THE WINDSWEPT WAIRARAPA COAST
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.
NZTODAY ISSUE 54
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.
NZTODAY ISSUE 54
Murdoch James Vineyard.
NZTODAY ISSUE 54
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.
NZTODAY ISSUE 54
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.
NZTODAY ISSUE 54
Wharekauhau Lodge courtyard.
Richard Rooney, Manager, Wharekauhau Lodge.