New Zealand Walk: On the Penguin Shipwreck Walk
It was one of Wellington’s sunny windless midwinter days – there weren’t too many of those last winter – when I followed the Penguin Shipwreck Walk in Karori Cemetery, Wellington. The sun slanted down on the stone masonry, counteracting - just a little - the harrowing stories of these victims.
The inter-island ferry, S.S Penguin, sank in 1909, at night, in Cook’s Strait (only a few kilometres from where the Wahine sank). Next morning wreckage washed up on the coast between Cape Terawhiti and Sinclair Head.
There were 72 victims of the shipwreck (46 passengers and 26 employees) and many are buried in Karori Cemetery. Only one of 17 women survived and 14 children died in the shipwreck – New Zealand’s worst of the 20th Century.
The Penguin Self-Guided Walk brochure has details of the victims buried here (thanks mainly to local historian Deirdre Wogan).
It comes with a map that would have been easier to follow if more of the cemetery’s features (chapels, work depot, different entrances) had been named on it. But the walk’s markers on graves and paths are clear and stand out well.
I parked near the Seaforth Memorial Garden entrance, and took the footpath uphill towards a large eucalyptus tree. Just before reaching it, is No 1, the Hale grave - the start of the walk. Clarence and Marion Grave, in their 20s, had only been married a year. Their grave is identified with the Penguin Shipwreck Walk marker like all the graves on the walk.
Going back downhill, you pass on your left, eight more rows of graves with rough grassy paths between them - four of them with Penguin markers at their entrances.
The third path contains the impressive memorial with its 14 concreted graves of crew members who died. The fourth contains that of Alice Jacobs, 49, one of two cabin stewardesses. Survivors praised her courage in helping them into the lifeboat, wrapping them in blankets and giving words of cheer.
Back at the entrance to the Seaforth Memorial Garden, take the path with a gate and walk along until you come to a downhill path on your right with a Penguin marker on the post.
Walk through what is the earliest and most desolate part of the cemetery with most graves unkempt and some derelict. Stone crosses lean at an angle, many plots are full of weeds, others have tree
branches across them or broken walls. With trees shading the path the sun cannot penetrate here and it feels haunted and ghostly.
After a while you reach No 7, the McGuire grave, containing the four McGuire children, aged 5, 9, 10 and 12. They were about to be reunited with their father who had been widowed but later remarried.
A little further on, a directional marker will guide you uphill to the left and into the sun. Here seven more Pen
guin graves are found. Five were passengers – one a ‘lady’s maid’ -- the others were men, including an engineer on the ship.
After the Bishop grave where Elizabeth and her 3-year-old son are buried, turn left (following another Pen
guin marker) and onto the tarmac road. This road continues uphill towards the main part of the cemetery, turning right then left.
Occasional locals exersizing their dogs out in the sun give a lighter-hearted feel to this part of the walk.
From the highest point on this road you can look down to the white marble angel atop the Underwood Vault. Henry James Underwood was the last body to be found, six weeks after the shipwreck, identified by an inscribed wristwatch.
A little further on, turn right past the little chapel and continue past the Works Depot on your left. Following my query about the location of No 17 grave, a cheerful worker offered me a lift on his little open vehicle, though it wasn’t far actually.
This is the grave of Sylvester Holcroft. He was travelling with his friend who survived. His friend recounted how the two of them were washed off the keel of a lifeboat they were grasping but then grabbed a spar. However Holcroft couldn’t continue to hold it and slipped away.
Further on, the road makes a sharp right turn. Here, two women from the Penguin are buried, one of them a 22-year-old champion swimmer. Lastly, there is a small memorial that is similar to the large one near the start of the walk. Buried here are the ship’s trimmer (heaver of coal; the donkeyman (leading engine-room rating) and a greaser (ship’s mechanic). This is the end of the walk.
Retrace your steps back to No 16, the vault with the angel on top. Facing the vault, take the right hand path which soon turns from gravel to grass and goes uphill for a while. Through a gate, you turn right, walk downhill and there is the eucalyptus tree where you started the walk.
Time: Reading about the Penguin victims turns a 90-minute walk into a fascinating historical trail – so allow a couple of hours.
Parking available near Seaforth Memorial Garden, in Rosehaugh Avenue behind the Servicemen’s Cemetery or at the main entrance.
Brochure available: Wellington City Council Information Centre at 101 Wakefield Street or online at www.wellington. govt.nz..
Above right: Three passengers and one crew member are buried here. Below left: The smaller of the two memorials commemorates three crew members.
Below right: Alice Jacobs was a cabin stewardess -- survivors praised her courage.
Above: The Underwood Vault contains the last of the bodies to be found - six weeks after the ship went down. insert map left: Markers are on graves and pathways.