The SS Tekapo was built in Greenock, Glasgow in 1881 and was originally known as the SS Cape Clear. It was first used to transport migrants from Europe to Tasmania. She was renamed the SS Tekapo after being purchased by the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand in 1884 for 36,500 pounds. The ship was an iron-hulled vessel 89 metres long, 12 metres wide, and displaced 2.439 tons. Originally built as a cargo vessel, the Tekapo was modified to also carry passengers. It had a maximum speed of 11 knots and could carry 133 passengers. The Tekapo was one of the larger ships operating in Australia at the time.
The Tekapo had a varied cargo-carrying history, including the transport in September 1888 of 250 horses from New Zealand to Calcutta for the British Army. She made trips to the subcontinent and continued the New Zealand-Australia run, as well as Launceston to Sydney, and Sydney to the South Seas. In 1889, accommodation for an additional 50 passengers was added.
The Tekapo commenced its final voyage at 2:30 am on 16 May 1899, leaving Sydney Harbour under Captain Herbert Sams to travel to Port Kembla to take on coal for the New Zealand run. Running into heavy fog just 14 kilometres out of Sydney Harbour, the Tekapo struck the southern headland of Maroubra Beach and settled on flat rocks at 3:45 am.
The fog at the time was so heavy that the Captain gave orders for the lifeboats to be launched without realising that they were already on the shore. Despite the firing of rockets and distress guns, South Head lighthouse was not aware of the incident, and it was up to residents of Randwick, Coogee, Rockdale and Cooks River to alert the authorities.
Attempts by tugs to refloat the vessel were unsuccessful, and salvage commenced. The wreck was sold to a Mr Mountenay, who intended to take it apart piece by piece. On the Queens Birthday holiday of 24 May 1899, Sydney residents came in their thousands to see the wreck. As Maroubra was not settled at the time, it was quite a journey to go by tram to Coogee, then coach, bicycle, or walk to Maroubra Beach.
At a Marine Board of Inquiry, Captain Sams was found guilty of navigating too close to the shore, and his Foreign Going Masters certificate was suspended for six months.