The road to Cape Palliser lighthouse, south of Martinborough, passes through the isolated fishing community of Ngawi, which boasts the highest number of bulldozers per capita in the world.
The road to Cape Palliser lighthouse, south of Martinborough, passes through the isolated fishing community of Ngawi, which boasts the highest number of bulldozers per capita in the world. Paul Rush

Untamed shipwreck coast

I WAKE to the sound of the surf swishing up the pebble beach and the piercing cry of seagulls circling overhead.

Sunlight is filtering through the curtains of my camper, not yet infused with warmth but bright enough to alert my retinal sensors to the fact that another day has dawned in the quirky little fishing village of Ngawi in Palliser Bay.

Freedom camping on this tiny strip of beachfront seems quite appropriate on my quest to reach the North Island's southernmost point at Cape Palliser, 55km south of Martinborough. I spent yesterday coasting along the shoreline, exploring each black sand beach, prominent point and sheltered cove.

The isolated community of Ngawi, with just 40 permanent residents, is a special place where it pays to linger awhile.

It's a place where hard men and resourceful women pit themselves against the wild ocean in order to make a good living from crayfishing. For many years the humble colony of fishermen in this tiny far-flung outpost have tried to tame the Palliser Bay seas by using massive bulldozers to launch their boats on the steeply-sloping gravel beach.

Once the boat hulls are submerged, the skippers apply full power to punch through the swells in a shower of spray and spume. Once beyond the surf line it's down to the serious business of laying out long-lines or retrieving a string of metal crayfish pots.The aluminium-hulled fishing boats are carried on huge trailers with tall metal stanchions on each side to restrain lateral movement.

The fisher folk of Ngawi are our North Island equivalent of the intrepid Alaskan king crab fishermen on The Deadliest Catch. Cook Strait may not be the Bering Sea, but it's still one of the wildest, most unpredictable stretches of ocean on the planet.

A stocky, bearded fisherman is grinding off encrusted rust on the well-weathered hull of his boat. I chat with him about his restoration work and ask his opinion of the inherent dangers of his occupation. He is philosophical, saying that high risk means high rewards.

'With a strong boat and good teamwork we can make it work', he says.

'Sometimes in a southerly blow we push the boundaries but we generally know how far to go. When a wheelhouse window shatters and the sea pours in we know we've gone too far.'

I'm intrigued to discover that amongst all the wild, wave-defying action in Ngawi, there's a little whimsy.

One fishing boat parked on the hard standing sits behind a nifty little bulldozer that's painted bright pink. A name plate identifies this little nautical wonder as 'Babe'. It stands out among the motley crew of assorted rusting monsters that are grinding out their final days.

I leave Ngawi before I become too attached to the place. There's a compelling uniqueness about living in a community that has more bulldozers per capita than anywhere else in the world.

East of the town the road to the cape continues its winding way between the ocean and the barren, angular slopes of the Aorangi Range. Small clusters of 1950-style baches sit square-on to the beach, defiantly facing the wrath of the ocean and the bleak blustery Antarctic winds. A cavalcade of vintage cars trundles past, returning from a rendezvous at the cape.

Cape Palliser has hitherto been a headland on the map to me, so, as I round the last bend in the road I'm full of anticipation.

The great soaring cast iron lighthouse looms before me, standing atop a sheer rock bluff, overlooking a desolate reef-strewn coast that's bursting with raw energy. Nowhere on the North Island is more isolated and off the beaten track.

The 1897 lighthouse seems to beckon me towards its lofty heights, challenging my fitness with its near-vertical stairway of 258 steps - yes I did count them.

The reward is a spectacular view across the bay and down to the black reefs of lumpy pillow lava which erupted onto the seafloor over 100 million years ago.

I return to the beach and rock-hop to the swirling edge of the ocean.

A pungent odour stops me in my tracks. I'm so focused on keeping my balance that I've almost run headlong into a big male fur seal. Cape Palliser has the largest permanent seal colony in the North Island.

He barks a warning and rises up to his full height, ready to do battle with this aggressive land-based bipedal mammal that's invading his space.

There's one more feature I must see along these wave-beaten shores. It's the fictitious Dimholt Road, where the Army of the Dead marched in the movie Return of the King. In real life the area is known as the Putangirua Pinnacles.

A one-hour walk up a riverbed leads to a surreal landscape created when the stream exposed ancient layers of scree. Avenues of Gothic-style spires and fluted cliffs rise up to 50 metres - natural skyscrapers of eroded shingle in 'badlands' country.

Relaxing on the terrace of the Lake Ferry Hotel, I watch the sun set over the great horseshoe sweep of Palliser Bay and reflect on my day on the untamed shipwreck coast of Southern Wairarapa.

I've enjoyed my time with the hardy breeds of the cape colonies - the fisher folk and the feisty fur seals. Coasting to the cape has been an exciting experience - almost a sea change for a city man.


Cape Palliser is reached by a well-formed bitumen road, with the exception of a short stretch of gravel over the Whatarangi Bluff and the 5km section beyond Ngawi Village. The Cape is 55km from Martinborough, taking a turn-off one kilometre before Lake Ferry.

Accommodation is available at the Lake Ferry Hotel or at several guest houses in the area.

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

Lake Ferry Holiday Park has studio units, cabins, camp sites and boat launch facilities.

For more information on the area see Wairarapa NZ.

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