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Palliser and Pinnacles

New Zealand Herald

22 Mar 2022

“38!!” laughed Alison, when I asked her the population of Ngawi, the small fishing village we’d just set out from. We were aboard the fishing vessel Elan skippered by her husband Andrew, who had generously agreed to take me for ‘a spin around the point’.

‘The point’ was Cape Palliser, the southernmost tip of the North Island, which at 41°37’ South is further down the map than Blenheim and Nelson. Just an hour and a half from Wellington, I’d decided to make the most of a weekend of cancelled concerts (thanks Covid) and explore Southern Wairarapa.

Ngawi, the nearest township to Cape Palliser, is known for two things: crayfish and bulldozers. Not natural bedfellows you may think, but the steep incline down to the ocean has led to innovation. Bulldozers line up on the shingle beach with custom-built trailers carrying their boats which are then reversed into the sea. Andrew is one of Ngawi’s eight commercial fisherman, catching crays for live export while keeping the fishery sustainable.

As the boat rounded the cape and we watched Fluttering Shearwaters feeding on a school of kahawai, Andrew turned and pointed, “There!” A pod of playful dolphins cut across our bow on their own little mission to the bay. Beyond their splashes lay the misty headlands, sea spray drizzling the glistening hills under the morning Sun.

The Caterpillar high track was waiting for us when we came in. It took skill to steer a fishing vessel straight into the middle of a semi-submerged trailer, but Andrew did it without a second glance. After saying our farewells we wandered off; New Zealand’s only red and white striped lighthouse beckoned us.

Ngawi, the nearest township to Cape Palliser, is known for two things: crayfish and bulldozers.

First lit in 1897 the Cape Palliser Lighthouse today is unmanned and automated, standing sentry over a foreshore that has claimed scores of ships and dozens of lives. “Right, let’s do this”, said my partner as I eyed up the Led Zeppelin-esque stairway. 7 minutes and 250-odd steps later we were next to the giant cast iron lamp. Its double white flash started beaming not long before we were treated to an ethereal light show as the most fiery of sunsets painted the Kaikouras pink.

The following day we were off to visit another landmark, the Putangirua Pinnacles. Thousands of years old, Lord of the Rings fans will recognise them as the backdrop for the Dimholt Road. While they’re not ‘You Shall Not Pass’ territory, you will need a decent pair of shoes to do the 1½ hour walk across an irregularly marked trail of loose rocks, shingle, riverbed and scrub.

Standing in the gorge of these badlands (an actual geological name) it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the light clay hoodoos (another actual geological name) throwing long shadows down the valley.

The Pinnacles are popular with day trippers and campers alike; in fact, the whole of Palliser Bay is dotted with campervans, converted buses, house trailers and tents. ‘Those who know’ make the most of the freedom camping, surf casting and left hand point break. The ability to just pitch up is ideal for an overnight stay, especially since it’s not easy to find accommodation for a single night as most places require a two night minimum.

Many of those campers had followed the same journey we had: leaving Wellington on State Highway 2, crossing the Remutaka Range, before sliding into Featherston. Often ignored on the way to bigger towns, it’s worth stopping in Featherston for C’est Cheese alone - an award-winning cheesemonger (with their own brewery!) who have such treats as Blue Monkey and Chilli Cheddar. Through the window you can see cheeses being made, and samples are there for the tasting.

For me though the highlight was the shop next door, a collection of “oddities & delights, art & bibelots” housed in the quirky Mr Feather’s Den. Featuring everything from local crafts to mid-century furniture to taxidermy, it was the surprise find of the weekend.

Onward to Pirinoa (and the last petrol pumps before Cape Palliser), we came across an Aladdin’s Cave in the form of The Land Girl which opens up to be a fully-fledged clothing, upholstery and gift store. To find that they do good coffees in this former blacksmith’s shop was a godsend. Don’t tell anyone, but the freshly toasted pulled beef sandwich is by far the best I have tasted in a long time.

Once you hit the rugged coastline the scenery is so spectacular that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road – but believe me, you need to. Beyond the curved one-land bridges, river fords, cliff hugging lanes and road cones separating you from the sea, lies a ‘sealed’ road of a different kind. Cape Palliser is home to New Zealand’s largest fur seal colony and they’re not afraid to wander into your path.

The best place to see them in their natural habitat is Matakitaki-a-kupe Reserve, sharing the Māori name for Cape Palliser meaning “The gazing place of Kupe”. Now it was shiny, wet, googly eyes that were gazing – seal pups only a few months old taking a break from a wave swept rock pond.

Now it was shiny, wet, googly eyes that were gazing – seal pups only a few months old

Conscious of not wanting to get between the sucklings and their protective mothers we didn’t venture too close, but sure enough, the inquisitive ones bounced and flipped towards us. Too cute to look away from, we spent a good couple of hours watching the seals roll, flop, hide and bark, honk and grunt the afternoon away.

It was getting late and time to head back to Ngawi where we had a hankering for some of the local cuisine. It was hard to go past Captain’s Table, Ngawi’s original food caravan. “What’s good” I asked the kid serving, whose head barely reached over the top of the counter. “Fish ‘n’ Chips!” came a slightly familiar voice. Alison beamed out from behind the fryer – it was only fitting that we ended the day with one of the 38 locals.


  • Getting there: Self-drive from Wellington 1.5 hour

  • See: Cape Palliser lighthouse, fur seal colony, Ngawi, Putangirua Pinnacles

  • Eat: Captain’s Table, The Land Girl

  • Stay: Freedom camping, local Air B’n’B, Lake Ferry Hotel

Original publication: New Zealand Herald

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