Knocking on Death’s Door


View from the Rawene Ferry across Hokianga Harbour as the gloom set in;

The Cape Reinga lighthouse from the top of the headland;

The tip of the cape, where Maoris believe souls of the dead depart the world for the afterlife, sliding down the roots of that lone pohutukawa tree into the sea;

The meeting of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean occurs right off Cape Reinga… the waves are not surf, they’re whirlpools!

Signpost at the Cape Reinga lighthouse showing I’m closer to the South Pole than to California;

A view back at the headlands from near the lighthouse;

Karl at the Cape Reinga lighthouse.

My audience with the Lord of the Forest (and if you think I like saying “Lord of the Forest,” you’re right) was just the beginning of what turned out to be a rather moving day.

As I drove north and crossed Hokianga Harbour via a small car ferry, the weather got gloomy and cold (well, it is winter). I pressed on, determined to make it to Cape Reinga, the second-most northern point in New Zealand (the northernmost title goes to some cliffs a few kilometers east of the cape).

Cape Reinga’s claim to fame is that, in Maori tradition, it is the place to which souls of the dead journey and leave the world, continuing on to their ancestral home in the afterlife. At the tip of the cape, there is a lone, ancient pohutukawa tree clinging to the rock just above the fierce surf. Tradition has it that the dead slide down its roots to begin their final journey.

Unlike other pohutukawas, this tree has never flowered. The rational part of me says “well, of course not, it’s been clinging to the side of a cliff for at least the last 800 years getting beaten up by wind and doused by sea spray, it’s amazing it’s even alive!” The romantic in me, however, believes that, as the sort of Superslide of the Dead, its barren branches are more appropriate than a bright red explosion of blooms.

There are a lot of other interesting things about the Cape Reinga area. It’s just north of the cape that the Tasman Sea meets with the Pacific Ocean, resulting in dozens of whirlpools and constantly crashing surf. Whirlpools in real life aren’t as exciting as in the movies, but it was still an impressive sight to see.

Just above the lighthouse there’s a hill called Atua Peruperu, named for the sounds of the dead passing by as they shuffle towards the cape. On the day I visited, there was a lonely, moaning wind that made the name seem particularly appropriate.

There are also two springs in the steep hillside below which I didn’t see, but they’re believed to be where the dead stop for a sip. If the soul drinks from one stream, it will continue on to the afterlife; if it drinks from the other, it will return to the realm of the living, though it was unclear from the sign whether that meant alive or as a ghost.

By the time I reached Cape Reinga, it was late afternoon, about an hour before sunset. I had the place to myself, alone with cape and the clashing seas and the sense of death.

I think because I was alone with the steady, restless wind, looking out into the seas and a gray, indefinite horizon, I felt really moved.

Of course, it helped that my MP3 player, on random shuffle, had selected “Elysium” from “Gladiator” as I approached the car park, a song that always makes me choke up. (It’s the plaintive music that plays when Maximus journeys to, well, Elysium. How appropriate.)

In any case, I spent some time out by the lighthouse just staring at the sea and feeling its enormity, and at the twisted, leafless pohutukawa bent like an old man over the surf. For those of you concerned that my thoughts were dark, don’t be. I thought the whole tradition of Cape Reinga was beautiful, and so much more poetic than the way a lot of major religions spin the whole death tale.

Like standing and gazing with respect at the Lord of the Forest, staring out over the gray water without doing anything else just seemed what needed to be done.

So it was not a depressing experience going to the cape, just a powerfully emotional one. I think you can see even Karl has a contemplative gleam in his eye when he posed for a picture beside the lighthouse.

Lest you think the spirits of the dead were controlling my MP3 player, as I pulled out of the carpark it selected Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier.”


3 thoughts on “Knocking on Death’s Door

    • Thanks… I remember reading your post about it and thinking wow, that sounds like an amazing place. So glad I made the eternal drive to get there (They tore up the road the entire length of the peninsula so it was gravel all the way!!).

  1. Thanks for the heads’ up on the new blog. I’d been watching for a facebook update and wondering if you’d decided to go off the grid! I’m catching up now and will be looking forward to future updates.

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