The weather was glorious for Labour Day weekend and on the Saturday Matt, Anna, Ingrid and I broke out the bikes, packed a picnic and decided to head to the coastal track near Eastbourne.
The track starts from Days Bay and goes round the coast for many miles. We pedalled to Pencarrow Head and lakes, which are on the opposite side of the harbour from Wellington and have an amzing view of the city and of the South Island too.
There are two Pencarrow Lakes; Kohangapiripiri (a nest clinging very strongly) and Kohangatera (a nest basking in the sun) and they occupy the seaward end of adjacent valleys immediately to the east of Pencarrow Head. They are New Zealand’s last remaining, relatively unmodified wetlands, despite being so close to Wellington city.
Freshwater lakes so close to the sea are uncommon, particularly in the relatively unmodified state of the Pencarrow Lakes.
They were formed in drowned valleys that have been blocked off from the ocean by beach ridges still bearing the evidence of earthquake history in the region.
The lakes, wetlands and raised beaches together support regionally-threatened native plants, native fish and wetland birds. The area provides an excellent open water and wetland habitat, supporting a high number of waterfowl species.
The area is now part of East Harbour Regional Park and has long been a place of Maori occupation with archaeological evidence recorded particularly around Fitzroy Bay and Lakes Kohangatera and Kohangapiripiri.
Maori also used a network of routes along the eastern harbour ridges to connect their settlements on the Pencarrow coast, Fitzroy Bay and beyond.
By the time the New Zealand Company arrived in Wellington in 1839, Parangarehu near Baring Head was a place that Te Atiawa from Pito-one (Petone) visited seasonally to fish and collect berries. This area was occupied throughout most of the 19th century.
The eastern harbour land and beaches were important routes to and from the Wairarapa for European settlers arriving in the new port and town of Wellington. Pencarrow Head itself featured almost immediately in New Zealand Company plans to protect shipping and as early as 1842 a white beacon was erected there and was tended by George Bennett and his wife Mary. As shipwreck after shipwreck occurred, public pressure increased for a lighthouse in the area.
In June 1858 an iron tower arrived from England and was landed on Pencarrow beach then assembled on the cliffs above. Unfortunately by the time it was built George Bennett had drowned in a boating accident in 1855 so his wife Mary became New Zealand’s first official lighthouse keeper.
The light was first lit 1 January 1859. Unfortunately the light was often shrouded by low fog so a new tower was constructed on the beach in 1906. Originally the tower was an open steel frame but it was encased in concrete and increased in height in the 1930’s.
Both lights burned together for 30 years until Baring Head lighthouse was built in 1935 and the original light was decommissioned.
Baring Head was named after Baring the director of the New Zealand Association, the forebear to the New Zealand Company who bought settlers to the New Zealand.
In 1929 the Marine Department discussed moving the old Pencarrow lighthouse to a new site at Baring Head. The idea was deferred while tests were made on new revolving light equipment at Egmont lighthouse. In 1931 they decided to build a new lighthouse which would serve both as an approach light for Wellington harbour and a coastal light for Cook Strait. The contract was let, but due to economics the contract was then deferred. The land was donated by Mr. Eric Riddiford in 1932 and in 1934 work begun. At the time Baring Head was so inaccessible by road, the Marine Department considered shipping construction materials there.
First lit on June 18, 1935, Baring Head was the second to last manned lighthouse to be built in New Zealand. It replaced the first New Zealand light, the original Pencarrow lighthouse which was extinguished the same day and designated as a historical place.
The light was the first to run on electricity from the onset and was initially run with a diesel powered generator. This meant the keepers no longer had a night watch and an alarm system in the keeper’s house would warn of any failures.
One of the more accessible lighthouses, the keepers were able to pick up their supplies in Wellington or the suburbs and the keeper’s children also attended school there.
During World War 2, the lighthouse grounds were used by the Royal New Zealand Navy as a radar and signal station.
In 1950 the light station was connected to the main electrical grid and the diesel generators were used as a backup and in 1956 the light’s character was changed from flashing three times every 15 seconds to the present character due to a nearby Harbour Board automatic light having a similar character. The lens does not revolve, the bulb flashes on and off instead.
The radio beacon, which guided ships up to 100 nautical miles away, was removed in 1981 and the lighthouse was automated in 1989.
Despite all these precautions, the eastern harbour coast remained dangerous to shipping, especially in fog and rain; up to 21 wrecks have been recorded on the Pencarrow coast, the most recent being in 1981.
Away from the shoreline, the lands within East Harbour Regional Park have long been a place for recreation for Wellingtonians. From the 1890s, Days Bay became the main centre for picnics and walking. The Butterfly Creek picnic area gained popularity during the 1930s when unemployed workmen cut access tracks from Kowhai Street and Muritai Park during the Depression.
In 1973, these areas became the Regional Park. Today Greater Wellington manages the park which includes land owned by both Hutt City Council and the Crown.
Over our 4 hours we talked to the sheep and goats, admired the variety of seabirds, watched the ships roll in and out of the harbour, enjoyed going off road (the boys more then the girls) and generally had a wonderful time.
We stopped for tea and snacks by the lakes and then had a long climb up to the Pencarrow Lighthouse. The view from the top, especially on such a beautiful day, was worth it.
Apparently the trail goes all the way up into the Wairarapa which is exciting. I feel there could be some more adventures on the way…