Opens its heart on the road to Pal­liser Bay


The lux­u­ri­ous Wharekauhau Lodge.

Main photo: Lake Onoke

The un­usual Pu­tan­girua Pin­na­cles, one of the back­drops for Lord of the Rings.


Irecently in­ter­viewed some­one for a short video I was mak­ing and he left a last­ing im­pres­sion with his fi­nal com­ment about New Zealand; in fact, it was about Mount Ruapehu. He said, ‘you might for­get the place, but you never for­get the peo­ple’. And think that holds true for the sto­ries that we write for NZTO­DAY. Sure, a lot of what is im­por­tant is what we see and the ac­tiv­i­ties we do, but more of­ten than not, it is the peo­ple we meet along the way, of­ten pas­sion­ate peo­ple who have ded­i­cated their lives to the re­gions we visit, that leave the last­ing im­pres­sion.

On this trip to the South­ern­most tip of the North Is­land, I meet peo­ple who will linger in my mind a lot longer than the seal colony that I for­get to see.

So let’s get started on the Windswept Wairarapa.

As the crow flies, my desti­na­tion for this trip is not too far from my Pe­tone home. How­ever, be­cause I am driv­ing and not push-bik­ing, the jour­ney will take me over the Rimu­takas and then on to the coast via Mart­in­bor­ough.

If you are a bit more ad­ven­tur­ous, you can bi­cy­cle to Pal­liser Bay from East­bourne, which takes around three to four hours. Or if money is no ob­ject, how about a he­li­copter ride from Wellington to Wharekauhau Lodge for lunch? We saw a cou­ple of chop­pers land while we were there. Wouldn’t that be the ul­ti­mate lux­ury?

I how­ever, am stick­ing to terra firma this time, so I hop into my 1962 Tri­umph TR4, which al­though open to the el­e­ments, is tons of fun on this rather cool and rain-threat­ened day. I have con­vinced my dear friend Ge­off to ac­com­pany me on the two-night jaunt, with the only pro­viso that we have to leave at the prover­bial spar­row’s /@#$ on the Satur­day, so I can whip back to a One News shift.

We are tak­ing the Rimu­taka Hill Road, which is not for the faint-hearted. Al­though it has been some­what straight­ened out in re­cent times, it still has ex­tremely tight bends and in typ­i­cal New Zealand style, the bar­ri­ers to the sheer drops on our left, are in my opin­ion, a lit­tle bit flimsy. None­the­less, th­ese kinds of roads are made for the Trumpy but I take it fairly easy so as not to scare Ge­off.

BE­FORE WE GET THERE, let me tell you a lit­tle bit about the his­tory of the Wairarapa and I would like to thank Desti­na­tion Wairarapa for shar­ing this in­for­ma­tion with me and for help­ing me plan my itin­er­ary.

Just North-East of Wellington, Wairarapa is one the old­est set­tle­ments of New Zealand. The coast­line I am about to visit has rem­nants which can still be found of Maori gar­den plots and some an­cient stone walls which housed the gar­dens.

Maori tra­di­tion sug­gests that the ex­plorer Kupe lived there and the south­ern­most part of the North Is­land, Cape Pal­liser, is also known as Mati­take a Kupe. When we drive along the coast, we no­tice a rock shaped like a sail and are told it is called Kupe’s Sail.

The first pakeha who came to the coast were from Cap­tain Cook’s ship in 1770. The lo­cal Maori pad­dled out to the boat to trade with the visi­tors. The pakeha who set­tled here were whalers and seal­ers. There is a large seal colony in Pal­liser Bay, which Ge­off and I un­be­liev­ably man­age to miss; have I al­ready men­tioned that?

South Wairarapa was the site of the coun­try’s first sheep farms with flocks sourced from Aus­tralia. The first sta­tion was at Wharekaka, which is near Mart­in­bor­ough.

Wairarapa also holds the hon­our of be­ing the re­gion with the first planned in­land towns, Grey­town and Master­ton, es­tab­lished in 1854.

NOW, THE AREA IS PROB­A­BLY best known for its viti­cul­ture, which is where we make our first stop. Don’t worry, it is af­ter mid­day!

Just over an hour’s drive from Wellington is Mart­in­bor­ough, a pic­turesque town noted for its charm­ing cen­tre and square, its winer­ies and the Mart­in­bor­ough Food and Wine Fes­ti­val, which is a must at least once in your life; just take care to dodge the ine­bri­ated young peo­ple, who can get rather unattrac­tive later in the day.

Desti­na­tion Wairarapa has rec­om­mended two winer­ies for me to visit, of which only one is open on this Thurs­day, so that is where we head.

It is nice to try a win­ery that isn’t in the main cen­tre of Mart­in­bor­ough. Mur­dock James is about 10 min­utes out of town on Dry River Road.

Neil Ben­nett, the cel­lar man­ager, greets us warmly and tells us what makes the vine­yard and win­ery spe­cial.

“We’re cal­cif­er­ous, lime­stone and clay here”, he says, “it’s an an­cient seabed and we have the same soil type as Bur­gundy, it is quite dif­fer­ent to the rest of Mart­in­bor­ough, our wines are more min­er­ally”.

I am not much of a wine con­nois­seur, al­though I feel a lit­tle more knowl­edge­able af­ter the book re­view in this is­sue, How to Drink Wine. I am par­tial to white wine (as long as it isn’t a Savvy) but can’t drink much red be­cause I get a mi­graine.

Ge­off man­ages to taste more widely and says the re­serve Pinot Noir is ex­cel­lent. I like the Pinot Gris which we have with our lunch of monk­fish in a broth with veg­eta­bles; light and de­li­cious and per­fect to not weigh us down be­fore our con­tin­u­a­tion in the trusty Trumpy.

We con­tinue south on Jellicoe Street, which be­comes Lake Ferry Road as we head to­wards Cape Pal­liser.

Our next stop is the Piri­noa Store, es­tab­lished in 1882, and just as I lament in the ed­i­to­rial, it is one of those last bas­tions of old town New Zealand, with its charm­ing ex­te­rior and shelves stocked with all man­ner of gro­ceries as well as a cou­ple of petrol pumps out­side. I un­der­stand that many coun­try stores with their petrol pumps are sadly clos­ing down all around New Zealand.

SHORTLY, WE COME TO THE Cape Pal­liser Road turnoff and as we round the first bend, are greeted by dra­matic views to Pal­liser Bay with the most vi­brant blue green sea. We pull over as soon as we can to snap some pho­tos. As I look at the invit­ing ocean, I re­alise what a shame it is that swim­ming is just too dan­ger­ous along most of the coast. The un­der­tow is very strong and our first host tells us that when a guest says he or she is go­ing swim­ming, he asks them to wait while he di­als 111!

Speak­ing of our first hosts, we check in to the first night’s ac­com­mo­da­tion, the Whangaimoana Gar­den Re­treat. The prop­erty is en route to the Pu­tan­girua Pin­na­cles, our next stop. My first im­pres­sion of the prop­erty is, what on earth is this cas­tle do­ing on the Wairarapa Coast? It seems in­con­gru­ous. I al­most feel I am about to en­ter a scene in Down­ton Abbey.

The house is an Ital­ianate de­sign with mag­nif­i­cent gar­dens, per­fectly placed on the prop­erty to im­part drama as one drives up its metal drive­way. It was built in 1876 by John Purvis Rus­sell, a Scots­man who im­mi­grated to New Zealand as a young man and along with his brother Thomas Purvis Rus­sell, was a wit­ness to the sign­ing over of part of the Wairarapa dis­trict to Queen Vic­to­ria. He was a sheep farmer and pres­i­dent of the Wairarapa Rac­ing Club. He was un­mar­ried, but it ap­pears he had a colour­ful life and sev­eral chil­dren with his house­keeper to whom he left much of his es­tate, in­clud­ing a house in Ori­en­tal Bay in Wellington.

From records at the time, the Whangaimoana es­tate was noted for its gran­deur (which is still pos­sesses) and for its re­mark­able grounds, which the cur­rent own­ers Alas­tair and Jac­qui Suther­land still main­tain to the high­est or­der and which, un­til re­cently, were open to the pub­lic.

Guests can stay in the house it­self or in a charm­ing cot­tage on the grounds, which we did. Even the road to get there is unique.

“It is a spe­cial pur­pose road”, says Alas­tair, “it gets ex­tra fund­ing from Tran­sit New Zealand; there are only a few in the coun­try that do”. The 37.7 kilo­me­tre Cape Pal­liser Road was des­ig­nated a spe­cial pur­pose road due to its sig­nif­i­cant tourism value, high main­te­nance costs and yet low lo­cal in­come from rates.

The Suther­lands have lived in the house for over thirty years and raised

their chil­dren here. It was orig­i­nally a work­ing sheep and cat­tle farm. They have since down­sized but still keep horses.

“I go rid­ing at least twice a week, along the beach,” says Jac­qui, “We keep six horses.” When the gar­dens were open to the pub­lic, Jac­qui re­calls how one af­ter­noon, some­body said they would love to be able to stay in the house, which is how the Bed and Break­fast busi­ness was born.

We set­tle into our cot­tage and then get our tramp­ing boots on to visit the Pu­tan­girua Pin­na­cles that are just a few min­utes drive away. The coast is rugged and the weather has cleared, al­though it is blow­ing a gale.

We de­cide to do the shorter walk up to the Pin­na­cles and head off with a back­pack and a bot­tle of wa­ter.

The walk is not par­tic­u­larly well marked; we have to keep an eye out for coloured tri­an­gles, and it en­tails scram­bling over quite big boul­ders and rocks and fol­low­ing the riverbed up the val­ley.

As we round a bend, the Pin­na­cles greet us. Slowly at first, just one or two and then dozens of the struc­tures rise up out of the gravel.

They are phal­lic and eerie and it is easy to see why Sir Peter Jack­son chose this area to film scenes from Lord of the Rings, Re­turn of the King.

The type of ero­sion that has made the Pin­na­cles is called bad­lands ero­sion. Around eight mil­lion years ago, the Ao­rangi Range was an is­land and scree formed around its coast. More re­cently, this an­cient gravel was ex­posed to ero­sion by the Pu­tan­girua Stream and the stronger parts of the gravel re­mained as pin­na­cles or hoodoos, while the weaker gravel was washed away.

It is so tempt­ing to touch the pin­na­cles but there are signs warn­ing us not to. They look so soft how­ever and I won­der how a big earth­quake might af­fect them. Clearly the re­cent earth­quakes in the re­gion didn’t.

We start back down to­wards the car and as is so of­ten the case, the walk back is much more dif­fi­cult and I slip and slide quite a bit. If you do this two-hour walk, make sure you wear sturdy tramp­ing boots and per­haps even take one of those walk­ing poles that you see about.

SAFELY EN­SCONCED BACK in the TR4, we head fur­ther east along Cape Pal­liser Road to find the town of Ngawi, known for its pre­pon­der­ance of bull­doz­ers. It could be said that this is where the na­tion’s bull­doz­ers come to re­tire. They are used to tow the fish­ing boats in and out of the wa­ter and are needed be­cause the beach is made up of chunky stones, which fall sharply into the waves. The bull­dozer is the per­fect ve­hi­cle to do the job.

The pri­mary catches in Ngawi are cray­fish, cod and paua and they are fished com­mer­cially and recre­ation­ally. Ngawi is also one of the few places along this coast where it is safe for swim­ming, al­though cau­tion is still rec­om­mended.

We then con­tinue along the coast on a metal road to get to Cape Pal­liser Light­house. The light­house was built in 1897 and was orig­i­nally lit by oil. This was re­placed by a diesel­gen­er­ated elec­tric lamp in 1954 and fi­nally linked di­rectly to the mains in 1967. It has been un­manned since 1986. The light­house has a fo­cal height of 78 me­tres and a range of 48 kilo­me­tres.

You will see from the photo that Ge­off ran up the 252 steps. Un­be­liev­able ef­fort, but that is what comes from be­ing a marathon run­ner. I feign in­ter­est in look­ing at the view on my way up so I can take sev­eral rests as I am not at my fittest at the mo­ment. The view from the top is worth the climb, af­ford­ing dra­matic vis­tas from this south­ern­most tip of the North Is­land. I can’t be­lieve I haven’t been here be­fore. This is when we miss the seals. How we miss them I don’t know. In fact, we only find out we have missed them the next morn­ing when some­one asks what we thought of the seals. So in fact, I do know how we missed them. We missed them be­cause we for­got to look for them.

TIME IS GET­TING ON AND WE want to drive to the Lake Ferry Pub for din­ner so we head back to our cot­tage, get changed and then make our way, keep­ing our fin­gers crossed the pub is still open be­cause if no one is din­ing, it some­times closes early.

I should note that Voda­fone cell phone cov­er­age is ex­tremely spo­radic around the coast. We re­ally have no way of check­ing whether the pub is open so we are might­ily relieved when we get there to find that we are just in time and are the last peo­ple din­ing.

The Lake Ferry Ho­tel has a rich his­tory. Its orig­i­nal premises were a cross be­tween a Maori whare and a Shep­herd’s hut, ac­cord­ing to the ho­tel’s web­site.

Its cur­rent in­car­na­tion dates back to 1919. In­side are many old black and white pho­tos of the ho­tel, which is lo­cated on a stun­ning spot on the shores of Lake Onoke.

The rea­son the town is called Lake Ferry is be­cause there used to be a ferry ser­vice across the lake for peo­ple trav­el­ling from Wellington along the coast to the Wairarapa. Lo­cals es­tab­lished a ho­tel in 1851 to pro­vide the fer­ry­man ex­tra in­come, so he be­came a publi­can and a fer­ry­man. The ferry no longer op­er­ates but ru­mour has it that it might be re­in­stated. This would pro­vide much quicker ac­cess for guests of Wharekauhau Lodge and Te Rakau Bird­ing, which we visit the next day.

We have to set off ex­tremely early the fol­low­ing morn­ing for our bird­ing ex­cur­sion, but I make a cooked break­fast to take ad­van­tage of the gen­er­ous pro­vi­sions that are laid out by the Suther­lands as part of their bed and break­fast of­fer­ing.

The weather has trans­formed from the day be­fore and it is a stun­ningly still and warm day with crys­tal clear skies. The drive to the Western Lake area is around 45 min­utes from the Cape Pal­liser area.

Denise and Dou­gal MacKen­zie run Te Rakau Bird­ing tours and also have charm­ing self-con­tained ac­com­mo­da­tion on their beau­ti­ful prop­erty, which over­looks Lake Onoke and the sea. The ac­com­mo­da­tion is built in­side old rail­way wag­ons and is rus­tic and in­ex­pen­sive and de­signed for peo­ple do­ing the cy­cle trail and those want­ing to do the bird­ing tours.

They are knowl­edge­able about this his­tory of the area and tell us all about it while we drink cof­fee and mar­vel at the view. At eel har­vest­ing time, Maori would cre­ate set­tle­ments in the area, at Kiri­wai sta­tion around 1200 AD.

“There is lots we don’t know”, says Dou­gal, “rather than what we do know, how­ever it is thought that the eels were traded with other tribes and semi-per­ma­nent Pa were set up in the area”.

Denise and Dou­gal are pas­sion­ate about con­ser­va­tion and pre­serv­ing the wet­lands and other habi­tat for the pre­cious bird species that live here.

They work closely with DOC and other com­mu­nity mem­bers to set traps for stoats and fer­rets and other mam­mals dan­ger­ous to birds.

“Since we laid the traps, the banded dot­terel num­bers have picked up re­mark­ably”, says Denise. We wan­der around the prop­erty first and hear shin­ing cuck­oos and the ubiq­ui­tous buzz of a na­tive fly. Af­ter­wards we take one of the high­lights of the trip for me, a four-wheel drive along the Onoke Spit to do a bit of bird spot­ting.

I am not enor­mously pas­sion­ate about birdlife, but the en­thu­si­asm of Denise and Dou­gal soon rubs off and it isn’t long be­fore I am also ex­cit­edly get­ting pho­tos of banded dot­terel, vari­able oys­ter­catch­ers and the black-fronted tern. Dou­gal ex­plains how much care they urge peo­ple driv­ing to take, to en­sure they do not dis­turb the birds nest­ing and we even see a gull jeal­ously guard­ing her egg, an egg, which blends seam­lessly into the land­scape.

We wave farewell to the MacKen­zies whose com­pany and pas­sion I have en­joyed so much and head to our fi­nal desti­na­tion be­fore our un­seemly early start the next morn­ing.

THE LUX­U­RI­OUS AND EX­CLU­SIVE Wharekauhau Lodge would have to be one of the most beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tions of any lodge in New Zealand.

Lo­cated just ten min­utes from Te Rakau Bird­ing, the lodge is sit­u­ated on a bluff with sweep­ing views of Pal­liser Bay be­low. Richard Rooney is the Lodge Man­ager and greets us with great charm as we ar­rive. We chat over a Pinot Gris in the court­yard; it’s a tough life but some­one has to live it!

Richard says that Wharekauhau Lodge caters to the over­seas mar­ket pri­mar­ily dur­ing the high sea­son, but it is also cho­sen for spe­cial oc­ca­sions and in fact the evening that we are there, a lovely Wellington cou­ple was cel­e­brat­ing her birth­day as a sur­prise. They had been quad bike rid­ing on the Onoke Spit ear­lier in the day, which they said was magic.

Like most of the sta­tions in the Wairarapa, Wharekauhau has a rich his­tory. In the 1840s, it started life as a sheep­farm­ing homestead. Sheep and cat­tle still graze the large grounds and it con­tin­ues to be a work­ing farm of more than 2000 hectares.

“We want to cre­ate an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence for our guests”, says Richard, “so we will ar­range ev­ery­thing, a farm tour, archery, vine­yards, seals, clay bird shoot­ing, or just re­lax­ing”.

Oh no, he men­tioned the seals so I tell him that I had for­got­ten to look for them the day be­fore. This will haunt me for a while.

For Richard, it is also a po­si­tion in which he must fully im­merse him­self.

“Ev­ery day is very dif­fer­ent”, he tells me, “it’s the sto­ries be­hind ev­ery­thing that makes it in­ter­est­ing, and the key is the peo­ple”.

In ad­di­tion to an in­dul­gent Heli-lunch at Wharekauhau, it is also pos­si­ble to drive here to have lunch, which I would highly rec­om­mend for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. The views and the lo­ca­tion are stun­ning, it is sur­pris­ingly af­ford­able and it is only a one and a half hour drive from Wellington.

Ge­off and I take ad­van­tage of the beau­ti­ful grounds and heated in­door swim­ming pool. The night is capped off by a sump­tu­ous meal over­look­ing the mag­nif­i­cent views as the sun sets over the bay. Magic.

Seals, I will see you next time.


Mur­doch James Vine­yard.


The trusty Trumpy out­side Piri­noa Coun­try Store. Be­low Neil Ben­nett, Cel­lar Man­ager, Mur­dock James.

Mur­doch James, out­door din­ing and tast­ing room.

The road in af­fords sweep­ing views of Pal­liser Bay.


Whangaimoana Gar­den Re­treat. Alas­tair and Jac­qui Suther­land.

The amaz­ing Pin­na­cles.

Bull­doz­ers, all ready to get to work, Ngawi.

Run­ning up the 252 stairs is a piece of cake for buff Ge­off.

The fa­mous Lake Ferry Ho­tel.

Denise and Dou­gal MacKen­zie and a menagerie of birds from their tour.


Wharekauhau Lodge court­yard.

Onoke Spit.

Richard Rooney, Man­ager, Wharekauhau Lodge.

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