Follow the wild, rugged and lonely road.
Just over two hours drive from Wellington, lies an empty stretch of unpaved road that cuts through harsh cliffs and includes a drop-off to the cold and angry water below; before finishing at a seal colony, overlooked by a lighthouse on a cliff top.
Hear more about Cape Palliser in my podcast, Travelosophy.
Standing on the shore at dusk, you can often see sharks, patrolling the coast, hunting schools of fish; from the beach throw a line and almost straight away, you’ll catch a blue-cod that sit on the sandy bottom of the ocean.
A place so wild, you can go hours without seeing another person.
Welcome to Cape Palliser.
The lighthouse sits at the top of two hundred and fifty, near-vertical steps, but once you’ve made it, the view is spectacular. It’s often windy, which keeps the clouds at bay, but sunsets offer fantastic silhouette photos, as blue sky turns to orange before hitting the horizon.
I often sat for hours, on the cliff-top (next to the lighthouse) feet dangling 200 metres above the rocky shore below; with only the wind and the ocean for company, breathing in it’s salty wildness.
From up here, the ocean looks flat and lifeless, but the longer you watch it, the more it comes alive.
There’s seals surfing into rock-pools, seagulls diving at schools of fish, waves that have travelled for days, landing softly onto rocky shores, bringing seaweed from far away lands.
It’s easy to imagine voices, drifting on the winds; the tiny shrill songs of birds, easily mistaken for a child’s laughter in playtime.
Every visit to Cape Palliser, I would always end up staying to watch the sunset. With it’s contrasting burnt orange, and space-blue, even without clouds, the sunsets here were always spectacular, and blissfully quiet.
With so few visitors, it was easy to imagine, I was the last remaining person on earth, every stress-inducing complication, now non-existent. I’m always energised by nature and whilst I was living in Wellington, Cape Palliser was my go-to escape from life.
Once you turn off the main highway, at Featherston, the road to the coast was straight, virtually car-free and no matter the weather in Wellington, it always seemed to be sunny in Cape Palliser.As the road meanders out of farmland, south towards the ocean; the expansive view, opens up like the opening scene of a movie, rugged and vast. Cape Palliser road then hugs the beach, with it’s left-handed curls you could surf for hours, the waves all yours, all day.
Eventually the asphalt gives way to dirt before you arrive at a small fishing village, Ngawi a few kilometres before the lighthouse; here you’ll find a camp ground, right on the water with 180 degree views of the Pacific Ocean (it was free the last time I stayed). There’s only a toilet, and a short walk away, a little take-away shop serving hot chips, coffee and ice-cream out of a rusty caravan.
There’s a couple of batches (simple accommodation) you can book online in Ngawi or if you prefer something more luxurious, there are modern hotels and guest houses in the winery region of the Wairarapa (which includes the towns of Martinborough, Greytown and Masterton). You could then do a day trip down to Cape Palliser. Billionaire film mogul, James Cameron bought up huge swathes of land not far from Cape Palliser and moved his family there from California, whilst working on the Avatar sequels. All so he could be within a helicopter flight from the Weta Studios in Wellington. Director Peter Jackson also shot some scenes from Lord of the Rings close to Cape Palliser.
Wellington is the closest major airport. New Zealand is easy to drive around because out of Wellington, there’s only two roads, one that goes North East ~ highway #2 (going to Cape Palliser you want this one) and another road that goes North West ~ highway #1. There are lots of car rental places to choose from, the further from the airport you pick up the car, the cheaper it is. It’s a narrow and windy road through the Rimutakas (mountain range) and the road is often closed due to high winds or snow so double check before heading out. Once you’re back on flat land you’ll arrive in a town called Featherston. There’s no petrol stations beyond featherston, so if you need to fill up, do so here. Almost immediately there’s a right turn-off to Cape Palliser and Martinborough. It’s signposted but the road is called Revans St (aka highway #53). Follow this until Martinborough, turn right at Jellicoe St which eventually becomes Lake Ferry Road. Every road trip needs a soundtrack, and for this I recommend the Piano Cloud Series. Listen now, or download all three albums, free for three months at Apple Music (click on the link).
Side note: The town of Martinborough is worth checking out, if you have time. It’s a little winery village, set around a town square, with some great eateries and boutique shops. Once a year they have the Martinborough Festival which features market stalls, live music, great food and unsurprisingly, wine. Driving along Lake Ferry Road, after you pass the tiny cute church, before you hit the village of Lake Ferry, turn left, towards Cape Palliser, which will take you the rest of the way to Cape Palliser. If you miss the turn-off, it’s not a big deal because Lake Ferry is only a 5 minute drive away. There’s a pub in Lake Ferry which serves counter lunches and also offers accommodation. Take a picnic, a good book (might I suggest The Light Between Oceans) and leave all your drama behind, for none of it matters out here. Be in the moment, focus on what’s around you, like seals frolicking in the waves or the wind whispering seductively in your ear. There’s few places left, as remote and wild as Cape Palliser; that are within easy driving distance from a capital city. Put it on your bucketlist before it gets discovered by the masses.
At the end of a long road that hugs the coast, sometimes too closely, lies #capepalliser – one of the last remaining pockets of wildness, where waves pound blackened beaches incessantly, regardless of who is watching or riding them. The wind carries voices from afar, though there’s no one around to hear them. It’s a place void of cell phone reception, time, and indifference to human presence. A place so lonely, there’s no one to hear your joys or woes. Like a shower for the soul I arrive angry, stressed, and full of torment. After many hours I leave refreshed, content, and ready to take on life once more. It’s my happy place please look after it. #nz #newzealand #nzmustdo #landscapelovers #coast #beach #purenewzealand #capepalliserlighthouse #roadtrip #roadtripnz
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For more information consider buying the Lonely Planet Guidebook to New Zealand.