The Stephens Island / Takapourewa lighthouse is one of New Zealand’s most powerful lights with a range of 18 nautical miles (33 km; 21 mi). Perched 183 meters (600 ft) up, on top of Stephens Island, it guards Cook Strait and Tasman Bay / Te Tai-o-Aorere, at the top of the South Island / Te Wai Pounamu. The light flashes white once every six seconds from a white cast iron tower.
The light is operated remotely from Maritime New Zealand’s Wellington office. It was first lit on 29 January 1894 and did not become automated until 31 March 1989, one of the last in New Zealand to be automated.
Entry to the site and tower is by permit only, because it is part of the Stephens Island Nature Reserve, managed by the Department of Conservation. Today it is home to tuatara, no people, and an urban myth about a cat named Tibbles.
Stephens Island Lighthouse marks the north western approach to Cook Strait, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island.
|Location:||latitude 40°40’ south, longitude 174°00’ east|
|Elevation:||183 metres above sea level|
|Construction:||cast iron tower|
|Tower height:||15 metres|
|Light configuration:||modern rotating beacon|
|Light flash character:||white light flashing once every 5 seconds|
|Power source:||batteries charged by solar panels|
|Range:||18 nautical miles (33 kilometres)|
|Date light first lit:||1894|
Getting to Stephens Island Lighthouse
Stephens Island Lighthouse is not accessible to the public.
Public access to Stephens Island is restricted to permit holders only due to its status as a nature reserve.
The island is a nature reserve administered by the Department of Conservation. At least 30,000 tuatara and other rare species of wildlife live on Stephens Island.
Find this on the map: Stephens Island
The Māori name for the island, Takapourewa, originates from it once being covered in the takapou trees. Takapou – more commonly known as matipo – trees grew right down to the water’s edge, giving the effect that the island floated in the sea. The Maori word for float is rewa; hence, Takapou-rewa.
In 1770, Captain James Cook sailed past and named the island after Sir Philip Stephens, the Secretary of the British Admiralty Board.
Captain James Cook(7 November 1728[NB 1] – 14 February 1779) was a British explorer, cartographer, and naval officer famous for his three voyages between 1768 and 1779 in the Pacific Ocean and to New Zealand and Australia in particular. He made detailed maps of Newfoundland prior to making three voyages to the Pacific, during which he achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, and the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.
Cook joined the British merchant navy as a teenager and joined the Royal Navy in 1755. He saw action in the Seven Years’ War and subsequently surveyed and mapped much of the entrance to the St. Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec, which brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society. This acclaim came at a crucial moment for the direction of British overseas exploration, and it led to his commission in 1768 as commander of HMS Endeavour for the first of three Pacific voyages.
In these voyages, Cook sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe. He mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in greater detail and on a scale not previously charted by Western explorers. He surveyed and named features, and recorded islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. He displayed a combination of seamanship, superior surveying and cartographic skills, physical courage, and an ability to lead men in adverse conditions.
In 1779, during Cook’s third exploratory voyage in the Pacific, tensions escalated between his men and the natives of Hawaii, and an attempt to kidnap chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu led to Cook’s death. Whilst there is controversy over Cook’s role at the forefront of British colonialism and the violence associated with his contacts with indigenous peoples, he left a legacy of scientific and geographical knowledge that influenced his successors well into the 20th century, and numerous memorials worldwide have been dedicated to him.
As the new colony grew in the 1850s, the island was identified as an obvious location for one of a scheme of lighthouses to be erected on significant headlands along New Zealand’s 15,000 kilometers (9,300 mi) long coastline. The site was first proposed in 1854, and again in 1888 after the bark Weathersfield was shipwrecked nearby. Several factors, including remoteness, turbulent Cooks Strait, and steep terrain, made it difficult and hazardous to build. In addition, it is the highest elevation above sea level of any lighthouse in New Zealand. Before the lighthouse and associated dwellings could be built, a work party arrived in 1891 to construct a boat landing ledge and vertical tramway up the precipitous cliffs.
The original light components were sourced from Edinburgh and France. The eventual £9,349 cost was twice the price of many other New Zealand lighthouses. Back then, its five-wick paraffin lamps made it the brightest lighthouse in New Zealand
The native māpou (red matipo) was cleared to make way for sheep and cattle, and vertical tramway. Habitat destruction and feral cats are blamed for the silencing of the birdsong of the native tūī, bellbird, and tīeke.
By way of contrast, when Edward Lukins, a collector of natural history specimens, visited shortly after the occupation, he recorded 31 species of birds, along with two species of land snails and four lizards
For the keepers and their families, it was a lonely and hard posting, with a perpendicular climb from boat to home. Besides keeping the light lit, they acted as wildlife rangers and coast watchers during the Second World War.Isolation made illness a serious risk. For example, in May 1909, a doctor and nurse were urgently sent out from Wellington to stifle an outbreak of scarlet fever.
On a brighter note, in 1947, the lighthouse was featured on a four-pence postage stamp.At one time, there were three keepers and a small school. In the mid-1960s, Jeanette Aplin and her family lived on the island for six years. She tells her story in The lighthouse keeper’s Wife, a tale of self-discovery, small domestic details of a lighthouse community, and her zest for isolation from everyday society.
The History of Stephens Island Lighthouse
The Stephens Island Lighthouse was built at the highest elevation above sea level of all New Zealand’s lighthouses. The original light was also the most powerful. At a total cost of £9,349, the lighthouse cost twice that of many other lights in New Zealand.
Operation of the Stephens Island light
The light was first lit in 1894. Oil was initially used to power the illumination. In 1938 the light was converted to electric power, supplied by diesel generators.
The Stephens Island station was one of the last to be automated. The last keepers were withdrawn in 1989.
In 2000 the original light was removed and replaced with a new rotating beacon, located within the original tower.
The new light is fitted with a 50-watt tungsten halogen bulb powered by battery banks charged by solar panels.
The light is monitored remotely from Maritime New Zealand’s Wellington office.
Life at Stephens Island light station
Access to Stephens Island was extremely difficult. Keepers first had to journey from Wellington over the turbulent seas of Cook Strait. Then upon reaching Stephens Island, the way ashore was via a basket swung on the end of the station’s crane. Passengers and goods were winched from the deck of the servicing ship onto the shore. Keepers and their families then had a long walk up the 180-metre-high hill to their homes.
The introduction of helicopters used to service the lighthouse, greatly improved access to the Stephens Island light station.
On Stephens Island, the keepers were also honorary wildlife rangers. They kept a watchful eye on the tuataras and the dove petrels which also inhabited the island. Keepers were often paid an honorarium by the Wildlife Service to keep a check on visitors, maintain fences and provide reports on wildlife matters.
Stephens Island station was a lonely and difficult post. Right up until its automation in 1989, the only communication with the mainland was by means of a radiotelephone. This was only supposed to be used for lighthouse duties. It was this seclusion however that was often the attraction to those living on light stations like Stephens Island.
In 1980 one of the last keepers at Stephens Island told the Weekend Star newspaper that life on the station:
“…makes you realize much about yourself and your own capabilities. Out here you end up being true to yourself. You have no outside pressures coming in. We live life to the full here, the way we want to live.”
Two of the original keeper’s houses have been retained and are used by the Department of Conservation.
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