Pencarrow Lighthouse: Wellington’s Most Rugged Coastal Retreat

Our country’s coastline is perfect for lighthouses.

They’re everywhere, dotted and scattered from one end to the other, positioned in some of the most rugged, resilient, and spectacular spaces on-offer anywhere in the world.

Well, I think so, anyway.

And while I’m boasting (with good reason – you’ll see, in just a sec), here in Wellington we are able to lay claim to being communal caretakers to New Zealand’s very first permanent lighthouse, Pencarrow Head’s ‘Upper Light’ (recognised colloquially as “Pencarrow Lighthouse”, despite there actually being 2 lights on-site), operated by our nation’s one and only female lighthouse keeper, Mary Jane Bennett (from first flame (New Year’s Day, 1859) to her return to England in 1865).

In Mary’s day, the conditions there were pretty appalling.  Sure – rugged, resilient, and spectacular all apply, because we are talking about a lighthouse at the entrance to ‘Te Whanganui-a-Tara’ (“Wellington Harbour”), for goodness’ sake.  But even if you only do a little bit of digging around her personal circumstances, the word “horrendous” doesn’t fall short at all.

For the sake of honouring the past (or simply for some sentimentality), my suggestion is that you have a read before you go – even if the next time you go is not your first time there.  Doing so will absolutely enhance your perspective, and may even bring new light and meaning to the phrase: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’.


In any case, with a lot of history under the ol’ proverbial belt, Pencarrow’s Upper Light and I also have history of our own.  I’ve had repeat visits there, and in the process have entered the place along several different routes that all bring something different and unique to one’s Pencarrow Lighthouse experience.

I want to share some of these, and thus allow you, whānau, some choice.

From ‘Burden’s Gate’ in Eastbourne it’s an 8-km journey to Pencarrow Lighthouse.  Vehicle access is restricted along this road, so your best options are to either walk or cycle.  The good news is she’s a flat and windy (*turns and corners – although the odd good blow does flow out there sometimes too) route, so you’re fine either way.

Something of interest to look out for en-route are 3 wooden posts sticking up out of the shingle beach.  I’m told that these are the remains of an old wharf used by Port Nicholson’s pioneer ‘Pākehā’ settlers to transport loose metal from this side of the harbour to the Horokiwi side, so-as to stabilise the shoreline land there for the creation of the ‘Hutt Valley (*railway) Line’.

They’re as easy to spot as they are to miss, but these 3 modest, indistinct pieces of wood carry such historical importance in terms of how our cool little capital came to exist, as we know her.

With regards to track/s and route/s – well, they progress from incredibly pleasant to something more “interesting” once both lighthouses come into view.  Once here, you’ll easily spot the goat-track option weaving its way up the LHS of the hill in a fairly steep and slightly ‘traumatic’ manner.

Go for this if you’re keen – by far the quickest way to get up to the top lighthouse, and your single best choice if you simply can’t wait.

The ‘fairly instant gratification approach’, we’ll say.

The ‘Upper Light’ – aka “Pencarrow Lighthouse”.

If you decide you can wait, though, then further round and past the bottom lighthouse is the Lake Kōhangapiripiri entrance, which I do thoroughly recommend.  This is less goat-track and more “user-friendly” as a well-trodden 4WD access point.  Plus, coming further around the headland means you also experience the awesomeness of Baring Head, and that whole lighthouse-peninsula picture-postcard view.

‘Lower Pencarrow’ – Pencarrow Head’s bottom lighthouse.
Beautiful Lake Kōhangapiripiri (“kōhangapiripiri” – “a/the nest that clings tightly”).

Okay – here’s where I get to reveal my new favourite entry-point, the Lake Kōhangaterā entrance-option (the Cameron Ridge Track, apparently).  I didn’t know about this until a tour this past weekend (a summer event through ‘Greater Wellington’ (*Regional Council) led me there.

What a fucking stunner

The track leads you up and over a ridge (‘Cameron’s Ridge’) allowing visual access to both lakes simultaneously, into ‘Cameron’s Creek Wetland/s’, and over a boardwalk to another series of smaller, less challenging peaks that lead to the “upper lamp”.

Lake Kōhangaterā (“kōhangaterā” – “a/the nest that sits beneath the rays of the sun”).
A view of Baring Head and surrounds (*see RHS), from atop ‘Cameron’s Ridge’.
‘Cameron’s Creek Wetland/s’.
That grass – regularly flattened by the wind that howls through t/here…

You may well have guessed-at some Māori history, given that the names of the lakes are Māori.  And you’d be right – Taranaki Whānui have strong connections to the place, and historic middens yielding huia bones were recent archaeological discoveries, along with an old Māori canoe, so my tour host/s said (this report gives a good historical description of the Parangarahu Lakes Area).  My advice(?): this is very much an old pā site, so just be mindful, and go easily and respectfully (*one can’t go too far wrong with that approach, IMO).

So really, whether it’s space or solitude (or both) you’re seeking, or simply a coastal adventure with a lunchtime picnic spot that’s reward enough for all those kilometres, you’re incredibly hard-pressed to overlook this place.

Many times I’ve sat on the cobblestones at the Upper Light and been absolutely blown away at the awesomeness of Wellington, and our harbour.  And no matter what my thoughts have been in those particular moments, I’ve always found the sight of the Interislander ferry coasting gently past to be a real catalyst for the rekindling and/or strengthening of my many hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the future; a reminder that seriously, anything is possible.

All made doubly-relevant when you consider this in light of what poor wee Mary Bennett and her nearest-and-dearest had to overcome there.  I mean, let’s be candid – no matter how challenging we may think our daily lives are, they’ll never be as frightening, or as “wretched” as this recount describes with regards to the Bennett clan.

We actually have things pretty sweet, eh.

‘Haere pai atu, hoki ora mai nei’ – “Go well, and return safely”;


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