Find the fur seals in Palliser Bay

PICTURESQUE: Palliser Bay from the lighthouse, the seal colony is the North Island’s largest breeding area. Left: A rustic eye-ball feast of workhorses. Right: Lip-smacking fish and chips at the Lake Ferry Hotel.

There is a savage, raw-edged beauty to Cape Palliser, where the land and sea can come to serious blows on the southernmost tip of the North Island.

But the summer months offer a more benign big blue sky experience, which I sampled with Stuart Edwards from Green Jersey Explorer Tours.

Heading out from Martinborough’s mannered streets of tidy houses, the bucolic drive to the coast shuffled from pastoral plains to undulating countryside. I soon realised why the car rally crowd and two-wheeling weekend warriors swoon over these country roads, interspersed with photogenic little villages, like Pirinoa.

Our first stop was at the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve, for the 90min return walk to this bewitching rock formation, that made a starring appearance in Lord of the Rings. Steadily climbing through the steeply beech-forested flanks of the hillside, the endurance test was made all the more cathartic by the elevated perspective across Palliser Bay.

Arriving at the viewing platform, soak up the cinematic panorama of these hoodoo formations. Largely composed of greywacke gravels exposed by rain and floodwaters, harder layers of rock cap these fluted stone pillars, or hoodoos, which protects the underlying soil from the rain and prevents the soft gravels from eroding.

In spite of being slammed by some of the fiercest weather in the nation, the gritty little fishing village of Ngawi is not deterred from launching their boats into the wild sea in search of a catch. Conspicuously lacking a sheltered harbour, fishing boats are hauled in and out of the sea by an astonishing battalion of bulldozers and tractors, which are as widely varied as the boats they pull.

From the stony shoreline, I marvelled at this rustic eye-ball feast of workhorses, standing at attention like dutiful ocean sentinels. It would have to rate as one of the most novel and unusual coastal curiosities in New Zealand.

It’s like a rendering of industrial-chic shoreline art. You may well have seen Ngawi on the TV recently, without even realising. The much-loved Lotto ad, featuring the father on a fishing boat and his son on a pirate ship, was shot at Ngawi.

Further along the magnificent cliff-hugging coastline, the candy-striped Cape Palliser Lighthouse is a riveting landmark, beckoning you up the formidable flight of 258 wooden steps. The lung-busting ascent felt like hell, but trust me, it’s the stairway to heaven, because the trippy coastal panorama to reward you at the top is utterly rhapsodic, serrated by the Kaikoura Ranges across the water.

Below the lighthouse, lap up the North Island’s largest fur seal breeding colony, who contentedly spread themselves across the Cape Palliser’s nooks and crannies. During my November visit, our blubbery friends were out in force, with mothers teaching their pups acrobatic lessons in the rock pool, while the big bull seals loll about on the rocks, snorting and hollering like pickled members of an old boys’ club after a few too many gins.

History lessons seem to lurk around every corner. James Cook named Cape Palliser in honour of one of his naval mates and the name extends across the sweeping bay. Early European sheep farmers drove their flocks around the coast from the Wainuiomata Valley, with the bay serving as their gateway to the sprawling pastoral quilt of the Wairarapa Plains.

Well-endowed with kai moana, Palliser Bay is one of the oldest inhabited regions for Maori, with archaeological sites indicating iwi first settled here in the 14th century. Close to Ngawai, Stuart pointed out the ancient stone walls early Maori built in the ridge lines to protect their kumara gardens.

With hunger levels rising, it was over a lip-smacking lunch of the freshest fish and chips at the historic Lake Ferry Hotel, that I gleaned more insights into the region’s indigenous history. A fantastic way to immerse yourself in the rich heritage of Palliser Bay.