Wairarapa: Where the wild things are

by Jenny Nicholls / 01 July, 2018
Photography by Ken Downie.
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From Lake Ferry surf swells to the Cape Palliser lighthouse, Jenny Nicholls takes a drive on the wild side of the Wairarapa.

Pack your little black dress, but don’t forget your tramping boots. You’ll want binoculars, Nikes, a capacious shopping bag, a high tolerance for alcohol, a birding book, heels and an empty stomach.

You are off to the Wairarapa – the land of fine dining, Lord of the Rings backdrops and a lot of rusty tractors. It’s as if Parnell was surgically removed from Auckland and stitched onto the Catlins.

The chic restaurants and vineyards of Greytown and Martinborough are overlooked, on two sides, by hard-knuckle ranges cloaked with old forest sprawling north and west – the Tararuas and the Rimutakas. A ship-wrecking coast lies to the east.

Once, the only land route from Wellington to the bountiful flatlands and lakes of the Wairarapa was a coastal scuttle, avoiding the Rimutakas by way of Pencarrow Head.

The first European farmers chased their stock around this coast until they came to a large, watery obstacle in the foothills of the Rimutakas, within smelling distance of the flat, fertile lands beyond. You’d think Lake Ōnoke, nudging both hill and sea, had been placed deliberately to foil their plans.

Māori have been gathering kai intermittently in this strange place, both a lake shore and a sea front, since the European Dark Ages. Archaeologists have found evidence of their small 12th-century settlements in Palliser Bay.

In the 19th century, when the thin gravel spit that divides the lake from the sea was flooded, Māori ferried Pākehā travellers and animals across the lake in canoes and rafts.

This could be a risky business. In 1850, a tragedy occurred that left a permanent mark on the bay. A contemporary Parliamentary report records a drowning – three people in the winter of 1850. Two were likely father and son, or brothers: “John and Donald Drummond, and a native, not named.”

There was enormous pressure to make the route from Wellington safer, as the road over the Rimutakas wasn’t finished for another six years. So one William Ardley, described as a “respectable and competent party in charge of a boat”, was hired. Ferry fares weren’t enough to pay for his services, so Ardley was granted a hotel licence on condition he row travellers across the lake.

It is said his hotel, known as the Lake Ferry Hotel, was built from shipwreck timber that washed from the sea onto the steep, pebble beach nearby. It looked like a cross between a whare and a shepherd’s hut, apparently. The present building is more practical than romantic.

Today, there is no ferry across the lake, but the name survives on Ardley’s historic hotel, which is still open for business. The shorefront building is surrounded by a small cluster of weekend baches and permanent residents – a township that’s still known as Lake Ferry.

If you arrive between August 15 and November 30, there will be whitebaiters tending angular nets along the shore. There is a wide and rather strange gravel beach not far from the lake and the hotel. Low pebble dunes hide the waves from the shore, and even cars regularly get stuck in the deep pebble drifts. Venture too far onto this beach in the wrong vehicle and you will need a tow rope and a new friend to get you out.

If the wind is right, you will see another endemic local species: surfers, scenting big swells at Lake Ferry or Palliser Bay. Further up the coast are even more prized surfing spots: White Rock, Tora and the legendary Castlepoint, an hour’s drive from Masterton. This famous area is best known for its beach and well-appointed lighthouse, but it also crinkles around some of the North Island’s most revered surfing breaks.

The waves at Lake Ferry are often stunning, with huge southern swells meeting currents from both strait and lake to break the water in strange, interrupted patterns, like a rippling snake with a long mohawk of spray.

It is wild and beautiful, but can also be deadly for the unwary and the unlucky. The sea took a 34-year-old fishing here in January last year, and a whitebaiter in 2015. There is now an unmissable sign where the lake meets the sea: “No swimming. Dangerous surf. Strong current. Supervise children at all times. Wave pattern unpredictable.”

As one man told a journalist after the January 2017 drowning: “I always tell my son never to turn your back on the sea.”

Travelling south along the coast from Cape Palliser.

To Do

Coastal drive to Cape Palliser Lighthouse

The lighthouse is a winding 50-minute drive along the rugged coast from Lake Ferry. The road is, mostly, well-formed bitumen, with a decent stretch of gravel at the end. You will pass plenty of classic New Zealand baches, clearly well-built to withstand the ferocious weather, although the mudstone cliffs around them are being eroded by the sea. The fishing village of Ngawī is astonishing. Huge, rusting tractors line the shore – more than one, it seems, for every house in this tiny settlement. They speak volumes about the difficulty of launching fishing boats on a harbourless coast exposed to huge southerly swells. 

Cape Palliser Lighthouse

The lighthouse opened in 1897, which must have been a relief to local shipping: a vessel had been lost near here just months before. The light can be seen out to sea for 26 nautical miles (48km). The lighthouse is now managed from a control room in Wellington, which beats climbing 250 stairs to the tower, especially in stormy weather.

If you are here between November and January, watch for seal pups on the beach; the Cape is home to the North Island’s largest fur seal colony.

Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve

The craggy, spectacular Pinnacles are a must-see, if you can manage the track, which takes 2-4 hours return, depending on your route. If you’re feeling frisky, keep on going for an Instagram-worthy view of Palliser Bay and Lake Ōnoke.

This reserve lies within the Aorangi Forest park, between Martinborough and Cape Palliser. The nearest carpark to the Pinnacles is an hour’s drive from Martinborough, 13km from Lake Ferry. Check the DoC website under “Pinnacles Track” for more details.

For information on camping here, contact DoC at Masterton, ph (06) 377-0700 or Wellington, ph (04) 384-7770.

To Eat

The Land Girl Coffee House

This wonderfully quirky rural cafe doesn’t just sell superb coffee, salads and baking, but also delectable homewares, gifts, bags, vintage treasures and well-designed clothing, such as linen dresses by Helga May. The building is a repurposed 19th-century blacksmith’s shop in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Pirinoa, 20 minutes south of Martinborough, on the way to Lake Ferry. Open 8am-4pm, Thursday to Sunday.

Lake Ferry Hotel

Since 1851, this historic hotel has made a fine place to watch the coastal sunset from – they are often mind-blowing here. Quaintly, it refers to the bar offering “refreshments”. Famous for its fast service and excellent fish and chips, the hotel also has budget accommodation.

2 Lake Ferry Rd, ph (06) 307-7831, lakeferryhotel.co.nz

This was published in the April 2018 issue of North & South.

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