I awoke to a feeling of solitude. I’d arrived in darkness the night before, just the sound of waves crashing on the nearby shore and some low-level lights at the holiday park the only distraction from the darkness. There were few other people around when I ventured out, but I had a full day of exploring to do so I was quick to get breakfast in my stomach, load up the car and get going. Everything ahead of me for the day was to be new territory: a corner of the country that I hadn’t visited before and that had me quietly excited.
The road grew rougher as I headed east, skirting the coastline under some tall bluffs before leading me down a dirt track round the corner of the cape to the Cape Palliser lighthouse at the south-eastern point of New Zealand’s North Island. There was a decent blow about the place and I headed straight to the track leading up to the lighthouse. At the time of visiting in September 2020, there was some repair work being done to the lower track, but then most of the way is a very steep staircase and as I neared the top I was nearly blown off my feet. The platform on which the lighthouse stands strides the corner of the cape and the wind was slamming from one side to the other. I fought the wind as long as I could to stare out at the Pacific Ocean rolling in from both sides. I’d had an early start thanks to staying nearby, but as I headed back down the steps a few more cars began to appear. I picked my way across the rocky beach for a short distance before returning to my car and beginning to head west.
Almost immediately I pulled in at the nearby fur seal colony. The track was rough on my little 2-wheel car but I was able to avoid the boggy bits and find a dry spot to stop. I didn’t have to walk far to find fur seals, they were draped out to dry all over the place and I had to pick a spot to watch them while still allowing them their space. A few of them gave me some side-eye, but most of them kept sleeping as if I wasn’t there. I watched the antics of those leaping about a rock pool for a while before continuing. The road wasn’t in the best state. There had clearly been some storm damage in places that hadn’t quite been repaired yet. It was a rugged coastline and the sun was out but there were limited options to pull over and enjoy the view or take photographs.
Some distance along I pulled off the main road into Putangirua Scenic Reserve. I’d wanted to come here for a long time, partly because of what was here, and partly because it was a location shoot for the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I still remember watching those movies back in Scotland when I was at uni, and I would have never for a minute imagined at the time that I’d end up emigrating to New Zealand. Even without the movie reference, it’s a nice walk to do in the area. Starting from the car park, the track snakes alongside a river, a mix of rocks and sand underfoot, gradually gaining height until it turns a corner and then it’s a rougher route up a boulder field following a semi-well trodden path to the target: the Putangirua Pinnacles, reached in about 40 or so minutes.
Movie buffs will recognise these giant stony structures as the Dimholt Road in the third Lord of the Rings movie, where Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas go in search of the dead. Subject to natural erosive forces, it’s a very dynamic area with scree and moving stones all over the place. The structures reminded me of the Clay Cliffs near Omarama in the South Island, but these ones are much more stony, and the walking underfoot felt much more treacherous. But there were so many passageways to explore and I was determined to poke my nose into as many of them as I could safely negotiate. Down in this valley I felt utterly tiny looking up at the sheer walls of the various spiky peaked pinnacles.
Rather than just head straight back, I picked my way back to a track junction half way back to the car park. This led me up the steep valley side through dense bush to a lookout giving me a bird’s eye view across to the pinnacles. This was the more classic view that I’d seen online, and up here exposed in the sunshine, it was turning into a belter of a day. From here, I opted to follow the 4-wheel drive track that leads down through farmland and takes a more scenic route back to the main road. Once I was properly out of the trees the view started to open up in multiple directions. Inland, there were rolling hills, and I could just about make out a snow-capped mountain in the South Island across the Cook Strait. To my front right was the sweeping expanse of Palliser Bay, glistening in the sunshine, and behind it, the long range of the Remutakas was shrouded in cloud demarcating so abruptly the great weather I was experiencing.
It was such a glorious walk, and as I picked my way down the ridge line I was startled by a green lizard running across the path. Further down the track entered farmland and some sheep were grazing the pasture as I followed the orange-topped poles lower and lower, passing small ponds and invasive gorse before eventually finding myself teetering above the road before the final descent down right by the bay. It was a short walk along the road side to reach the track back into Putangirua Scenic Reserve and my car. All up, it had been around 3hrs since I’d set off.
I stopped for lunch at Lake Ferry, a non-descript little settlement on the shore of Lake Onoke. It wasn’t the most picturesque spot despite the lake, but there were plenty of people on the edge of the bay hoping to catch some seafood. The weather was starting to dull a little as I set off, and I was pushing north for a couple of hours cutting up inland to Martinborough and out the other side. I contemplated getting my car looked at in Masterton following its escapades on the drive north from Kaikoura 2 days prior, but it had been mostly behaving itself since, and I didn’t really fancy getting stuck there not to mention that the quickest route to my destination bypassed the city.
From Martinborough, it felt like I was on back roads for the rest of the trip, snaking my way through rural New Zealand until eventually the road turned east again and it was a long and windy trip back to the east coast at Castlepoint. Although the sun was out on this side of the country, the wind had clearly continued to pick up since I’d been at Cape Palliser lighthouse that morning, and now there were wind warnings out for the region. I checked into my cabin at the local holiday park and was quick to get down onto the beach. The wind wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying a walk along the coast.
Castlepoint is at the southern end of a long, shallow, sweeping bay which terminates at a promontory atop which stands the Castlepoint lighthouse. The tide was in so part of the beach was cut off, sending me up onto the road, but the access track onto the promontory was still reachable. But while the wind had been buffeting me on the walk round, it was full on whacking me from all sides as I walked up to the lighthouse. When the gusts hit I had to hold onto the barrier in some places. There were a few hardy people there with me, walking around the track, soaking up the gorgeous view from the top of the rocks. The sun was setting by the time I decided to head back to the holiday park, and I discovered that Castlepoint was the windiest place in the country that day, with gusts peaking at 148km/hr that night.
The peak had passed by the morning but it was still quite windy. I was quick to get back out onto the beach once I was ready for the day. Aside from the promontory, to the south there is another distinctive coastal formation in the form of the Gap and Castle Rock. An open lagoon has been created by a spit of land heading south that is broken from the neighbouring portion of coastline, creating an inlet for the sea to come in. Skirting the back of it is the Deliverance Cove track which leads up the hillside for a view down on the landscape. There was hardly anyone else there although I could see a woman down on the beach doing hula hoop tricks as I walked.
Once on the southern ridge, the wind was slapping me in the face again, but looking south there was another long sweeping beach. In front of me was the hulk of Castle Rock which, while not having an official track up it, clearly had a well worn route up to the top. The worst of the wind had passed, but it was still hours away from the gust warning being dropped. I didn’t have time to wait and this was my one and only shot to get up there, so where necessary I hunkered low to the ground wherever it was more exposed. The direction of the wind was thankfully blowing me into the hillside and not into the sea so while not ideal, it wasn’t quite as dodgy an idea as it could have been.
And the views were totally worth it. Not only is the sweeping and rugged coast beautiful in both directions, the immediate prospect looking straight down the rocky ridge line to the lighthouse is spectacular. The combination of early morning and early spring meant the sun created an unfortunate glare on the glistening blue Pacific Ocean, but I still loved the view despite getting a little dazzled. The very top of Castle Rock would have been a perfect spot for a picnic and staring out at the ocean but the wind just wasn’t letting up and I had a long drive ahead that afternoon. So I headed back down the track and cut down to the beach behind the sea inlet.
As I neared the beach I spotted a New Zealand fur seal which had hauled itself out of the ocean. His chunky mane identified him as a male, and I was sure to give him a wide berth as I passed. There were now more people around as I neared the northern end of the inlet and the sandy bridge that connects the two beaches. I headed back on to the promontory and up towards the lighthouse where I was able to walk around without quite the same level of buffeting as the night before.
On the nearby rocks I looked for fossils and found some shellfish remains embedded in the rock, partly exposed and already beginning to disintegrate. By the time I’d finished exploring it was lunchtime and with a five-hour drive ahead of me it was time to get going. Since arriving in New Zealand in 2012, I’ve managed to cover large chunks of the country, with a shrinking list of unvisited places. Now, I was on route to another of the few places I’d never been before, and there were a few hundred kilometers to cover to get there.