According to Maori mythology, after you die your spirit travels up the coast to the very tip of the North Island to a place called Te Rerenga Wairua, which means the leaping-off place of spirits. An ancient 800-year old pohukatawa tree, a tall twisting tree with tortuous roots, clings there to a rocky, wind-swept promontory. You spirit slides down one of the roots of the tree into the sea and enters the mythical Maori Underworld.
From there the spirit travels underwater emerging briefly from the water on a group of offshore islands. The spirit looks back one last time and bids one final farewell to the land before once again entering the sea and starting on its long journey to return to the homeland of Hawaiki (from where the Polynesians that inhabited New Zealand originated).
This is where we were heading, to the leaping-off place of spirits on the northern tip of the North Island.
Cape Reinga is the other name given to this location and it is also the spot where the two seas on either side of the island, the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, come together. A famed convergence of waves where these seas meet extends far out into the water. A lighthouse at Cape Reinga, overlooks this dramatic area.
In the spirit of a mythical quest, we decide to drive straight through from Tauranga to Cape Reinga, a long, crazy nine-hour journey. It’s Sunday and after several hours we reach Auckland and scoot through the traffic, the famous Sky Tower soaring above the city, and we cross the harbor bridge, below which sailboats skim across the waters. Then we head northwards, through lush, rolling farmland, as the road narrows to a two-lane road again. In the early afternoon, we pass through Whangarei, the largest city in the Northland area of New Zealand, then Hikurangi, Whakapara, Waitu, Hukerenui, Akerama, Towai, Waimio, Kawakawa—well, you get the idea. Lots of small towns. And like much of New Zealand, what looks like a straight road on the map, in reality consists of an endless number of hills, turns and bends. No road is straight here. And today in particular they are all populated by a disturbing array of vehicles—giant logging trucks, mopeds, camper vans, slow tourists in rental vehicles (not us), cars hauling trailers, madmen driving red courier vehicles at outrageous speeds, expensive cars escaping or returning from Auckland and all this is further complicated by endless road construction sites and schizophrenic weather. When we finally make it to Kaitaia, the last town of any size before Cape Reinga, and the last place to get groceries, it is raining hard. From there the land at the tip of the North Island begins to come together into a long narrow peninsula about 20 km across. The distance from Kaitaia to Cape Reinga was still another 105 km, a good hour and a half on New Zealand roads in these conditions.
From this point onward, I had expected a scenic drive with dramatic views of the ocean on both sides. Rather the road is situated in the middle of a barren land strip and there are no views. Off to our left (west) somewhere paralleling our road was the famous Ninety-Mile Beach. The entire length of this long relatively straight section of beach, which is more accurately 90 km long, can be driven on with the proper vehicle (4WD) during low tide, not something my small Nissan Tiida sedan with its 5 inches of clearance would even consider. Giant sand dunes at the northern end of this beach are a popular tourist attraction to bodyboard or sandboard down. It didn’t look like we’d be doing any of that either with our weather.
The weather continued to deteriorate, and at about 6 PM we pulled into a DOC (Department of Conservation) campground in a sheltered bay at the tip of the island, a few miles from the famed jumping-off point. We set up the tent. It rained most of the night.
In the morning, rain and a thick fog blanketed the coastline. You can’t go down to the actual leaping-off place since it is considered sacred Maori land, but you can go to the lighthouse and on a number of scenic coastal walks in the area with dramatic views of the coastline and beaches. The weather made hiking any of these pointless. That morning in the giant Cape Reinga parking lot (the area gets 150,000 tourists a year) we were one of only few vehicles. The visibility was almost nothing as we walked in the dense fog and rain toward the lighthouse. Occasionally another tourist would emerge bundled up in rain gear from out of the gloom as if materializing out of a dreamscape.
Unfortunately, there was no view out to sea at the lighthouse. I’m sure the dramatic meeting of the waters was out there somewhere but we weren’t going to see it today.
One positive thing—at the lighthouse we were the only people there, apparently a rare occurrence. A large yellow sign marks the distances to various locations.
In a curious piece of history that occurred in this area, Captain Cook and a French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville in another vessel both sighted the north coast of New Zealand within a few days of each other in 1769, and unbeknowst passed within some 40 km of each other, particularly amazing since they were virtually the only Europeans in the entire vast Pacific Ocean at the time.
The Te Rerenga Wairua or Cape Reinga lighthouse was the last lighthouse with a lighthouse keeper to be built in New Zealand. It started service in 1941. The last lighthouse keeper was withdrawn in 1987 and now its magnified 1000-watt bulb, which throws a warning signal 49 km out to sea, is remotely managed from Wellington.
Three Kings Islands, called Manawatawhi by the Maori, consist of a group of 13 uninhabited islands 34 miles northwest of Cape Reinga, and can be seen on a clear day from the Cape. Again, not today. These are the islands were the Maori spirit emerges and takes one final look backward toward New Zealand.
I like the idea of emerging from the sea and taking one final, fond look backwards at the land and perhaps at one’s life. Perhaps remembering all one’s victories and defeats, all the wondrous and beautiful places one has roamed and seen, and all the love and joy of life before once again slipping into the sea for who knows where.
The European name for these looking-back islands, Three Kings Islands, were given by Abel Tasman, the first European to discover New Zealand in 1643 in honor of the feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the biblical story where the Three Kings, also known as Three Wisemen, visited the baby Jesus.
And finally as a matter of record, Cape Reinga is not the actual northernmost point of the North Island, North Cape’s Surville Cliffs, 30 km east of Cape Reinga, are slightly farther north.
Once again, similar to one attempt at the Tongariro crossing noted in a previous post, we were thwarted by the weather. Apparently it is not uncommon to have severe, unpredictable weather in this area. Actually it is not uncommon to have severe, unpredictable weather everywhere in New Zealand! Several hours after leaving the dismal Cape Reinga area and the leaping-off place of spirits (our spirits still with us), the weather magically cleared and became glorious again. Now we would take the next few days making our way slowly back to Tauranga.
1) New Zealand Journal, June 14
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… pohutukawa tree whose roots hide the entrance to the mythical Maori Underworld. This point is known in Maori legend as Te Rerenga Wairua, …