At the top of New Zealand’s north island, where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, lies a passage to the underworld.
Te Rerenga Wairua, also known as Cape Reinga, is the most spiritually significant place in the country for New Zealand’s Māori people. It is the “leaping off point” for spirits to travel to their ancestral land of Hawaiiki-A-Nui – the location of the Māori afterlife.
Spirits of all dead Māori travel up the coast to an ancient pohutukawa tree to follow the “Spirit’s pathway.” They leap off the edge of the land and down into the tree’s roots to the underworld below. Underwater, spirits travel to Three Kings Islands – uninhabited islands off New Zealand’s shore – to ascend to the highest point. There, they bid a final farewell to the living before returning to their ancestors in Hawaiiki-A-Nui.
Like many culturally significant places, Cape Reinga is now a significant tourist attraction that draws people like me.
My Misconceptions About Cape Reinga
I arrived at Cape Reinga calling it “Cape Regina” and hoping to stand on the northernmost point of mainland New Zealand. I hoped to see the two seas clash in a mighty, Disney-style swell that would stretch out as far as the eye could see. Maybe I’d even get to see a cool lighthouse!
Unknowingly, I’d signed up to travel the Spirit’s pathway, a route many Māori undertake as a pilgrimage to pay homage to the dead.
Cape Reinga: The Truth
Reinga means “underworld” in Māori. That should have been a clue of the Cape’s significance to their culture!
There are two springs at the bottom of the hillside. Water is essential Māori funeral ceremonies. It represents cleansing the spirit of death. At Cape Reinga, the dead spirit must drink from the waters of one of the springs to return to the spiritual world. If they don’t, they will return to the land of the living.
Beyond its importance in Māori mythology, Cape Reinga is a unique destination geographically.
Cape Reinga is considered the location where the western Tasman Sea meets the eastern Pacific Ocean. However, they don’t meet in a Little Mermaid worthy tidal wave. The water is choppy and, if you look closely, you can sometimes see a slight difference in the colours of the two seas.
It turns out, Cape Reinga isn’t even the northernmost point of the country! It’s actually the north-westernmost point (but that doesn’t really roll off the tongue, now does it?). The Surville Cliffs at North Cape are apparently the actual northernmost spot on the mainland.
Cape Reinga’s lighthouse was the last manned lighthouse to be built in New Zealand. It is one of New Zealand’s iconic landmarks that is featured on numerous postcards and souvenirs.
Visiting Cape Reinga
I travelled to Cape Reinga last weekend on an unfortunately foggy day. We got to Reinga before the rain started pouring (that waited until we were careening down sand dunes while sandboarding), but we didn’t beat the fog.
The whole Cape, from the parking lot to the lighthouse, was shrouded in a heavy mist that settled on my skin. It felt like the air was heavy with the spirits of Māori heading to their ancient home.
I could barely see the white lighthouse at the end of the short path. The roar of ocean waves seemed muted by the fog. If I peered down into the trees, I could just make out the turquoise of the water. Or was that just more trees? It was almost impossible to tell.
We couldn’t see the springs or the ancient pohutukawa tree or the springs through the heavy fog.
Most pohutukawa trees blossom red around this time of year, earning them the title of “the New Zealand Christmas tree.” However, this tree has never blossomed in its estimated 800 year life. There would be no flash of red to help it stand out amongst the greenery beyond the path.
The Spirit’s pathway was marked with wooden plaques explaining the history of Cape Reinga. They skimmed the European settlement of New Zealand and the naming of Three Kings Islands (after the wisemen since it was discovered on the eve of Epiphany).
Almost all of them explained the spiritual significance of Cape Reinga.
It felt fitting that the information focused on Reinga’s main significance to the people of New Zealand. The appearance of numerous European voyagers and the construction of a lighthouse are far less important than the path for every Māori spirit to the afterlife.
Travelling the Spirit’s Pathway
Travelling the Spirit’s pathway felt spiritual in a surprising way.
People weren’t silent on the ten minute walk down the path. Everyone stopped to take cliché tourist photos holding the lighthouse or looking out into the mist. We all respected the no eating or drinking rule (a rule explicitly stated at the entrance to the path).
But it was more than that.
Conversations seemed less exhuberant. There wasn’t a lot of laughter. It felt somber; like this place deserves.
I am actually really glad I got to go on a foggy day. I don’t think I would have felt the gravity of Cape Reinga on a sunny day. The bright blue of the water would have distracted me from the true meaning of this cultural haven.
Getting to Cape Reinga
I booked a day trip to Cape Reinga with Great Sights. The tour includes other attractions like a Kauri Forest, sand dunes and driving on Ninety Mile Beach. The tour lasts about 11 to 12 hours, with lots of time on the bus. Pack a lunch!
The Great Sights Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach Day Tour costs $150 per adult.
A cheaper option would be renting a car and driving up to Cape Reinga on State Highway 1.
I chose a guided tour, because I preferred the cultural information our Māori guide shared. (I wouldn’t have felt comfortable driving at 100 km/hr on a sandy beach, either!)
Even if you aren’t fascinated by Māori mythology like I am, Cape Reinga holds a definite power.
Visit Cape Reinga to experience the spiritual impact of a Cape that stretches towards a mythical land where the ancient Māori live in peace. Or visit to take a photo of a pretty lighthouse and two oceans meeting.
Either way, it’s worth it.
What is a place that had a surprising impact on you?