Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Awhitu Peninsula Lighthouse - Auckland, New Zealand

My spare day last week was gloriously fine and too good to waste so I decided to have an adventure and go somewhere I had never been before.  I had long wanted to visit the lighthouse on Awhitu Peninsula at the Manukau Heads so this was the day for it.

I have a great love of lighthouses.  There is something so romantic and comforting about those beacons of light guiding sailors home. Henry Longfellow aptly sums it up in his poem The Lighthouse:

"And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o'er the billowy swells
And ever joyful as they see it burn
They wave their silent welcome and farewells"

 I can remember when I first became entranced by lighthouses.  I was about 7 or 8 years old and my family was visiting friends at Takapuna on Auckland's North Shore.  Their home was on the beach and as the day grew dark the powerful light from Tiri Island lighthouse flashed to and fro leaving its long silvery trail across the dark sea.  I was mesmerised and ever since have had a fascination with them.

A glorious day in the country
   The Awhitu lighthouse is 100 kilometres from my home, about an hour and a half by car.  The first half hour, on Auckland's Southern Motorway, is typical motorway driving then, after turning off at Drury, the road meanders through gently rolling, fertile farmland. The countryside, surrounding the rapidly growing rural township of Pukekohe, is famous as a market growing area due to its rich, dark volcanic soil. Vast perfectly plowed fields planted with health crops line the road gradually giving way  to dairy and sheep farms.  The route leads through the small town of Waiuku and out on to the lonely and isolated road leading to the lighthouse, about 40 kilometres away.  I loved my drive through the countryside, seeing few cars and pulling over to let the occasional car behind me pass so that I could take my time and enjoy the view. This was a warm still day but seeing the lines of trees on the ridges growing bent by the wind it is clear high winds buffet the peninsula at times.

Awhitu Lighhouse, Manukau Heads, Auckland
When I arrived at the end of the road there were just one car in the car park, its owners picnicing nearby.  It is a short climb up the hill to the lighthouse which stands high overlooking the entrance to Manukau harbour.  This reconstruction, dating from 2006, incorporating the original dome and lens, was built exactly to the plan of the original which operated from 1874 until 1986.  Visitors may enter the lighthouse, climb up the interior and walk around the exterior viewing deck.

View from the lighthouse
 The views are magnificent, looking out across the Tasman sea, along Whatipu Beach to the north, across to downtown Auckland, far in the distance, and over the countryside.  Apparently, on a clear day, it is possible to see as far south as Mt Taranaki and sometimes the world's rarest dolphins, the Maui, are seen cavorting in the sea below.  I saw neither but was more that happy with the view.

Another view, this time looking into Manukau Harbour.
 Auckland city can just be see on the horizon far left
The lighthouse was vital for the safety of mariners but has always required the backup of a signalman, a signalman still lives and communicates with ships, via VHF, lights and radar, from a house located just below the lighthouse.  The port of Onehunga within the harbour is a busy commercial port visited by around 200 ships a year.  Access to the port past the Manukau bar is treacherous, subject to rolling surf and the sand moving with the tides making it difficult to negotiate at the best of times. It has been the cause of many disasters, the most famous of all being the loss of the British man of war HMS Orpheus in 1863 when 185 lives were lost.  The story of the sinking of the Orpheus is interesting and tragic and until this day is New Zealand's worst maritime disaster.  The main cause of the sinking was that the captain disregarded the directions from the signalman and steered his own fateful course, relying on outdated charts. By the time a crewman realised they were in danger it was too late.
Looking south from the lighhouse

The lighthouse today is a serene and peaceful place surrounded by native plants and trees.  I wandered around for some time, enjoying the view and the romance of it all before retracing my journey back home with brief stops at the picturesque church at Awhitu and at Waiuku for a very late lunch. 

Tiny country church at Awhitu

All in all it was a fantastic day out.  I am so pleased I finally got to see the lighthouse and can tick that off my "to do" list