The most southerly point of the North Island can be a savage place when buffeted by the fierce winds and accompanying swells. It is at its most invigorating during inclement weather, when the muted colours and misty spray make this place feel like the end of the earth.
3.6 km after Pirinoa, turn left into Whangaimoana Road (signposted Ngawi and Cape Palliser). The road is later renamed Whatarangi Road and leads 37 km to Cape Palliser. The road is both sealed and unsealed and towards the cape is severely threatened by active erosion. There is a gravel parking area near the base of the steps to the lighthouse.
The track starts through the gate at the road end parking area.
The track follows a rough 4WD road for most of its length, skirting the coastline until reaching White Rock Beach. The route follows a narrow foot at the base of the Aorangi Range cliffs. Keep to the track as it is private property on both sides.
The initial 45 minutes from the carpark passes a landscape of coastal rocky outcrops, flax bushes, cabbage trees and tea-tree. The steep dominating greywacke cliffs are smothered in flax on exposed outcrops, while tea-tree colonises the embryonic soils. You pass two enclosure plots of Toroaro.
Shortly before crossing the shallow, narrow Waitetuna Stream, there are the remains of Maori stone walls, running perpendicular to the shoreline.
Rounding the promontory, tea-tree, forced to grow low in submission to the wind, almost reaches the shore (30 minutes).
You can see the track ahead, which traverses the mighty Ngapotiki Fan, a talus slope unconsolidated by vegetation, save a few hardy tussocks (30 minutes). Looking towards the ranges, the faulted blocks of greywacke are separated by steep valleys, which weathering forces nibble at to supply the debris for the fan. Occasional boulders sit on the gravely scree, which can be picked up by the wind to prick your legs.
The track now undulates, passing Ngapotiki Lodge on its way to White Rock Beach (20 minutes). Although the 4WD track continues, it is now easier to just walk along the beach to the conspicuous white rock at the far end. The shingle can be soft going, but higher up the beach is a bit firmer.
Return via the same track. It is only marginally quicker than the walk to drive around to White Rock from Cape Palliser.
Your likely companion on this walk will be the wind. When weather forecasters refer to exposed places, here is where they are talking about. The ferocity of the gusts can make you walk with a lean, like a drunkard with a skin full of strong cider. The gusts gyrate the flax leaves and cause the cabbage trees to chatter. The fierce waves often have trouble making it to shore, as the spindrift peels off the crest and is taken on the wind into a violent dance.
The Ngapotiki Fan is one of the finest examples of a gravel fan in the country. Forest clearance has exposed the rock to the vagaries of the weather. Weathering agents such as rain, sun, frost and wind then loosen particles which are later transported by streams down the gully and deposited as an alluvial fan. At the sea an eroded margin leaves an unstable cliff face, that has been gnawed for around 1800 years since the formation of the fan. The large boulders, probably brought down in mudflows, are known in technical terms by geologists as ‘goolies’.
Toroaro (Muehlenbeckia astonii) is an endangered, small leaved coastal plant. Like its companion tauhinu, the dense foliage restricts moisture loss in this harsh environment.
There is the North Island’s only colony of breeding fur seals resident at Cape Palliser. They ‘sunbathe’ and rest on the rocks between feeding at sea. Keep landward side of the seals and keep dogs under control. Fur seals Arctocephalus forsteri were almost driven to extinction at the end of the nineteenth century, but numbers now seem to be recovering. In the 1990s the first North Island breeding colony was established at Cape Palliser. Bull seals organise territorial spacing by late spring. This can be a battlesome affair and they don’t eat or drink during this 2 month period. They weigh up to 100 kg.
Seals are known as pinnipeds (wing footed) because of their webbed flippers, which they don instead of paws or feet. Streamlined bodies and blubber keep them warm (hence their hunting for fur). Their ears and nose are covered with flaps when diving to feed on squid, octopus and hoki.
The stone walls are the work of Tini-o-Awa and were constructed as early as 1230 AD. They demarcated areas zoned for gardening and have given archaeologists valuable insights into the culture of early New Zealand human settlers. It is clear from the evidence in the region that these Polynesian immigrants made use of seasonal cycles. In spring they would collect fern roots and eat the fresh growth of shoots and leaves (this at a time when stores were low). Summer was when cultivation began, shellfish gathered, fish caught and birds snared. During autumn kumara were harvested and birds, fish, shellfish and berries preserved. Winter was a time of scarcity, when fur seals would supplement the diet.
Up to 30 stonewalls have been unearthed in the area. Most are 1-2 metres wide and are composed of larger and smaller boulders. They are common over the whole Palliser Bay area. Small beach boulders were commonly used and were placed in neat parallel rows.
The cape was first walked around in 1842 by Brees and Tiffen during early survey work.
The 258 steps to the lighthouse replaced a steep slippery rocky path with a winch at the top. The lighthouse was established in 1897 and converted from oil to diesel generated electricity in 1954. In 1967 it was converted to mains electricity. The tower is 18-metres-high and the cast iron sections are bolted together. The light is 78 metres above sea level, flashes twice every 20 seconds and can be seen for 26 nautical miles (48 km). The 1000 Watt lamp is automated and controlled and monitored by a computer in Wellington.
The Cape was named by Captain Cook after his mentor Rear Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser.
The sounds of the wind and foaming seas mingle in a raw orchestrated duet that sums up this stretch of coast. Monstrous waves smash over offshore stacks in an orgy of foaming wrath. Enormous breakers crash up the black shingle beaches and retreat in a chaotic maelstrom of white water. The wind picks up the exploding spray and makes it hover, unveiling the dramatic show in slow motion.
North Island ▷ Wairarapa ▷ Ngawi
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Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍