Wednesday 15th May 2024
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Making light work

Ask Big Bay’s Bruce Russell about the history of one of our most famous local landmarks and he’ll be pleased to enlighten you, as JON RAWLINSON discovered.

The iconic image of a lonely old salt, living out on some God-forsaken crag amidst stormy seas can leap to mind when we hear the words ‘lighthouse keeper.’

But, while New Zealand’s last permanent keeper (Bluff’s Warren Russell) has hung up his sou’wester, it could be argued that the profession lives on in Awhitu.

Manukau Heads - Lighthouse
The Manukau Heads Lighthouse today – a replica of the original. Photo Wayne Martin

I’ve driven the winding roads of the peninsula many times, but never in heavy fog. The dismal winter morning makes me realise how important a lighthouse here would have been many years back.

Bruce Russell – Photo Wayne Martin

When I arrive at Bruce Russell’s house he gestures towards where the harbour should be and says: “When I moved here, I was looking for somewhere with a sea view!”

I know the harbour is down there somewhere but we may as well be in the middle of the Sahara Desert as overlooking the Manukau Harbour on a day like today.

These days, the old lighthouse has been superseded by a raft of navigation and communications technologies, as well as (in emergencies) a light at the nearby signal station.

So, Bruce (unlike Warren Russell – no relation) has never really been a lighthouse keeper as such. However, as vice chair (former chairman) of the Manukau Heads Lighthouse Trust, he has played a vital role in ensuring that the current lighthouse – a replica of the 19th century original – is kept ship-shape and in beacon fashion.

Bruce retired, aged 39, after a successful career in pharmaceuticals and property. After travelling through the USA, the UK and New Zealand in campervans, he finally found his berth in the early 2000s.

“I had lived 12 years in campervans and I just got tired of it,” he explains.  “I was camping in Ramarama when I saw this peninsula on a map and thought ‘I’ve never been there.’ So I came to an open home at Grahams Beach and bought it.”

However, Bruce soon embarked on another ‘voyage’, of sorts, when he learnt of the fate of the Heads’ last lighthouse, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair.

“There had been a lighthouse restoration committee but nothing had happened. At a meeting [at Big Bay Holiday Park], I said ‘I’ve heard there’s a lighthouse going to be built, so why doesn’t someone just go ahead and build the bloody thing?’ I was invited to the committee’s next meeting and was made project manager. I thought ‘how hard can it be?’”

Drawing on a fascination for historic buildings – including lighthouses – Bruce discovered that many hands did indeed make light work.

The new structure, faithful to its original design was completed approximately five months later. Overlooking the harbour (where a signal mast once stood), rather than the coast, it is expected to be safe from erosion.

“While the wooden part is made of pine – the first lighthouse was, more than likely, of kauri – the sizes are all to the original specs; the dome and the prisms are original too,” Bruce says.

While the prisms needed to be retrieved from the Waiuku Museum, the lantern itself had been stored on a nearby farm since the early ‘90s.

“When it was officially opened by Helen Clark in 2006, it was a day like this,” he says gesturing to the thick wall of fog outside.

“You couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. A ship was leaving port – down on the surface it was clear of the fog – and Evan McGregor [Ports of Auckland representative] had it sound its horn; in that context, it was a very eerie sound.”

After completion, the Manukau Heads Lighthouse Trust was formed and Bruce became its first chairman.  While ships may no longer rely on the lighthouse for safe passage, Bruce says it could actually be made operational again, if needed.

“Very few commercial ships come into the harbour these days. The last were the LPG tankers, but that work’s being done by road now. The signal station must be one of a few still manned in New Zealand. Evan and wife Carol have radio contact with the ships, which only come in during the day, but the light’s still there, just in case.”

Light rises when souls sink

Richard Brydges Beecheys 1863 painting of the disaster

On February 7, 1863, a British ship struck the bar at the Manukau Heads. It was not the first time, but it would prove the most disastrous. Much like the Greek prophet after whom she was named, the HMS Orpheus sunk to the ‘underworld’, taking 189 naval personnel with her.

And yet, this maritime disaster – which remains New Zealand’s worst of its kind in terms of loss of life – would result in a new light shining on a dark place indeed. Although it took 10 years, a lighthouse was constructed on the heads in 1873; today’s replica is modelled on this original structure.

“The Orpheus disaster was the major reason for building it,” vice chair of the Manukau Lighthouse Trust, Bruce Russell, explains. “I couldn’t say how many wrecks there had been before the Orpheus, but the bar has always been treacherous, so the old lighthouse certainly saved lives.”

While some of New Zealand’s lighthouses were manned by solo sorts, others were inhabited by families.

“There was a supply ship that would arrive every three months, but there was a small community and even a school at Manukau Heads. The lighthouse was usually manned by two families – they worked in shifts because the twin wick lantern they had back then had to be trimmed every hour.”

The first lighthouse stood until, due to erosion and decay, it was replaced with a second, concrete tower a little further inland in 1944. This version was finally torn down, after years of disuse, in 1992.

While Bruce is happy (along with other locals) to donate his time to keep today’s replica from the same fate, he has the highest respect for those who manned the peninsula’s first lighthouse.

“I think it would have been a pretty tough job back then all right. It was a very isolated existence without much contact from the outside world. I doubt I would have taken the job on!”

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