather was fine. The height of the cape proved to be 456 ft, far too great a height in my opinion for a light ... I therefore came to the conclusion that Cape Reinga was not so suitable a position for a light as the island laying off Cape Maria van Diemen."  4  

So a lighthouse was proposed on Motuopao Island off of Cape Maria van Diemen in preference to Cape Reinga or North Cape, since it had a wider arc of visibility and easier access by water. 10

In 1875, the Government had acquired the land for the lighthouse reserve by extinguishing the title of its Maori owners. 10  56   However it also reported the land was donated by the Yates family who owned over 67,000 acres of the far north.  62

By July, 1875, a sight had been selected and the lighting apparatus had been ordered from the England.  60   In 1876,  the apparatus, including an eight-panel Fresnel lens system, made in France, was shipped to New Zealand on board the Arari. 10

A work party began construction in August 1877.  The Government steamer Stella shipped materials that were landed on the beach. Soon a derrick was built for hoisting equipment ashore and a tramway was laid up to the lighthouse work site. 10

The wooden lighthouse was built on a concrete base at the northern end of the island at an elevation of 300 ft  (91m). The lantern room was fitted with a 1st order dioptric  18  revolving white light that flashed every minute with a range of 24.5 miles  18  (40km 10 ). A small separate fixed light displayed a red sector over Columbia Reef, a rocky outcrop from the island. The total cost for the lighthouse and three keepers houses was £7028 14s. 8d. 3

The lighthouse was designed by John Blackett and was identical to the Centre Island Lighthouse in Foveaux Strait that was built and lit in September, 1878. 10  It was a two storied octagonal wooden tower, with an internal staircase connecting the two levels. The upper room housed the clockwork machinery necessary to rotate the lamp, the machinery was connected to weights attached to ropes dropping down through the lower level to a well in the ground floor foundation. The lower level would have been used for storage. The main framing is believed to be Australian ironwood, the exterior was kauri weatherboards. An external iron ladder gave access to a platform around the perimeter of the structure, which would have been used to clean and maintain the glass and the lantern. 10

Three houses were built on the Island for the Principal Keeper and two Assistant Keepers and their families. The houses were set on terraces on the northern face of the hill with the Principal Keepers house near the lighthouse at the top. 10

The light was lit on March 24, 1879 10  16  / 1878. 2  3    The first principal keeper was John Wheeler, with assistants Robert Wilson and Charles Gibbons. 10

The three keepers and their families struggled to live on the island. The 200m stretch of water between the mainland and the island was extremely dangerous with very strong currents and unexpected wave surges. Two people drowned while crossing this passage. 13  Drinking water was scarce, dependant only on rainfall.  For food, fish was plentiful and goats supplied milk and occasionally meat. As the island was mainly sand, westerly winds were dreaded as it would blow the sand against the houses, sometimes as high as the windows. After the storm the keepers had to shovel this away. 3

The island was serviced every three months by the Government steamers, Stella and Tutanekei and later by the Hinemoa. Supplies were landed on the sheltered side of the island and winched off the ships to a landing area. 3  In 1880, heavy sea damaged the landing area and tramway. 10

Samuel Yates from Parengarenga provided a somewhat erratic mail service dependant on fine weather for the keepers to cross the channel in their whaleboat to meet him. 10  Later to aid in the landing of supplies and personnel an aerial cable was installed in 1886 1  between the cape and the island. 2  

Supplies were also hauled by dray overland from Kaitaia then winched across on the cable. 2  One of the early lighthouse keepers was Tom Smith, he and his family arrived in 1918.  On the day they arrived the sea was too rough to land on the island so they were put ashore on the mainland. They then hauled their belongings over the sand hills to the aerial cable. While Mrs. Smith, a daughter and their six week old baby were being winched across on the cable, the wind intensified and the cage they sat in started to swing uncontrollably until it jammed in the middle of the cable.  There they remained suspended in the storm until it subsided two hours later and they could once again operate the winch. 3

In November of 1894, the Government asked the Post Master General to investigate the feasibility of a telephone line linking the island to the mainland.  61

In 1895 the Post and Telegraph Department ran a wire connecting the lighthouse to Awanui. The telephone exchange was attached to the principal keeper's house and included a small post office, one of the smallest in the country. 10

In 1903 due to the constant sand drifts, one of the houses was replaced. After storm damage in 1908, a new landing terminal was blasted out of the rock face and the tramway re-routed along a higher cliffside cutting. 10 

During 1909, the Marine Department who had earlier experimented with incandescent burner systems (Chance Patent) at Pencarrow, Stephens Island and Jack's Point (Timaru) made a decision to install them in other lighthouses. Lighthouse expert, Mr. David Scott installed the new burner at the Cape.  90

The Assistants Keeper's houses at the lower end of the hill were subjected to the worst sand drifts so in 1921-22 two new houses were built across the valley, on the southern hill. 10

In 1922 the Marine Department started to experiment with radio beacons and a beacon was placed at Cape Maria van Diemen Lighthouse to ensure the safety around The Three Kings. The beacon would only transmit to ships that had receivers installed and ship owners at the time were reluctant to install them. However the Marine Department went ahead installed a permanent beacon in 1926. The beacon was used 26 times in the first tree months due to fog and was the first radio beacon to operate in the Southern Hemisphere. It was not until 1969 that a unmanned lighthouse was built on The Three Kings. 10

Unfortunately all the early records of the lighthouse were destroyed in a fire at the Hope Gibbons Building in Wellington in October 1922. 3

In 1933 an assistant lighthouse keeper’s wife was swept off the rocks near the lighthouse. 1

By 1937 the Marine Department was concerned with the welfare of the keepers and their families on the island. The boat landing was dangerous and difficult to service, so a decision was made to build a new lighthouse on Cape Reinga on the mainland. 10

On the 6, October 6, 1940 the last mail was stamped at the Cape Maria van Diemen Post Office and on November 2, 1940 lighthouse keeper Bill Tait extinguished the light for the last time. 10

The lantern room and lens were dismantled and shipped to the Bay of Islands. The lens was trucked back to Cape Reinga and installed in the lighthouse. Meantime a small automatic beacon had been operating at Cape Reinga. The new light was exhibited for the first time October 3, 1941. 10

The lantern from Motuopao Island is currently a tourist attraction at Waitaki Landing on State Highway 1 south of Cape Reinga; it has not been registered with the New Zealand Historical Trust. 10

In 1941 19  1943 10 an automatic battery powered beacon was placed on the mainland at Cape Maria van Diemen. 10  Every three months the batteries were changed by the keepers at Cape Reinga, which involved loading the batteries in special frames on four pack horses and leading them over a trail to the automatic lighthouse. The light was visually checked each night every three hours from Cape Reinga.  8

In 1950 the three lighthouse keepers houses and nine other out buildings were sold to a Whangarei buyer who dismantled everything except the wooden lighthouse tower, the principal keepers house and the kerosene store. 10

Today Motuopoa Island is a scenic  reserve, restricted to Department of Conservation staff. The remains of the lighthouse tower are in remarkably good condition.  The wooden tower of kauri and Australian hardwood is still in good condition, but the nails have rusted so parts of the exterior cladding are starting to fall away. The ladder is no longer on the site. With the removal of the lantern room the structure has been open to the elements so rot is forming around the base of the structure.  13

The foundations of the three keepers houses, the aerial cable mechanism, the concrete base for the gantry, and assorted smaller wooden structures are still intact. 13

In 2001 the Department of Conservation repaired the cladding and framework of the tower due to deterioration. In 2002 they installed a temporary roof over the tower to keep it watertight. 13

The Lighthouse tower remains the principal structure on the island, and is clearly visible from the mainland. 


A New Light At Cape Reinga (1941)

The Cape Reinga Lighthouse is located at the top of the North Island of New Zealand. It is one of the first lights that shipping observes when arriving from the Tasman Sea and North Pacific Ocean. 

The light was exhibited for the first time October 3, 1941 and was the last watched lighthouse to be built. 1  The light was powered by a diesel generator and manned by two keepers and their families. 1

Up until then end of World War Two in 1945, the light saw little use due to the war time black outs. 1

In 1951 a school was established which the keepers’ children attended. When the school shut a decade later, the children traveled to a nearby school. 1

The light was automated in 1987 and is monitored from Wellington. 1

In April 2000, the original light and associated equipment was removed and replaced with a modern rotating beacon illuminated by a 50 watt tungsten halogen bulb. The power for the new light is supplied from battery banks charged by solar panels. 1

New Zealand's most visited lighthouse with tourists and tour buses a daily occurrence. In Spirits Bay, below the lighthouse, Maori legend says that the spirits of the recently deceased climb down the twisted branches of the Pohutukawa trees and depart to the homeland of the original Maori.



Issued in 1996 as part of the scenic stamp series Cape Reinga Lighthouse featured on a 20 cent stamp.


In 2006 Cape Reinga was featured in a stamp series on renewable energy. Solar: Lighthouse, Cape Reinga - $2.00
The solar panels on the lighthouse at Cape Reinga supply the high-wattage beacon batteries which are remotely operated from Wellington.


In 2009 the New Zealand Post announced a lighthouse commemorative stamp issue celebrating the 150th anniversary of New Zealand’s lighthouses. A technological first, the stamps have special glue whereas the beams from the lighthouse actually glow in the dark,. This is activated by sunlight or holding the stamp under a light for a short time. The five stamps are in different denominations, ranging from fifty cents to $2.50 and feature Pencarrow Head  50 cents, Dog Island  $1.00, Cape Brett  $1.50, Cape Egmont  $2.00 and Cape Reinga  $2.50.



New Zealand's most well known lighthouse can be reached by driving north on highway 1 from Kaitaia  116 km (about 2 hours) until you reach the end of the road at the end of the country.



Island North
Province Northland
Location Northland
Number K3688
Date Commissioned October 3, 1941  1  
Date Decommissioned
Automated 1987  1
Latitude 34° 26' South  1
Longitude 172° 41' East  1
Elevation Above Sea Level 165m  1  19      
Height 10m  1
Character Flashes white once every 12 seconds  1
Range 26 N. miles (49 km)  1   19 nautical miles (35 kilometres)  1
Made On site 1
Construction Concrete 1
Converted Kerosene To Diesel Originally diesel generated electricity  1
Converted Diesel To Mains Electricity Still using diesel generated electricity  1
Wattage 1000w
Present Tower Original
Authority Owned and operated by Maritime New Zealand
Date Visited February 6, 2000


Principal Keeper From To
  1st lit, October 3, 1941  1    
Tom A Clark c 1963  
William (Bill) D. Kemp    
  Automated and Keeper Withdrawn 1987 1


Assistant Keeper (1st) From To
  1st lit, October 3, 1941  1  
Robert Wallace  198 1960  198 c 1960's  198
Ian & Marilyn McKinlay  64 1970's  64 1970's  64



Additional Sources:

56Nelson Evening Mail, Volume X, Issue 57, 8 March 1875, Page 2

60. Grey River Argus, Volume XVI, Issue 2177, 31 July 1875, Page 2

61. Star , Issue 5116, 26 November 1894, Page 3

62. Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume LVII, 1 August 1910, Page 5

90Otago Daily Times , Issue 14431, 26 January 1909, Page 2

64Christchurch Star, Section C, December 8, 1999

198. Robert Wallace (Tim Wallace, July 7, 2013) 



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Text and photographs. Copyright © 1999-2013  Mark Phillips. All rights reserved.

If anyone has any information on this light please contact me.

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