The Road to Janus

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander didn’t stand a chance. The real showstopper in The Light Between Oceans was most definitely Cape Campbell.

The Road to Janus

By Pennie Hunt

Those sweeping helicopter shots of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne's island with its chalky white cliffs, rugged beach and of course, the incredible black and white striped lighthouse were enough to get me searching for the fictional Janus’ real location online.

It didn’t take long to locate the wild and remote Cape Campbell. This is the main location for the melodrama that takes place in The Light Between Oceans, the film based on M.L.Stedman's bestselling book. In the filmic version of the story, the action is made to look like it takes place on an island when in reality it is a jutting stretch of peninsula on the coast of Marlborough, New Zealand. Exposed to wind and sea, the Cape Campbell lighthouse has been warning sailors off its shores since 1870. 

I quickly realised that I couldn’t drive there. Don't be fooled by Google Maps - the last part of the road to the Cape actually goes through private farmland. The only other means of access is a long coastal walk, which I didn't much fancy being six months pregnant. So, I did what you do in this business, I contacted Thomas Peter, landowner and manager of Experience Cape Campbell, and asked if I could come and stay. Yes, you can actually rent Tom and Isabel’s cottage – the very one used for filming. Many of the props are still on site, and the chance to sleep inside a house crouched at the foot of the lighthouse and just a stone’s throw from the wild beach outside, well that totally appealed.

The LBO cottage is the one nearest the lighthouse steps.

The LBO cottage is the one nearest the lighthouse steps.

I’m always up for an adventure, but I have to say the road to ‘Janus’ was quite something else. It was dusk when I finally set off from Blenheim to Cape Campbell and it was howling a gale, so I called Thomas to let him know I was on my way. The main road was dark and windy, and a final turn off led me up a steep gravel road which felt like it would never end. When I finally arrived at the gate to the farm an hour after leaving Blenheim, I was relieved to say the least. Sure enough, Thomas met me at the farm gate in the pitch dark, the keys to the cottage and a sturdy torch in hand. He gave me a wry smile and pointed me in the direction of the dirt road to the Cape. “It’s about 8 kilometers from here” he informed me, quite literally yelling over the wind, “oh, and there’s a few gates on the way.”

I was stupidly hoping that ‘a few gates’ might mean three, because every farm gate I drove through meant stopping the car, leaping out into the frigid gale while holding the car door firmly to make sure it wouldn’t rip off its hinges (yes, this can actually happen!) Then I had to open the gate, secure it, drive through and close it again. Eight gates later I arrived at the lighthouse. My 8km drive had taken me well over an hour, a few of my fingers were scratched and bleeding from battling wind and gates, and my hair was literally standing on end.  But I had arrived at the unmistakeable LBO cottage, the sea was pounding the shore and there was the lighthouse, sending its arching beam out into the starry, starry night. I was utterly exhilarated.

Once inside, I explored the little cottage so familiar from the film. Unlike Tom and Isabel, I had electric lights and heater to turn on, and of course a hot shower. And yet, it was still unmistakeably Tom and Isabel’s space…

The kitchen looks just like this - minus the home baking of course.

The kitchen looks just like this - minus the home baking of course.

After I’d done the preparatory reading set out for all guests about what to do in the event of an earthquake - one of which lifted the lighthouse by over a metre less than a year ago - I finally started to feel less wired and more tired. But I have to confess that getting into bed at the cottage was … well, strange. After all, it was actually the bed in that very room where an incredibly intimate love scene takes place. After I got over the feeling I was intruding on someone’s private space, I set my alarm for sunrise and went to sleep anyway.

And in the morning, I woke up to this…

As I was the only guest, and being literally in the middle of nowhere, I threw my jacket on and headed outside in my pajamas for a walk along the beach. Given that I’d arrived in the dark, it was a surreal experience to watch the sun come up on a real-life film set. And the most amazing thing was that every part of it was instantly recognisable, from the stunning chalk cliffs, to the seaweed-strewn beach and the trees left bent and crooked from sea gales. 

I made myself a coffee and hiked up the steps to the lighthouse, hunkering down as the wind slapped my face, to watch the sun shed light on the spectacularly wild coastline. The wind had died down by lunchtime, so I took my set of film stills and went on the hunt for the various locations used in the film. With a bit of help from Thomas, who also worked as an on-site location manager for LBO, I was able to find every one of them.

It was a fantastic afternoon spent clambering around on the cliffs, wandering along the beach collecting giant paua shells, and crouched over rock pools looking for flounder. Yes, you do have mobile phone reception here, but frankly apart from calling home, I was happy to have some solitude. It’s not just the perfect filmic landscape that makes this place otherworldly, it has a wildness, perhaps even a slightly frightening wildness, that makes it one of those places that stays with you, long after you’ve left it.

In one of her interviews on the filming of LBO, Alicia Vikander talks about how her mobile phone became a record of the many spectacular sunsets she experienced at Cape Campbell. On my last night I sat out on the porch and I too had my mobile in hand, snapping the occasional picture. But at some point I decided to put it down, and to just experience. It was beautiful to end my day as I had begun it – in awe of the ever-changing light.

Want to stay in Tom and Isabel's cottage yourself? You can find out more and book at Experience Cape Campbell. And if you're keen to know more about this stunning region of New Zealand, visit Marlborough's Official Travel Guide.

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