You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve reached the end of the world by the time you get to Cape Reinga. You’ve taken a long drive through a slightly alien environment and now you’ve arrived at the northern tip of New Zealand. Ahead of you is nothing but an endless expanse of ocean. And for the original Maori settlers, Cape Reinga was literally the end of the world, the place from which dead souls departed to their distant homeland.
The Unique Environment of Cape Reinga
Cape Reinga is not quite the northernmost tip of New Zealand (that is a few miles to the east), but it is as far as you can get by road. I stood by the lighthouse and looked at the international sign post. Everywhere was a long way off, but London was the furthest, at 18,000 kilometres. I was about as far from home as it was possible to get. In front of me was the Meeting of the Waters, where the Pacific Ocean collides with the Abel Tasman Sea. Or, if you prefer, where the male sea meets the female sea, creating whirlpools that are symbolic of new life.
I had driven up the Aupouri Peninsula, a long narrow strip of land consisting mostly of sand dunes and forest. This is a strange environment: the underlying rock is rich in toxins and poor in phosphates. The result is a unique vegetation of strange looking plants. The Cape itself is a seductive landscape of cliffs, heathland, white sand and dazzling blue sea. If you don’t mind walking up and down hill, you can explore the area along miles of footpaths.
A Sacred Maori Site
Reinga means “underworld”, and the whole of the Cape is a sacred Maori site. It is likely that the earliest settlers arriving from the Polynesian islands would have landed on the north coast. From here they would have looked back across the ocean and imagined their far distant homeland. So the tradition arose that when they died their souls would return to Cape Reinga so that they could begin the long voyage home. The exact point of departure is a lone kahika tree, reputed to be 800 years old. The spirits of the dead walk along the tree roots, which form steps into the water.
Because this is a sacred site, associated more with the dead than the living, visitors are forbidden to eat or drink here. You need to bear this in mind if you are planning a visit, as I didn’t find anywhere to eat until I got to Pukenui, 70 km from Cape Reinga. But don’t let that put you off; both the landscape and the Maori associations were fascinating. Besides, there’s nothing like a good sea walk to work up an appetite.