Historic Motuopao Lighthouse

Motuopao Lighthouse.
Motuopao Lighthouse

Motuopao (also Motuopau or Motu Opou) Island is located 200 m off the tip of Cape Maria Van Diemen in the Far North. Following the realisation in the 1870s that New Zealand needed a network of lighthouses to protect shipping from natural hazards, Motuopao was chosen as the site best suited as the location of a light to protect shipping using the dangerous waters at the northern tip of the country.

A lighthouse settlement was established in the early 1880s with three families of lighthouse keepers. The wooden lighthouse structure was built on a concrete base at the northern end of the island. Despite its close proximity to the mainland the 200 m of water was extremely dangerous with very strong currents and unexpected wave surges resulting in the drownings of at least two of the islands inhabitants.

By the beginning of WWII, the Marine Department had decided that the light was in the wrong location, so in 1941 the glasshouse and light mechanism on top of the lighthouse were removed and re-erected on a concrete base at the new lighthouse settlement six kilometres to the east at Cape Reinga. 

Motuopao gantry.
Motuopao gantry

Today Motuopao Island is a Nature Reserve and the only visitors are DOC staff undertaking occasional management activities, including the preservation of the lighthouse structure and settlement.

Managing the industrial archaeology of Motuopao

View south from the Motuopao Lighthouse.
View south from the Motuopao

The remains of the lighthouse settlement are relatively undisturbed. The features were first recorded as archaeological sites in the 1980s by Wynn Spring-Rice for the Lands & Survey Department. Spring-Rice mapped the foundations of the three keepers houses (which had been dismantled and removed in the 1950s), the flying fox mechanism used to get supplies to the island, the concrete base for the gantry, assorted smaller wooden structures and the wooden tower of the original light on the islands highest point.

The lighthouse tower is the most prominent structure on the island and requires maintenance from time to time. This is usually undertaken as part of the yearly weeding trip DOC staff make to the island. Although much of the kauri and Australian ironwood structural framing and exterior cladding are in good condition, the attaching nails have been severely degraded in the salt-rich environment and consequently parts of the exterior cladding fall away from time to time. In addition, the removal of the light and protective glasshouse in the 1940s exposed the interior to the weathering elements. In particular, it allowed rain to enter the structure at the top and pond in the concrete basement and so accelerated the rot in some of the wood framing.

Heritage architect Dave Pearson produced remedial plans and to-date work has involved the construction of a protective roof 'cap' to weatherproof the interior and the reinstatement of some cladding.

Currently engineers are preparing plans to strengthen the base of the lighthouse. The remaining ruins associated with the lighthouse settlement have been mapped and recorded so that other DOC management activities on the island do not interfere with the historic heritage.

Further reading

Beaglehole, H., 2006. Lighting the Coast. A History of New Zealand's Coastal Lighthouse System. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

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