The Maori People called Curio Bay and its fossilised forest Tumu Toka, which roughly translates into ‘hardened wood’ or ‘stump wood’. Scientists believe a volcano erupted during torrential rain, and ash filled flood waters engulfed the forest. The scientific term for this fossilised phenomenon is ‘silification’ and the trees would have looked like they had been struck by Narnia’s Ice Queen only a few weeks after the eruption.
Geoff and I wandered along the rocky, stumpy, coastline investigating the forest remains; and were on the lookout for hectors dolphins and yellow eyed penguins. On this particularly windy day even the wildlife stayed well hidden.
At Waipapa Point, just along the coastline from Curio Bay, we were assaulted by gale-force winds and I sacrificed my umbrella trying to get moody shots of the wooden lighthouse. The Point marks the Eastern entrance to Foveaux Strait, and the treacherous Otara reef. The Maori people called the point Waipapapa, and highly valued this stretch of coastline with its abundant kai moana (sea food). However, they knew the submerged dangers hidden by the high tides and warned the whalers, sealers and other seafarers when they began to explore the area.
On April 29th 1881, the point was the site of New Zealand’s 2nd worst civilian maritime disaster on record. The S.S. Taraua was steaming from Port Chalmers to Melbourne via Bluff when she struck the reef and began to sink. The lifeboats overturned, 131 people drowned, and the twenty survivors along with the bodies were found littered along coastline.
The colonial government were quick to respond and materials for a lighthouse were ordered from Scotland in December 1882. The lantern room was made out of out of bronze, copper, cast iron and glass, and was built in three separate sections by James Milne and Sons. When completed the three sections were shipped to New Zealand. In 1883, the room was placed on top of the double skinned wooden tower. Made out of kauri and totara, the Waipara lighthouse stands at 13.4 metres tall, and it was one of the last wooden lighthouses to be built.
John Frederick Erecson manned the first watch on January 1st 1884 and diligently kept the paraffin lamp burning. The light was upgraded to kerosene in 1912 and electricity in 1943. Waipara was actually the first lighthouse to be lit by the national grid and was fully automated in 1976. The light even went ‘green’- that is environmentally friendly, in 1988 thanks to the installation of solar panels. Today, it flashed five times every twenty seconds, from dusk till dawn, every night of the year.
Although the views on a sunny day are spectacular, when we visited the point was a sombre place: barren, Baltic cold and assaulted by the wind. I’m a strong swimmer; however, I doubt I would have lasted a second in the relentless pounding of the freezing waves even in a wetsuit. I can only imagine what it would have been like to get into a ‘lifeboat’ in heavy Victorian clothes. Let’s hope the lighthouse keeps doing its job indefinitely, and there are no more wrecks like the SS Taurua.