Thursday, 11 July 2013

Pencarrow Lighthouse

Last Monday, 8 July, was another fine calm day with a forecast of deteriorating weather in the next few days, so I skipped my Zumba class, and we went for a ride instead.

Having “documented” the storm damage and its clean-up on the Wellington south coast last Thursday, we thought we would see how the Eastbourne and Pencarrow coast had fared. It turned out to be a much longer excursion than we had originally planned, nearly three and a half hours, but not all of it was cycling. And it wasn't all about storm damage either.

On our way to Eastbourne we drove through Seaview, on the eastern side of the Hutt River mouth. The storm ravaged this area too. Photo number 2 on this news website  shows how much debris was thrown up onto the roadside path and gardens. It had all been cleared away, but the damage done to the foot/cycle path we have ridden on a few times, is considerable. 

The foot/cycle path along Port Road in Seaview

At Eastbourne, we unloaded the bikes near the wharf, and rode along the road and Marine Parade. Already, right at the beginning of the Marine Parade, there was evidence of huge amounts of beach sand having been tossed up onto the road and onto the gardens along here. The centre of the path had been swept clear, but sand was heaped all along the edges. The council had swept much of it into large piles in several places too.

The storm-dumped sand was piled up after the clean-up

The footpath between the end of Marine Parade and the bus terminus was quite ripped up, but I was pleased to see that the Wahine Memorial seemed to be unscathed.

Damaged footpath near the Eastbourne bus terminus (photo by John)

We had to lift our bikes over the gate to the Pencarrow track, because the narrow gap for people and bikes to go through, had suffered – the metal framework had been distorted, so that there was no longer enough room to manoeuvre a bike through the gap.

In every bay that was exposed to the south, the road had been covered in sand, fine gravel and presumably driftwood and other debris. It was obvious that a grader had been through, pushing sand and debris to the edges. The sand was very coarse – quite different from the fine, fly-away stuff that littered Lyall Bay (refer previous post).

Sand and debris had been pushed to the edges of the road by a grader

The sand and gravel made the surface very skiddy, much harder to negotiate. You had to be careful not to get into drifts of it, or you’d lose your grip and go for a serious wobble. John’s advice: “Go slowly, use a low gear. Actually, it’s good for your balance”. The most treacherous bits were the potholes that had been filled with sand, as they were not obvious until you hit them.

The extra sand made the road tricky to ride in some places. This photo was taken on our way back, in the late afternoon, hence the pinky-gold light and strong shadows (photo by John)

The beach that I had described as “wide, smooth and empty” in my post about Eastbourne last month, was now strewn with driftwood and seaweed, and the whole contour of the beach had changed, having been scoured out right at the back, near the road. Not surprising, considering that record wave heights of 15 m, peak to trough, had been were recorded by a buoy offshore from Baring Head (further round from Pencarrow) in Cook Strait. Most of these waves would have crashed right into these bays.

Debris on the beach

Beach sand had been re-arranged by the storm (photo by John)

I wondered where all the huge trunks of driftwood might have come from, because they were not freshly demolished trees. They looked like they had spent a long time being tossed around by the tides. John thinks they may have originally come down the Orongorongo River, having perhaps been washed down in floods long ago. They may well have landed on other beaches, before drifting away again in the next storm. Some showed signs of having had bits sawn off them, for firewood presumably.

Huge chunks of driftwood were everywhere (photo by John)

Looking up at the hill side of the track I marvelled at the way the vegetation had grown into rounded shapes, in response to the prevailing wind. I think this is the NZ native matagouri. If I am wrong, somebody please put me right.  

The vegetation grows in rounded clumps sculptured by the winds

It seemed we arrived at the Pencarrow Lighthouse more quickly than last time. We decided to go beyond it this time and have a look at the Parangarahu Lakes.

The lower Pencarrow Lighthouse, looking South (photo by John)

Both the lower and upper lighthouses, looking North (photo by John)

Round the corner from the lighthouse were a couple of caves. On my photo, they look like the eyes of some huge, half-buried, lurking monster. The caves are actually not very high - not high enough for someone to stand up in. Not that I tried to take a closer look ...

The caves - they look like the eyes of a half-buried monster ...

We had visited this area at the height of the drought last summer and there wasn't much in the way of lakes to be seen from the road. This time, the huge shingle beach in front of the lakes had been so rearranged by the storm, that we could hardly see where the road was that leads around it. No matter, we took the track that led up the hill towards Lake Kohangapiripiri. We lifted the bikes over the gate, climbed over the style, rode a little way up the track and round the corner, and we were in for a fabulous surprise.

Lake Kohangapiripiri was like a mirror, reflecting the hills

There was the lake, with a surface like a mirror, with perfect reflections of the hills. Reeds grew along some of the edges, and in islands and fingers into the lake, its tips glistening in the sunshine. Stunning! And it was so still and quiet – not a sound, apart from the occasional warbling bird.

Perfect reflections on Lake Kohangapiripiri (photo by John)

Reeds growing along the shores of the lake (photo by John)

We rode up the grass track – a gentle slope towards the top of the lake. John took a picture of me, to show that I CAN ride up hills – very gentle ones … Though more seasoned cyclists might scoff that that track was “practically flat!”.

The gently sloping grass track (photo by John)
Here's proof that I CAN ride up (gentle!) slopes ... (photo by John)

In the distance, towards the right, I could see a sign post and a track leading steeply up the hill, and I said to John, “when it gets that steep, I’m quitting”. But that’s not where we went.

We came to a sign that pointed the way to the Old Pencarrow Lighthouse, on top of the hill. Twenty minutes, it said. “Noooo!” I said, “it’s too steep!”. “Aw, come on” said John, “it’s only 20 minutes”. Yeah right, pushing a bike up the hill, it was more like 35 minutes.

Twenty minutes up to the old lighthouse - more like 35!

But it was so worth it! The track wasn’t too bad, really. Too steep to cycle up, but OK to walk, and it was wide and smooth, on grass. On the way, there were several display boards providing information about the Pencarrow Lighthouse – when and why it was built, diagrams of its construction, what life was like for the lighthouse keepers and their families, and when and why it was finally decommissioned, and handed over to the Historic Places Trust.

One of the information display boards

Pencarrow was New Zealand’s first permanent lighthouse. It was officially opened in 1859.

The plaque on the Old Pencarrow Lighthouse

It originally had an oil-burning lamp, which was later converted to cheaper kerosene at first, and then to an incandescent oil vapour lamp in 1908. Because it was often shrouded in fog, a fog signal was added to the station in 1898 (the first of its type in the country) and in 1906 a secondary lighthouse was built at the beach below.
In 1935, the top lighthouse became redundant when NZ’s first automated light was built at Baring Head, further along the coast, as it was a more prominent landmark for shipping. Keepers remained on the Pencarrow site to tend to the fog signal until 1960. The lower lighthouse is still in use today.

After a fair climb we came to a gap in the hill, and there in front of us and below, was the view over the harbour, Cook Strait, and the Pencarrow coast road we had cycled on. What a magnificent sight.

The road that we had come from, and the lighthouse that we were heading for. (photo by John)

According to the information board, this had been the site of the lighthouse keepers’ houses, being the most sheltered part of this frequently wind-battered hillside.

The site of the lighthouse keepers' houses

But it was still a way to the lighthouse itself. From here the track became rough, and very steep. I refused to take the bike any further. I wouldn't be game to ride down it again, so there was no point in taking the bike up there. John worried about leaving the bikes unattended. But there was no one around – we had the place completely to ourselves! So he locked the bikes together with a cable lock – just in case …

This track was longer and steeper than it appears on this photo. John locked our bikes together.

From the hollow, the lighthouse had not seemed terribly far. Very deceptive. We went up, then down, then round and up again, and eventually got there. Just before we got to the top, I could hear a low rumbling, and guessed it might be the Interisland ferry.

When we reached the top - Wow! What a view! Below us was not just the ferry coming into the harbour, but also a cargo ship steaming out.

The interisland ferry Kaitaki entering the harbour, and a cargo ship heading out

We could see the coast road we rode on directly below us. To the north we could see the harbour with its islands Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island), and the Tararua Ranges beyond the Hutt Valley; opposite us the city; and to the south we could see the South Island, where we could just detect a small amount of snow still on the Seaward Kaikoura Range. While Wellington was suffering its storm, the Kaikouras received a big dump of snow, but the warm north-west wind of the past week has melted most of it again.

Wellington Harbour (photo by John)

Facing the other way, the hills, and below, Lake Kohangapiripiri with its gorgeous reflections.

Lake Kohangapiripiri seen from the Lighthouse (photo by John)

Of course we took loads of photos, only some of which I can show here. The lighthouse itself is a handsome white tapering octagonal tower with a balcony all around the light, and a weathervane on the top. That weathervane must be really strong, as it will have been battered by some of the worst winds NZ can muster, and survived!

The Old Pencarrow Lighthouse (photo by John)

It was about four o’clock by now, and it was time to get going, as there would only be another hour or so of daylight. Where we left the bikes, there was a stile, and a sign showing another track, to get back to the coast road. It was very steep, very rough and very narrow. John wanted to go down that track, as “it would be quicker”, but this time I put my foot down. No way was I going down that track – just walking it would do my knees in, and it wasn’t even wide enough to be able to walk beside your bike.

The bottom of the track I refused to go down

The grass track back to the lake was relatively easy to ride, though I did keep a good grip on my brakes. When we got to the bottom, the entrance to the lake track was in deep shade, but the water reflected the sky and the fenceline – quite magical.

Magic in the shadows (photo by John)

The way back to Eastbourne seemed like a long haul. A bit of a northerly had sprung up, and that didn’t help. Long before we got back to Burdan’s Gate, I was looking out longingly for the buildings of Eastbourne to appear, but there was always yet another bay to go round. My thigh muscles and my tail were suffering by now too …

The late afternoon sun made the hills glow in a beautiful golden light. By the time we got back to Eastbourne, the sun had just gone behind the hills, and we took our final photos for the day of the orange sky across the harbour.

The last of the setting sun (photo by John)

What a great afternoon we had – we had biked 25 kms, had walked for 45 minutes, and been out for a total of three and a half hours. It was nearly six o’clock when we joined the peak-hour traffic up Ngauranga Gorge, so we picked up some fish and chips on our way through Johnsonville. I didn’t have time to cook dinner, as we were heading out again soon. It was Monday, which meant Scottish Country Dance club night! I did sleep well that night …


  1. Loved the photos and commentary. It made me want to walk to Pencarrow. I hadn't known about the lake.

    1. Hi Deborah, thank you for your comment. I hope you do walk to Pencarrow some time. It is a magnificent place.