A Wairarapa road trip: fur seals and other highlights

Half-round barns full of round bales, four-wheelers with dogs on the back and drivers without helmets, and dairy farms with, on one occasion, the cows ambling under the road through their private tunnel; we have left grapevines behind and are driving south from Martinborough.

I’m a sucker for heritage buildings, especially churches, and Burnside Church, standing alone on the edge of a flat field, has barely changed in 140 years. It doesn’t have electricity or a toilet and the pointed gothic windows have the wonky reflections of old glass. The interior is dark wood, with no-nonsense wooden pews and pulpit, the same age as the church. It’s cool inside and respectfully sombre. The windows become individual bright pictures; of sheep grazing in breeze-blown grass, a neatly trimmed settlers’ cemetery with white marble and pink headstones.

A few kilometres south, we pull in to the general store at Pirinoa; this is the last shop until Cape Palliser, the end of the road, and we need lunch for later. The store opened in 1882 and is just like an old-style country store should be. There is a notice board, with notices of community events – sports practice times, embroidery group get-togethers, lost kittens.

Lake Ferry, a bach village, straggles along the road that edges the lake. Lake Onoke is its real name. The village is known for its pub, fishing in Palliser Bay, and windsurfing on the lake. The action is on the beach at Onoke Spit, a massive pebble bank where the lake breaks through and empties into the sea.

The wind is coming from the north, flattening the waves, peeling a curtain of spray off behind them. The waves make a noisy riff, up and down, millions of grey stone pebbles rolling in unison. And, the snow-capped Kaikoura Mountains hover in the distant southern sky above the blue-green sea.

We double back a few kilometres and turn east into Cape Palliser Road. The road curls between steep hills and flat farmland. This is farmland like it used to be with sheep, heads down and grazing, and paddocks of maize. There are no dairy farms and wineries on this stretch of coast where Palliser Bay, with a 20-kilometre sweep of beach, takes a great bite out of southern Wairarapa.

Wairarapa _3

The tar-seal ends at Ngawi but the fur seals begin. We see a few solo seals sunning themselves on rocks but the colony, home-base, where the mothers keep their pups, is not easy to find. There are no signposts, which puts off the faint-hearted and leaves these babies relatively undisturbed. I smell them first – a pungent mix of rotten fish, ammonia and sulphur – then hear them, heavy breathing and yelping. After clambering over a rocky outcrop I see them, a few grownups, a couple of lazy lolling teenagers and lots of baby seals.

Cape Palliser Lighthouse, perched on a rocky prominence 78 metres above the sea, is the exclamation mark at the end of the road. This coast was – still is – notorious for its Cook Straight gales and back in the days of sail and steam many ships were wrecked and lives lost. The tower was finished and the light lit in 1897. I’m a sucker for old lighthouses and puff up the 253 steep steps to pay homage the red and white stripped monolith. It’s 18 metres tall which, along with its height above sea level, gives it a range of 48 kilometres on a clear night.

The road has ended but not the adventure. Lake Ferry Hotel’s famous fish and chips are calling. We point the car into the low sun and follow our tracks back. Luckily Thursday night is music night in the lounge bar. There is a group of old-timers making old-timers music. They do it well and we love it.

Dump stations

Arbor Reserve and Greytown Campground, Greytown.

Card Reserve, Featherston (corner of Johnston and Harrison Streets).

Opposite Martinborough Holiday Park, Martinborough on Dublin Street.

Places to stay

Lake Ferry Holiday Park has powered camp sites and boat launching facilities. $18 per person. Lake Ferry Road. (06) 307 7873.

Ngawi beachfront. Camping is permitted on the Ngawi beachfront under South Wairarapa District Council rules – no dogs allowed, no rubbish dumped and maximum stay 21 days.

DOC Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite. 50 sites. No power, no dump station, no booking. It has toilets and water. $6 per adult per night. The wonderful pinnacles walk is 3 hours return.

The end of the road, Cape Palliser, is 55km from Martinborough.

Read the full article in issue #145 of Motorhomes Caravans & Destinations magazine (on sale now!). Subscribe here.

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