The history of Cape Palliser Lighthouse
Cape Palliser features prominently in Maori history and the legends of Kupe. The area also featured in the colonisation of New Zealand.
The rugged coast and notorious Cook Strait gales contributed to many early shipwrecks. Six months before the light was lit in 1897, a ship was wrecked within 4 miles of the new tower and 12 of the 21 crew drowned. While a light on Cape Palliser reduced the number of shipwrecks, the area still remained hazardous for the unwary.
The tower at Cape Palliser has been painted with red and white stripes to make it stand out from the hills behind it. There are only two other lighthouses in New Zealand with stripes, rather than the standard plain white. Dog Island Lighthouse and Cape Campbell Lighthouse have black and white stripes.
Operation of the Cape Palliser light
Cape Palliser lighthouse is still fitted with the original Fresnel lens, which was installed in 1897.
In 1954 the light was converted from oil to diesel-generated electricity. In 1967 it was connected to mains electricity. A diesel-electric generator provides standby emergency power.
The lighthouse was automated and the keepers were withdrawn in 1986.
The light is monitored remotely from Maritime New Zealand’s Wellington office.
Life at Cape Palliser light station
Owing to its isolation in the early days, life at Cape Palliser created its own unique problems for the keepers and their families.
The original access to the lighthouse was a dirt track up a 58 metre-high cliff. This was a dangerous walk for the keepers, especially in stormy weather.
In 1912 a set of 258 steps were built up to the tower, which provided the keepers with much safer access, although still a physically demanding walk.
Stores were delivered to the station every 3 months. If the seas were too rough, the stores could be landed at the more sheltered Kawakawa Bay, some 6 kilometres away. The Cape Palliser letter book is filled with countless tales of stores being lost during the unloading process.
With the storage buildings and keepers’ homes at sea level, the unloading was easier than at many other stations where goods had to be hauled up cliffs using a trolley on rails. The keepers still had to haul the light supplies (oil and kerosene) up the cliff face to the light station. They did this on a railway, using a hand winch.
When the lighthouse was eventually connected to the nearby settlements by road, keepers would collect their mail and supplies once a week from Pirinoa.