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Lighting the Way

Book Review
Sunset to Sunrise: an illustrated history of New Zealand’s lighthouses by Timothy Nicol (New Holland Press, $39.99)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

 

lighthouses-001Sailing around New Zealand’s exposed coastline is hazardous, and the historic record is full of stories of shipwrecks and drownings. Soon after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, the British imperial authorities passed regulations to enable the establishment of aids to coastal navigation, and the New Zealand government has traditionally taken responsibility for the provision of lighthouses and other coastal lights. By the end of the nineteenth century a network of lighthouses had been set up, manned by keepers and their families who often lived in isolation for many months at a time.

Since the 1970s the New Zealand government has had a policy of progressively automating the lighthouse network, and the last keepers left the remote Brothers Island station in 1990. Since then the lighthouses have functioned by remote control, with regular maintenance visits by staff from Maritime New Zealand. Captain Timothy Nichol, an experienced mariner, had responsibility for inspecting the lighthouse network from 1990-99, and has based the narrative of this book on his annual inspection tour with engineer Ken Belt – an adventurous trip by road, helicopter and boat around the New Zealand coastline. It was no job for the faint-hearted, involving changeable weather, hazardous boat landings and clambering up the vertical sides and lighthouses.

The tiny light at Cape Kidnappers surrounding by nesting gannets. (Source: Sunset to Sunrise)

The tiny light at Cape Kidnappers surrounding by nesting gannets. (Source: Sunset to Sunrise)

The book is a retirement labour of love, combining Captain Nicol’s own experience with information on each lighthouse gleaned from official files, newspapers and reminiscences. The opening chapter sets the scene by explaining the Lighthouse Environment, including the evolution of different types of light, foghorns, radio direction finding, and the equipment kept on different lighthouses. A useful map near the beginning shows the locations of functioning lights, and it was a surprise to realise that I had visited perhaps a third of them over the years travelling round New Zealand.

The next seven chapters, the bulk of the book, comprise a travelogue around the lighthouses region by region, starting at the top of the North Island, and ending with the Chatham Islands. Although the book covers much of the ground covered a decade earlier by Helen Beaglehole, the illustrations, both modern and historical, are a fascinating record of New Zealand’s lighthouse history. It is also a reminder of the problems preserving lighthouse heritage, as the structures are invariably in isolated and exposed locations.

Sadly Captain Nicol died earlier this year, a few months after handing the manuscript to the publisher. This is a beautifully produced book, and I have no doubt that he would be delighted to see it in print.