Cape Palliser

By Grant Rayner – 30th Jan 2015

Cape Palliser holds a very special place in my heart and always has. We had countless trips to the rugged Wairarapa coast at the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island when we were kids. This was also where my Mum and Dad went often during their courting days and where they eventually retired to, so myself and my siblings were destined to spend a lot of time there.

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The Wairarapa has two main Beach area’s Castlepoint and Cape Palliser, but they are a world apart from each other. For those who think a beach must have soft sand and shallows for the kids to swim in then Castlepoint is a better bet, but Cape Palliser has a lot more to offer than just the rugged scenery the visitor is first taken by.

There’s the Putangirua Pinnacles, used in a few of Peter Jackson’s movies, this mass of tall gravel spires are an unusual formation caused by erosion, a good workout for the legs can be had walking the track, by the camping area, up to the viewpoint. Or you can walk up the riverbed to their bases.

You will also drive over an ‘Active Slip’ / ‘Slump’ as the erosion of the coast is constant and the local council is in a constant battle to hold back the relentless ocean, many of the old beach houses or Baches (as North Island Kiwi’s call them) have long since collapsed into the ocean. The Clay cliffs are the most obvious sign of this, watch out for fallen lumps of clay, especially after heavy rain.

Past the clay cliffs you’ll wend your way by the coast with steep hills to your left and the Cook Strait to your right, on a clear day you’ll see the Kaikoura Mountains of the South Island rugged in summer or clad in Snow in winter. If the winds out of the south the sea can be mountainous too.

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You’ll eventually reach the fishing village of Ngawi, where the bays gravel beach has seen every possible model of retired bulldozer put back to work launching and landing the boats, which mainly chase Crayfish (Rock Lobster) and Paua (NZ Black Abalone).


After Ngawi you’ll come around a point and finally see the area’s world famous light house, and in the fore ground the impressive Kupe’s Sail rock formation, I believe the Maori story is that Kupe hung his sail to dry and it turned to stone. The formation does graphically demonstrate the way the area has been changed by seismic activity in the ancient past, as it’s clearly an area of rock that would have originally laid flat but is now completely on it’s side jutting a corner into the sky, the continuation of the plate of rock extends into the sea as a formation the locals call the sharks teeth.

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This is the area that is home to the numerous fur seals, they are often sleeping on the grass right up to, and on very stormy days even past, the road. The next point of land is the location of the biggest Fur Seal nursery, where the mother seals leave their pups while they go out fishing. The young seals are very curious and will touch their noses to your boots if you stand on the edge of their favourite rock pool. Just be very careful of adult seals, especially the big bulls, if the babies are very small the Mums will also be around and very protective, the golden rule is not to get between a seal and the ocean, as it will then feel cornered, and ironically it’ll be you with nowhere left to go, they’re surprisingly fast over the rocks.

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Cape Palliser Lighthouse stands boldly atop a rocky outcrop which you can access via the 250 or so steps of the wooden staircase climbing it’s steep grass and flax covered hillside. This beacon even made a Top 10 Lighthouse list on Lonely Planet

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The lighthouse itself is almost never open to the public, but my Mum managed to organise an opening shortly before we left NZ, and though the weather was horrendous that day a school trip and locals still climbed the peak and waited patiently for their turn to access the top level, in fact it was solidly filled from open to close, a couple of tourists even happened along on just the right day, unable to believe the luck of their timing (It hadn’t been open for 20 years or more previously).


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To stand between the Lenses of the light and the triangular window panes without even a hand rail to assist you is really something else. Walking around the cast iron railing outside the light is far scarier though, especially if the area’s trade mark winds are gusting, not one for vertigo sufferers.

Having seen all of the above you’ve seen about half what the area has to offer, the other half is hidden by the surface of the sea. There are so many wonders to be found in the rock pools, (again watching out for the seals) kids can spend hours collecting crabs and starfish as well as chasing small fish and seeing the baby paua on the bottom of large rocks, a common sea snail here is called a Cat’s eye as it has an eye like pattern on the protective shell door it closes it’s home up with when plucked off it’s rock. Although I’ve never seen one, there can even be seahorses in the weeds. You can fish off the rocks with a drop line or off the beach with a surfcaster fishing line. If you can talk your way onto a local fishing boat (or charter one) there’s rich fishing to be had out to sea. The area is known best for Bluecod but there’s a myriad of other species that also make good eating.



For the keen snorkeler or diver there’s a whole other world awaiting, the underwater world here is a savannah of seaweed masking a rocky seafloor, among the weed and rocks are thousands of Paua and Crayfish, both loved by the locals for their dinner tables, you’ll also sometimes see huge Octopus hiding in the crevices, and though the diver’s mask blinkers your vision you can be sure that the local seals will be keeping an eye on you too, often hanging upside down in the water with their tail flippers in the air.

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While the ocean here isn’t to be trifled with and a flat sea is fairly rare there are options for the young children, most of the rivers that flow into the ocean usually end in wide shallow pools naturally dammed by a bank of sand put in place by the force of the waves (and occasionally by one of Ngawi’s bull dozers ;)) the kids can chase the little freshwater fish we call cocker-bullies.

There are yet more hidden treasures for the determined visitor (with a 4×4 or a good strong set of legs) , keep traveling around the coast beyond the lighthouse (being careful to close and latch any gates you pass through) and pick your way carefully through the very rough road you’ll eventually reach the ‘stone wall’ a collection rocks cleared from the land around the wall for early farming (I’m not sure if this was done by early Maori or European settlers.) follow the creek up and you’ll find a lovely water fall and swimming spots, with crystal clear water.

Many of the other streams lead into interesting and beautiful chasms and valleys. Hunters go right up into the hills in search of Deer.

All of the above is partaken in the freshest air you’ll likely ever breathe, especially fresh if from the south as there’s nothing between you and Antartica 😀

A day at Cape Palliser will leave you pleasantly tired, reconnected with nature and feeling alive.

At night the stars are breathtaking and shooting stars can normally be spotted by any patient observer. Although you’re unlikely to see one, after dark Penguins will be making their way back to their nests and returning to the sea before dawn. Fires are banned through summer as the grass is normally wind dried brown brittle fire tinder in the frequent Wairarapa droughts, however in winter and spring you can find drift wood and have a bonfire on the sand, just be sure to have a bucket of water and to put it out completely afterwards, the area has been ravaged by fire in the past, and you don’t want to be that guy!

4 thoughts on “Cape Palliser

  1. watermannz October 15, 2015 / 6:45 pm

    Well done …that is a wonderful story and you have included great photos. Thank you.

  2. Alison October 16, 2015 / 12:00 am

    Very well written article

  3. Avis August 15, 2017 / 11:16 am

    A really great story written by someone that knows about our lovely Cape Palliser

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