Cape Palliser, New Zealand – June 5, 2016
On the spur of the moment, we decided to drive to the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. The two-hour drive began by going over Rimutaka Pass, one of Leslie’s favorites…not. It is a very twisty-turny road, a two-lane highway with periodic passing lanes. The views are spectacular.
Just outside of Featherston, we turned south on Kahutara Road. Along the way, we drove across a bridge over the Ruamahanga River. It was very picturesque. I kept that in the back of my mind. Shortly after the crossing, we turned onto Lake Ferry Road and finally onto Cape Palliser Road. It was on Lake Ferry Road where we discovered the Burnside Presbyterian Church. A sign out front noted the church dates from 1875. The morning light made for a picturesque photo.
Soon, we were parallel to the coast, driving through some farms. We looked to the south and were surprised to see a snowcapped mountain on the south island. Researching after the fact, I found the peak is Mount Tapuae-O-Ueneku. It is nearly 9,500 feet tall. Surprisingly, the distance between the mountain and us was approximately 90 miles. We also saw Mount Franklyn. It is almost 7,700 feet tall. At nearly 140 miles, I am surprised we could see the peak.
That morning, the ocean was a fantastic shade of blue. From the farmland, the road descends several hundred feet to the coast. The way at that point is right beside the ocean. Imagining driving along that road during a strong southerly storm sent chills down my spine. I am sure the waves are treacherous during such a blast. With that idea in mind, a precariously situated house caught my eye. I stopped at the beach for some photos. We could see a blue beach home nearly ready to fall into the surf. It appeared the house was vacant for some time. I was a little surprised the home was still there as opposed to being razed and removed. The home was teetering, seemingly awaiting the next storm and its inevitable destiny with the ocean.
We stopped at a rocky point less than a mile from the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. The rocks seemed similar to those at the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki; although there were no blowholes there (see Greymouth). The ocean was relatively calm that morning. Regardless, at that particular point, the sea was quite agitated. The crashing waves mesmerized us.
The parking area at the end of the Cape Palliser Road is directly at the base of the stairs that lead to the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. From the parking area, the stairs looked more like an overgrown ladder than actual stairs. In continuous operation since October 27, 1897, the lighthouse is 60 feet tall. Ships as far as thirty miles from shore can spot the light. The red and white paint scheme makes the lighthouse very visible against the brownish-gray of the hillside on which it sits.
At the base of the stairs, we saw a sign with the sad note, “…261 steps it takes to reach it.” From our point of view, it indeed appeared it was the stairway to Heaven. I must admit I was shocked to hear Leslie declare she was game to climb the stairs. We enthusiastically began our ascent. In increments of 50, someone using a felt marker on the sides of the stairs reminded one of their progress to that point. We stopped frequently. Ultimately, we passed that 261st stair and stood on the concrete pad at the base of the lighthouse.
The view from the lighthouse was commanding. A woman with some friends and a group of children pointed out to us where we might find fur seals when we descended from the lighthouse. None of her directions included the parking area below the lighthouse. We soon found out otherwise. Nevertheless, looking down the stairs, it again appeared as a stairway from heaven. Even though gravity was working well, going down was not easy. By the time we reached the base of the stairs, I had thought my knees would pop.
Back on level ground, we decided to walk the short distance to the beach. I stopped there to take some photographs. While I was taking a picture, the woman that gave seal directions to us at the lighthouse called out to the children, essentially saying no, no. The children had run in front of my shot, so I thought she was chastising them for that action. When I lowered my camera, I saw that she was commanding them to stop before they got too close to a seal. Sure enough, there within about fifty feet of me was a fur seal. The seal, lying on its back, raised its head and grunted toward the children. Once sure the children were no longer a threat, the seal lay down again, belly pointing to the sun.
We have seen seals before, but never in their natural habitat. I began channeling my inner David Attenborough, snapping photographs wildly. After several shots, I stepped more to my left, looking for a better angle, stopped and took several more photos. I repeated that motion several times, never getting closer to the seal, just looking for a better perspective. On my final shuffle, the snort of another seal startled me. My inner Attenborough nearly soiled my britches. This snorting seal was about fifteen feet away, hidden in a bedding area amongst several small bushes. As soon as I stopped, the snorting stopped. That seal went back to sunning itself too.
After the startling encounter, we walked back to our vehicle. We drove back along the Cape Palliser Road; we stopped at one of the locations that the woman at the lighthouse said held a fur seal colony. We parked the vehicle and walked down to the beach. Soon we spotted our first seal, lying on a rock. Then we saw several more lying on the grass. Suddenly, it seemed seals were everywhere. We stood there for quite a while, just watching. We also noticed the seals come with their colony odor. It is unmistakable. I am not sure which is worse; the seals’ odor or the Gannets’ odor (see Gannets Everywhere ).
The wake-up stretch.
When we tired of watching, we walked back to our vehicle. Once there, Leslie decided to sit down. I decided to walk to a rock formation. I hoped to get a different view of the sea. Instead, my inner Attenborough stumbled across several hidden seals, each providing a surprised grunt as I unwittingly stepped too close. They did provide me with some excellent photo opportunities. Deciding I could not get to my desired vantage point without ending up in the middle of the seal colony, I opted to return to the car.
As I noted earlier, our trip was spontaneous. That meant we had not packed a lunch. When I returned to the vehicle, Leslie suggested we stop at the small food trailer in the almost as small fishing village of Ngawi. That sounded like a great idea to me. On the way back to that village, we saw a sign warning of penguins crossing. We have seen several such signs on our New Zealand travels, but we have yet to see a penguin in the wild.
The small food trailer is right on the beach at the edge of Ngawi. Several people stood at the front of the trailer when we arrived, waiting to order. Leslie chose the fish tortilla while I decided on the cheeseburger. We also each ordered chips (French fries) and fizzy drinks. The lunch cost us about US$16. Not bad, considering the number of chips they gave us could have fed Ngawi for two to three days!
We ate across the street from the trailer, sitting on a bench next to the Ngawi Community Hall. Leslie said the fish tortilla (essentially a soft-shelled fish taco) was the best in the world. My cheeseburger was perfect. Something different was the pickled red beet added to the burger. It took the place of a sweet pickle. As we walked back across the street, Leslie told the two women operating the trailer how much she enjoyed the fish tortilla. That thrilled them to no end.
As Americans, I think our thought of a traditional fishing village includes a marina. In Ngawi, the “marina” was full of diesel bulldozers. The bulldozers and some tractors attach to boat trailers. The trailer tongues are extraordinarily long. The bulldozers back the trailers into the surf to launch and retrieve the fishing boats. It is fascinating to watch. This method of boat delivery to the ocean is the same as what we experienced when we visited Kapiti Island.
On the drive back toward home, I recalled the beautiful view on the bridge over the Ruamahanga River. This time, I parked just on the other side of the bridge. The bridge is a very narrow, two-lane bridge. There is no room for pedestrians. Luckily, there is not a lot of traffic. Leslie and I walked to the center of the bridge. I was able to take several good photographs. At one point, a car driving over the bridge slowed to a crawl to see precisely what I was photographing. Once they saw it was merely a landscape, the sped on across.
We drove back over Rimutaka Pass and arrived home around 16:00. It was a beautiful day trip.