Tragedy and Solution
The night of 29 April 1881 was starry and the sky was clear when the SS Tararua left Port Chalmers in Dunedin bound for Bluff carrying a crew of 40, 111 passengers, and a cargo. The ship passed the lighthouse at Nugget Point, south of Dunedin, just before 1:30 am. It was a dark night, and the coast could not be seen. The captain turned the ship west at 4 am believing they had cleared Slope Point.
Just after 5:00 am the sound of breakers was heard, indicating that the ship was too close to shore. The captain tried to turn the Tararua out to sea, but as it was coming around it struck the rocks of the Otara Reef about 1 km from the shore at Waipapa Point, breaking the propeller and disabling the rudder.
During the ensuing confusion the first lifeboat holed on launching. The second lifeboat was launched at 6:00 am, carrying a passenger who made it ashore and raised the alarm at a nearby farmhouse. A farm hand then carried the news of the disaster inland by horseback, but because the message was not marked urgent when it reached Dunedin just after midday, no immediate action was taken.
Meanwhile the wind had risen and the sea grew larger. Because they believed the ship was the safest place to be, passengers stayed on board. Attempts to reach the ship from the shore failed. Eventually the Tararua began to break up, and as the stern sank the desperate passengers moved forward and up into the rigging. Only one man managed to swim ashore. Others made the attempt, but were sucked out to sea or lost their lives just metres from the shore.
At about 2.30 on the second night the masts broke and the ship rolled over. By dawn it had sunk. Of the 151 passengers and crew on board, only the 20 who had made it to shore survived. Most of the victims who were found were buried at the nearby “Taraua Acre”, surrounded today by lush farmland.
In 1884 New Zealand’s last wooden lighthouse was built at Waipapa Point at the eastern end of Foveaux Strait to warn shipping of the dangers of the Otara Reef. It still operates today with an automatic light which flashes once every 10 seconds.
On the day of our visit it was cold and windy, but sunny.