06 May 2015

Expedition to Cape Palliser

Cape Palliser lighthouse
A month or so ago I took a daytrip to the Wairarapa to catch up with a Carterton pal, and we went on an expedition to the south coast for my first visit to Lake Ferry and Cape Palliser. This was an excellent opportunity to test the new car, but also filled a gap in my knowledge of the Wellington region. And as predicted, it was a grand day out.

After the drive south from Featherston, skirting the eastern shores of Lake Wairarapa but not actually spotting it, the road passes through tiny Pirinoa, home of the area's tiny primary school and a general store, before ending up at the seaside holiday retreat of Lake Ferry itself on the shore of Lake Onoke and overlooking Cook Strait.

There's been a European settlement here for 165 years, with the titular ferry service established early in the region's European settlement to assist the growth of the Wairarapa economy. Back then the Rimutakas were almost impenetrable to travellers, so farmers seeking new pastures in the Wairarapa would take their herds along the south coast trail from Wellington around to the foot of Lake Onoke.

A history of the area records the formation of the ferry service that earned the hamlet its name:

The jury at the inquest into the drowning of Donald and John Drummond when crossing the lake in July 1850, made a strong recommendation that a ferry manned by Europeans be provided at the outlet as well as at the other river crossings in the region. The first applicant was well-known Te Kopi trader Nicholas Carey who in August formally applied 'to establish a ferry at the Lake. Memorialist has a Boat already there and is able at once to give safe conveyance to Passengers'. Henry St Hill in his report said that Carey had been trading to and from the Wairarapa 'for a long time past' and was a steady well-behaved man. He proposed that the licence, which was supported also by Colonel McCleverty and Henry Petre, be granted free for the first year. Although it was approved and issued it is doubtful whether Carey actually took it up for in March 1851, six months later, Purvis Russell wrote at length on behalf of himself and other signatories including his brother Henry, Vallance, Tully, Hume and Riddiford: 'The Settlers in this District have, in order to remove the extremely hazardous & dangerous passage by means of Canoes across the Lake, obtained for the annual payment of twelve pounds the right of ferry & have in pursuance of that object appointed a respectable & competent party in charge of a boat at the Lake but as the charges arising from the ferry are insufficient of themselves to maintain the ferryman we have now humbly to petition that your Excellency shall be pleased to recommend the issue of a Licence in favour of William Ardley the present ferryman...' Domett's minute probably implies the reason for Carey's earlier failure: 'Captain Smith has seen me on the subject and assures me that the arrangement is completely settled with the natives...' The Maoris had doubtless objected to any innovation which did not have their prior blessing. The licence was issued.
- A.G. Bagnall, Wairarapa, an Historical Excursion, Hedley's, Masterton, 1976, p.115.
The current Lake Ferry Hotel is now a rambling, low-rise affair that offers an ideal lunching spot. Inside among a collection of vintage photography of the area you can still see the old ferry tariff board that was once nailed next to the hotel's front door, advertising the rates of travel.

Lake Ferry looking south towards the bar

Next stop after lunch was the journey to Cape Palliser itself, which is nearly 40 kilometres from Lake Ferry along the winding coastal route.

En route to Cape Palliser
There wasn't time for a detour to the spectacular Putangirua Pinnacles inland - next time, definitely - but there was the opportunity to pause for a look at the isolated fishing settlement of Ngawi, to admire the fishing vessels perched up on the stony shore and the hard-working tractors that pull each boat trailer up to safety. I'd never even heard of Ngawi, but it struck me as an interesting place - on the day of our visit it was idyllic but in rough weather it must be highly exposed to the elements, and the locals must have a rugged time of it going out to fish.

Ngawi fishing boat

Further on, the well-populated seal colony just before the Cape Palliser lighthouse is a marvellous opportunity to observe a community onshore. Family groups were perched around the craggy rocks, sunning and snoozing, uttering an occasional gruff bark. Unfortunately our visit was marred by annoyance at a party of young South Africans (perhaps a church party), the males of which clambered over rocks attempting to pat the young seal pups as if they were household pets, despite warning them not to approach closer than 10 metres.

Cape Palliser seal colony

The final stop on the expedition was the candy-striped Cape Palliser lighthouse itself, which sits on an outcrop overlooking the exposed coast at the southernmost point of the North Island. This part of the island features in one of the earliest European visits to New Zealand:

By February 1770 Captain James Cook had been four months in New Zealand waters and before refitting in Queen Charlotte Sound had practically circumnavigated the North Island. His first examination of the Wairarapa coast was incidental to his proving to sceptical officers that Cook Strait was in fact a passage between two islands one of which they had by then nearly encompassed. On February 7th the Endeavour cleared the Sound and stood away to the eastward. Cook saw ahead that the land 'ends in a point and is the southernmost land of Aeheinomouwe which I have named Cape Palliser in honour of my worthy friend Capt Palliser'.
- Bagnall, p.16.
The lighthouse was opened in October 1897 and was operated by a lighthouse keeper until automation in 1986. For a city dweller it really does feel like the end of the earth!
The lighthouse from the west

South coast from the Cape Palliser lighthouse
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