Cape Reinga: More Than Just A Lighthouse

Driving to Cape Reinga

Driving to Cape Reinga, up Highway 1 in the far north of New Zealand is an exercise in solitude. Towns get smaller and farther apart, and the views get bigger.

Views from the highway on the drive to Cape Reinga

Misty valley views along the drive to Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Until the clouds began to settle, and hid the world from view. The forest and farm-filled valleys faded away until it felt like we were on the bony spine of the country with nothing else around. It was as if we were in a snowglobe. The more north we got, the more it began to feel like we were the last people on Earth.

Misty roads along the drive to Cape Reinga, New Zealand

The road turned to gravel, and visibility dropped to a few metres in any direction.

The unsettling feeling was exhilarating.

A beach finally revealed itself though the mist, and we got a sense of how elevated we were. There was nothing but a series of switchbacks on a winding mountain road between our lookout and our destination.

View of Tapotupotu Campsite, Cape Reinga from above

The only thing to do was to hang out the roof of the van and drive down there.

Standing on the back seat, squished in next to one of my best friends we jostled into each other as the van eased around the sharp corners. Our faces and hair became damp from moving through the fog. It was silly and spontaneous (and probably a bit unsafe), but it was one of those pure moments that make travel so fulfilling.

Tapotupotu Campsite

The Tapotupotu campsite was a postcard of what you expect from New Zealand. Wilderness and solitude with only a dot of human influence.

Our camping neighbours seemed as content as us to preserve the silence; the girls to our right enjoyed a bottle of wine after setting up their tent, an older couple to our left sat by their campervan, watching the ocean rage. A handful of people explored the beach.

Our van and fellow campers at Cape Reinga

Campers explore the beach at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Despite the ever-darkening clouds and turbulent water, our campsite felt quite peaceful. Two arms of the mainland reached out to embrace the small bay and protect us from the worst of the weather.

Before it got too dark, I explored the beach as well. The damp sand from an earlier rainfall made it easy to walk along without sinking in.

Empty beach at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Campers explore the beach at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Wild surf at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Empty beach at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Empty beach at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

The quiet and isolation were almost overwhelming. A heavy sense of peace, or perhaps it was just the low clouds, hung over Tapotupotu like a veil.

Even the wildlife at Cape Reinga seemed to feel the same. An egret, standing on the sand, seemed to have no worries about me joining it.

Relaxed egret at Cape Reigna, New Zealand

Finally, the clouds broke (thankfully after dinner), and we fell asleep listening to the rain tap on the roof of our van.

Cape Reinga

In the morning, the rain had reduced to a drizzle, but the clouds seemed even lower and thicker. We drove to the entry point to the actual Cape Reinga, and began down the path. The view was entirely hidden by clouds and fog. We got lost (surprise!), and ended up in another parking lot. For the record, when you go under the entrance arch, take a minute to listen to the music that plays, and then head right instead of left.

Heavy mist along the Cape Reinga pathway
You’re meant to be able to see a beach from here.

Heavy mist along the Cape Reinga pathway

We had no idea before entering that there was anything more to Cape Reinga than a lighthouse and being the top of the country.

Cape Reinga is so much more important than that. This is where Maori spirits finish their journey up the country on the way to the afterlife. A gnarled and ancient pohutukawa tree stands out on a finger of land along the spiritual pathway – it has never flowered in human memory of the place.

An outcrop of land at the top of Cape Reinga

A sign at the entrance asks you to not eat or drink while visiting the Cape. Plaques along the path further explain the cultural significance of the place. When you visit Cape Reinga, please see as more than just a tourist spot. Feel how sacred this place is to the Maori people, and be thankful they allow us to visit one of their most beautiful and hallowed places.

Automatic lighthouse at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

From the lookout at the unmanned lighthouse, you can see where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean collide, causing unnatural-looking waves and whirlpools. The clouds had lifted just enough for us to see past the end of the land. A well-worn path leads down to an outcrop where you can sit and look out over the emptiness of the ocean. It’s strange knowing there is no big landmass between you and the Arctic. Just sit, breathe, and be.

Precariously perched on a rocky outcrop at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Standing at the northern tip of New Zealand at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Standing at the northern tip of New Zealand at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

I had massive vertigo going down and up the path, trying not to look at the steep drop-off to the ocean on either side (again, this was probably pretty unsafe). I don’t really recommend heading down there – especially if there is wind or your shoes are not appropriate. My legs were shaking for a while once I was back behind the fenced-in area.

Steep drop-off to the ocean at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Soon enough, while we were lost in our own reflections, the curtain of clouds came back in, closing off the view.

The Essentials

How to Get There

  • Driving to Cape Reinga is pretty easy. Get on State Highway 1 and go north. Keep going North until you can’t drive any further. You drive to Cape Reinga straight from Auckland in about 5 and a half hours. We took the scenic route and took the Eastern Route along State Highway 12 until it merged back into Highway 1.
  • To get to the Tapotupotu Campsite, turn right onto Tapotupotu Road about 200m before you reach Cape Reinga itself. Be aware that you will have 3km of steep, windy road ahead of you. Good breaks are essential, take extra care in poor weather or poor visibility.
  • There are loads of tours running straight from Auckland, Paihia, or Kerikeri. Pop into an ISite to find the one that suits you best. The perk of taking an organised tour is that you get to drive on 90 Mile Beach instead of taking the highway (don’t take a rental car onto the beach!)

Camping Information

  • Staying at the Tapotupotu Campsite costs $6/person, per night. Pretty cheap for such amazing views.
  • Facilities are limited – there are toilets and cold showers, but no cooking block or hot water. Drinking water is available.
  • Save room for rubbish! There is not a single trash can at Tapotupotu. Take out what you take in.
  • No dogs allowed without a permit.
  • Beware the sandflies!

Have you visited Cape Reinga? Or what has been your favourite remote place to check out? Let me know in the comments!

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30 Comment

  1. Meg says: Reply

    I like how you were honest about the walk being a little scary, and how you don’t recommend walking down. Truthful posts are always the best! This looks like an adventure!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Thanks for reading! This was one of those “looked like a good idea at the time moments”, but in hindsight probably wasn’t. I definitely believe in being honest about my good, and not so good moments while I’m travelling!

  2. Sumti says: Reply

    Great photos loved reading it

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I was a bit worried the weather would ruin my photos, but it turned out to be great scenery!

  3. EG III says: Reply

    Not being familiar with much around New Zealand, it is my first time to hear of this location, but Cape Reinga looks like an amazing place to just get lost from the world and explore your own inner peace.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      That’s the perfect way to describe it, a great way to get lost. I hope I can continue to bring these less-famous landmarks to people to inspire them to explore a little more. Cheers!

  4. Sheena says: Reply

    Lighthouses are one of my favourite things so this has given me serious wanderlust. I love the photos, it looks so atmospheric & dramatic. Im hoping to do a road trip around New Zealand next year, putting this on the list, thanks!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Excellent, Sheena! I love inspiring wanderlust in others! Stay tuned for more awesome places to visit in New Zealand, on both the North and South Island!

  5. Anita says: Reply

    I love New Zealand but haven’t been to this part of it. It looks so scenic. I would be happy to visit some day. Is it also accessible by public transport?

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I think a trip back to New Zealand is in order then! There isn’t much public transit at all to speak of north of Auckland. Tour buses run up here from Auckland city, and a few other towns farther north, but there are no ‘city/town’ buses to speak of. Cape Reinga itself is over 100km away from the closest town.

  6. Jean says: Reply

    Oh New Zealand. Such a pretty country that seems to enjoy teasing travellers with bad weather. I’ve never been to the North island but your photos make me want to go.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      That is the best way to describe it. I keep seeing photos of other parts of the country with beautiful, cloudless skies, and think “it was raining sideways when we were there”. You should totally make a trip back for the North Island, it isn’t quite as “imposing” in its beauty as the South Island, but equally as magical!

  7. Taryn says: Reply

    Beautiful photos and beautiful writing to describe it. I really felt as if I was there. Sometimes having imperfect weather makes visiting somewhere a bit more memorable.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Thank you! It was really an incredible experience to be there, I’m happy it came across in the post and photos. The weather definitely made our time there more unique, I think it was even better that we didn’t have clear weather in the end!

  8. Amanda says: Reply

    I am so afraid of heights so I can really relate to the vertigo you were feeling. Thanks for your very honest account. Great to read about the cultural significances too.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I definitely recommend you stay behind the fence then! Its there so dorks like me don’t go flying down the cliff. Probably wouldn’t do that again, but at least the photos are cool right?

  9. So great that you had the beach and lighthouse all to your self! Plus the local egret, of course. The misty covered terrain is beautiful and eerie.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      We got so lucky! I’ve seen photos of this places absolutely packed (think the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road, on a smaller scale). I think the key is to get there before the tour buses roll in. I bet sunset would be incredible as well, come clear weather or more of the fog.

  10. Oh wow, this is the first time I’m hearing about Cape Reinga. New Zealand is a place I’ve still yet to see, so I will definitely keep this place in mind for when I do eventually go. Looks like you had quite the adventure!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Absolutely head up there! The entire area North of Auckland is pretty cool, it all feels so remote. Stay tuned for more great places to visit in New Zealand!

  11. Wow, New Zealand is so pretty, even with cloudy weather! Very interesting to learn about its significance with the Maori. I had seen photos before but had no idea about its meaning 🙂

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      We have yet to come across a part of this country that isn’t totally gorgeous, I don’t think it exists! There are quite a few places around the country, especially the North Island, that are quite culturally significant, but you don’t find out until you’re actually there!

  12. What great story telling! I felt like I was right there with you all. Despite a little rain the photos turned out amazing. It’s pretty cool to learn about the folklore of the area as well. I love camping and hiking, so this is right up my alley and would love to come explore here. Great post!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the read and the photos. If camping and hiking are your thing, ALL of New Zealand is right up your alley. There are so many incredible hikes to do and places to camp, you’d absoluteyl love it!

  13. I have never camped by the sea… this looks so much fun. Do you think having a camper van is a good idea? Thanks for the tips towards the end!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I hadn’t before either, it was wonderful! A campervan is a great idea, it’s the best way to see the country in my opinion. The bus tours are great, but they don’t exactly allow for side trips or staying anywhere cool a little longer. You can rent anything from a regular van with a tent on the top up to a fully kitted-out campervan from loads of different companies. We’re here on quite an extended trip, so we’ve bought our van and have a bed and camping gear in the back. You can usually sell them for the same price you bought it, or just under. Are you planning to come to New Zealand soon?

  14. The walk looks tricky but worth it for the views. So interesting to know that it is sacred to the Maori people. Your photos of the rugged coast are beautiful.

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      It was a pretty cool little spot to stumble down to. Fortunately, the view is almost the exact same from where the lighthouse is for the non-mountain goat selection of the population. The culture and history of the Maori people is so rich and fascinating – I love how strongly it permeates the country. Glad you liked the photos, thanks for reading!

  15. sophie says: Reply

    OMG! Can’t take my eyes off from these photos of yours, it made me search more photos on Google, the place looks like a real heaven, I would surely love to visit it by the end of this year 🙂 Thanks for sharing all the info about this place. Thanks!

    1. Lisa Martin says: Reply

      I really hope you make it down here! Definitely one of our North Island highlights. If you do end up heading that direction, see if you can get to Spirit’s Bay campsite. It is even more remote. We didn’t get the chance, but it looks absolutely incredible! I’m thrilled you loved the photos!

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