Cape Rēinga at the top of New Zealand is one of the great headlands of Oceania. It was used as a waypoint by the earliest Polynesian sailors, ancestors to Māori, on their voyages of exploration. It is off this point of land that the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east meet in a tumultuous mixing of counter currents and confused seas.
And it is this landmass that will be my final view of New Zealand as Flying Fish sails north tomorrow en route to Fiji.
Like so much of New Zealand, Cape Rēinga is rich in Māori tradition. According to legend, these turbulent waters are where the male engendered sea, Te Moana Tāpokopoko a Tāwhaki, meets a female body of water called Te Taio Whitirela. Their love affair arouses a dance of whirlpools and currents that initiate the Māori creation of life.
But just as there is love and life in the meeting of these seas, there is also a specter of death. For Maori, Cape Rēinga means the leaping-off place of spirits. It is Māori belief that the cape is the point where the spirit of the dead enter the underworld.
In mythology, these spirits travel to Cape Rēinga on a final journey to the afterlife, then leap off the headland from the roots of an 800-year-old pōhutukawa tree. That tree exists today. Its roots tenaciously cling to bare rock just above the breaking seas. According to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, pōhutukawa are known for their brilliant red flowers, but this particular tree–growing out of the rock where the spirit of the dead enter the underworld–has never flowered.
Visitors who journey to the cape are asked not to eat, drink, or smoke out of respect for this sacred place. And, it is not only humans who journey to Cape Rēinga. Just below the mystical pōhutukawa tree is Scratching Rock where whales sometimes enter the bay to rub their flanks against dark red rocks formed by undersea volcanic eruptions.
Maōri had occupied this land hundreds of years before explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman dropped anchor looking to replenish his ship’s fresh water supply. On the eve of Epiphany in 1643, Tasman named a group of rocky islets he encountered as the Three Kings Islands. But these rocks already had a name. Historian Percy Smith wrote that a Maōri chief named Rauru, once swam across the treacherous 50-mile passage from Cape Rēinga to one of the islands. In the state of exhaustion upon his arrival Rauru named the island Manama Tāwhi, Maōri meaning “panting breath.”
Cape Rēinga is said to be the most sacred place in New Zealand. It is a landscape of death and rebirth, a tableau of creation and destruction. As a foreigner I will never understand the full spiritual significance of this place but I will always have a personal connection here. In New Zealand that connection is known as Hawaiki. It is both a mythical location and a template for everything that is good, powerful, and benevolent in the world. Hawaiki is where fullness of life is envisioned and experienced. This helps me to understand a little more clearly why I wander the world in search of places like Cape Rēinga.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019
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