Kaipara North Head Light

In earlier days a prominent pā guarded the entrance to the Kaipara Harbour at Pouto. The present settlement results from the development of the harbour as a highway for trade, missionary activity, exports and immigration. A pilot station was established on Kaipara South Head in 1864, and later moved to Pouto. In 1881 several shipwrecks with substantial loss of life lead 25 mariners to write to the Government seeking a light. In May 1882, a site 278 feet (84.7 metres) above sea level was selected by Capt. Fairchild of the Stella. An order for the lantern was placed with James Milne & Son, Edinburgh, and for the revolving apparatus and machinery with Barbier and Fenestre and Dove and Co, England.

It was decided to build the lighthouse near Kaipara North Head, along the beach west of Pouto. In 1883-4, the lighthouse and associated buildings (cottages for two keepers, sheds, two beacons, 80 foot [24 metre] high signal mast) were built at first by an unnamed man who got sick, replaced by Mr D Scott. It was the last lighthouse in New Zealand to be built of wood. The designer was John Blackett. The 44 foot (13.4m) tall tower was built of locally milled kauri, with the cement foundations incorporating shingle from Mt Eden in Auckland. Like the lantern and apparatus, the spiral staircase of iron and brass was imported from Great Britain. On 1 December 1884 the light came into operation, burning paraffin (kerosene), with a white flash every ten seconds, visible for 25½ nautical miles (47kms). 

By 1919, all New Zealand manned lighthouses had been converted to incandescent petroleum burners operating under pressure – it is not known exactly when Kaipara was converted. The burner was automated in 1924, though it still had to be watched overnight.

The Kaipara Harbour Master’s office, the Marine Hall, the school and the Post Office were situated at Pouto Point. In the 1930s, the lighthouse keepers moved to Pouto, because windblown sand made life unbearable for their families at the lighthouse. They would work at the lighthouse in rotation, returning to Pouto on their days off.

In 1900, 250 ships used the port, but by 1917 there were only 50, falling to 9 in 1938. As a security precaution, the light was extinguished during World War II. In 1947 the manned lighthouse was replaced by an automatic light. An acetylene gas light was installed in the lantern house, which was reduced to half its original height, using a lantern originally installed at Hokitika. The original Kaipara lantern and copper dome were dismantled and shipped for use at Cape Saunders lighthouse, on the eastern tip of Otago Peninsula built in 1948, replacing an earlier timber light. Because Cape Saunders sits on a cliff-top, and does not use clockwork, no tower is necessary, and the former Kaipara lantern simply sits on the ground.

At the end of 1947, Kaipara Harbour was closed as a port, and in 1952 the light was removed and the lighthouse abandoned. In 1972 following expressions of concern about the future of the lighthouse, especially from a local organisation the Kaipara Lighthouse Preservation Trust, the purpose of the reserve was changed from a pilot and signal station reserve to a reserve for historic purposes. Control passed from the Marine Department to the control and management of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

The next part is an account of the recent (November 2004) work:

When Henry Winkelmann visited Kaipara North Head in 1902, he photographed the lighthouse on its prominent bare outcrop

By July 2004, the sand almost hid the lighthouse from the sea, and threatened to submerge it completely

The Lighthouse at Kaipara North Head was erected in 1884, on an elevated flat rocky shelf. The earliest known photos, from 1902, show the area around the light as being quite flat and bare of sand. A 1913 photo looking east from the light shows a sandy slope rising to the east of the lighthouse, with a house, beacons and other buildings on it. A 1939 report notes that the three keepers’ families had in recent years been removed to live at Pouto, “because conditions, mainly on account of the moving sand, were so unbearable”. In 1939 it is recorded that “the prevailing winds had piled the sand to a depth of 14 feet around the walls [of the staff quarters] and constant scooping with a horse team was necessary to keep the walls clear”.

The lighthouse staff undertook a great deal of maintenance of the lighthouse and other buildings, and although it is not documented much, it can be assumed that they made sure the lighthouse was kept clear of sand.

After the abandonment of the lighthouse in 1957, this level of maintenance ceased. Photographs from the 1950s to the 1980s show the gradual encroachment of sand, especially on the southern side. In 1984, a considerable flat area surrounding the lighthouse to both the east and west was used for parking by vehicles attending the centenary celebrations, though sand and vegetation was encroaching on the south. By 2000, the sand to the south was well above the level of the lighthouse floor, though still some distance from it. To the east, a level area about 1 metre below the level of the floor was used as a vehicle turnaround for quad bikes. Increasing amounts of scrubby vegetation growing closer and closer to the lighthouse, some of it deliberately planted to try unsuccessfully to consolidate the sand.

Don Hayward used his considerable skill as a digger operator to move the sand without damaging or even touching the Light House.

In July 2004, sustained westerlies piled up a considerable heap of sand on this formerly flat area to the east of the tower, and buried some 50cms of the wooden base of the tower on that side. Sand from the heap to the south of the tower was blown around the tower, burying the wooden steps and rising to the level of the floor. Sand blew into the lighthouse when the door was open, and was swept clear by locals.

Faced with this threat, NZ Historic Places Trust, which manages this Crown Historic Reserve, realised urgent action was needed. The Trust obtained resource consent for the work from the Northland Regional Council, with the support of the Department of Conservation and Te Uri o Hau. Two full weeks of intensive work with earthmoving machines, shovels and trowel were spent to remove the threat from wind driven shifting sand at Kaipara North Head Light. Northland Manager Stuart Park was on site to monitor the work, which was undertaken with great skill by Hayward Earthmoving of Pouto.

As well as removing the physical threat from the sand, the work has restored the cultural landscape (and seascape) of the Lighthouse. Once again, as it did for many years, the lighthouse stands out prominently on its elevated site, with clear view of the heads and down the channel, and in clear view from the sea; that’s what good lighthouses do. The surrounding sand and vegetation had been preventing this over the last 20 years or so. The work has re-established the link between the lighthouse and the sea.

Stuart Park
Northland Manager
NZ Historic Places Trust
PO Box 836, Kerikeri, New Zealand 0470
spark at historic.org.nz

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