Martinborough, NZ to Cape Palliser, NZ

28.6 mi / 11.0 mph / 1366 ft. climbing
Home: Putangirua Pinnacles DOC Campsite

Yesterday in Featherston we were briefly on SH2, the main trunk connecting the population centers of the eastern half of the North Island. We then branched off onto SH53, which “dead ends” at Martinborough. Obviously the road doesn’t end, but the State Highway designation does, and today we proceed south on narrowing twigs of the tree of New Zealand’s road network.

Heading south out of Martinborough, which also had some vineyards but they dwindled pretty quickly. More-interestingly, there were a few farms of olive trees for oil production, something we haven’t seen before.

18 miles in we stopped at the only retail establishment of the day, the general store in tiny Pirinoa. It takes less than 90 mintues to drive to here from the nation’s Parliament building, and it’s an even-closer 22 miles due east of Wellington as the crow flies, but it feels a million miles away from the capital city (and for that matter, half a million miles from upscale Martinborough). The main industry seems to involve moving cases of beer from the general store to the town hall across the street. But the store was well-stocked with everything we might need, including 2nd-breakfast hand pies, and plenty of other options for when we return this way after a couple days in the wilderness.

The Pirinoa General Store.

A couple miles after the store we pulled into the small Gateway Motel & Holiday Park (basically a family’s front yard), not to stay tonight, but to check on availability for tomorrow night, in case the DOC campsite we were headed for was dreadful or we decided that spending two nights in a row there without amenities would be too uncomfortable. “It’s quietening down here”, the owner said, assuring we’d have no problem getting a spot if we needed it.

Great, so with that in our pocket we headed up a long 500 foot hill into increasingly-wild land. Just as the climb started, a white-haired woman with her husband, checking the horses on their property, called out: “Hello! Where are you from?” “The States!” was our quick roll-by reply, which seemed to please her as much as her query pleased us; I don’t think we’ve ever gotten an in-motion interaction beyond a hello or a wave, so it felt like a nice welcome to remote Cape Palliser.

From the top of the hill we went down much more-steeply than we’d gone up (watching the grade-meters on our computers, because we knew we’d have to climb back up this way in a day or two), but now we were dropped directly onto the coast.

We knew we’d be riding a long the coast, but here the coast is just a touch closer to us than we’d ideally like it to be!
We will ride on to Italy’s Amalfi Coast (as Rett accurately referred to it), but not until tomorrow!

The DOC campsite appeared soon after, and we turned left into the heavily-eroded gorge that leads to Putangirua Pinnacles, the filming site for the Dimholt Road that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli take to the Paths of the Dead in ‘The Return of the King’.

A nice view back to the sea from the Pinnacles camping area.
A well-sheltered spot for our tent, especially useful if we do end up spending two nights here.

Originally I had thought that we would both hike to the Pinnacles and do an out-and-back ride to the Cape Palliser lighthouse on our “day off” tomorrow, but since we got into camp early enough and still had some energy, we decided to do the hike around sunset today and thus free up our day tomorrow to do just the ride. Even without yet doing the ride, it immediately felt like the right choice, because while we knew it would take about 2 hours to hike the loop, I hadn’t expected it to be such a gut-buster climbing up to the gorge rim on the way out.

A line of really tall “broccoli trees” tops the next ridgeline over.
Our first view of the Putangirua Pinnacles, from the top down, provides a good explanation of how they were created: once a gash appeared in the crust of this hill, it became easy for the water to erode away the soft contents inside, and the pinnacles are some of the hard-capped bits that are still resisting.
A city of high-rises built of crumbling stone.
Or, a gathering of skyward-pointing phalluses, a real sausage-fest.
The towers here aren’t quite big enough to be topped with monasteries like the ones in Greece, but they’re close!
A perfect Disney castle tower on the top of this one.

We then descended back down to stream-level, but now deep in the gorge with the towers rising high above us. Structurally, the forms were somewhat like the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, though the lifeless gray stone (unlike Utah’s vibrant red) gave it a feel more like the Dakota Badlands, and made the area quite appropriate to represent the gateway to the Paths of the Dead.

The green New Zealand bush that fills the gaps gives a different vibe than the more-barren Dakota Badlands.
#FindRett deep in the shadows of the industrial smokestacks.
They advise doing this hike early or late, I think mostly to avoid baking to death, which wasn’t too much of a concern now that we’re past the heat of summer, but it gave us good atmospheric lighting.
This was an offshoot from the main channel of the gorge, and if it wasn’t the exact path used in The Lord of the Rings, it sure felt like it!
Delving deeper into the narrow slot canyon. The stone down at our level eroded extremely easily. I was wary of even putting a hand on it to steady myself on the climb up the rock floor, lest I bring an entire tower collapsing down on us.
We could have continued deeper, but given that neither of us is Isildur’s heir (that we know of), coming face to face with the Army of the Dead felt unwise.
Deep in a unique place in the world. Also, we were the only people within a mile of this place.
A view back to the main channel from deep within our side slot canyon.
Looking back “downstream” at the Putangirua Pinnacles.
The bright setting sun made the Pinnacles pop, though Aragorn and company did not have a day like this when they passed through here.
There were probably 10 more offshoots we could have explored, but the hour was getting late so it was time to turn back.

After a satisfying, solitary exploration of this forbidding landscape, we turned back to follow the streambed (and the sunset) back towards the ocean and our campsite. We weren’t explicitly following any trail, more just following the stream where it led us (it was trivial, and fun, to cross over it when necessary).

Rett stream-hopping.
The way to the Paths of the Dead, or an overgrown Minas Tirith?
The further downstream we got, less-barren the gorge became.

The funny thing about this hike is that it’s “closed”, according to the DOC website, due to a slip (aka “a landslide”). There is also a fairly-permanent-looking sign at the start stating the same. Thankfully people on Google reviews reported that the hike was still easily doable (otherwise we might not have even come out this way!), and beyond the sign, there were no barriers or other attempts to keep people out of the gorge. The craziest thing is that it wasn’t even clear to me where exactly the slip was that caused the closure! Maybe it’s just been open-closed for so long that enough hikers have navigated a route around the slip to make that well-trodden path now-indistinguishable from the real trail. Far up the trail when descending from the ridge, there was a small slip with a downed tree that we had to do a bit of a scramble to get around, but that seemed more like a later unrepaired incident than the initial cause of the closure (it felt like they stopped doing upkeep because the trail is “closed”).

Of course none of this stopped me from saying “The way is shut” a thousand times during our hike (“The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut” is a line in the movies taken exactly from the books). I actually wondered if the whole closure thing was a DOC/LotR crossover, a setup just so that hikers can pretend that they’re Aragorn, taking the Paths of the Dead despite being told that The Way Is Shut.

More seriously, when talking to Kiwis about DOC’s signs telling you to boil the water at all of their campsites, multiple people have been of the opinion that it’s just DOC taking a “cover your ass” approach to limit any liability, rather than a real risk of contaminated water. And now seeing this “closed” trail that was in no way actually closed (we saw plenty of other people hiking it earlier in the day), it really confirms the theory that they broadly take a “we’re informing you that the risk is on you, so don’t blame us if something bad happens” approach.

Almost back to the sea!

By the time we got back to camp, nearly all the day-use vehicles had left, so there were only two or three parties besides us in the spacious camping area. We had more eroded gorge walls directly across from our tent, the ocean a short walk away, and the orange sun setting precisely in the mouth of the gorge. With movie-set scenes all around us, we declared camping here another night as our default approach, but we’ll see what tomorrow brings. Today was another top-level ‘Lord of the Rings’ exploration, partly because it was clearly the site of the filming, but mostly because it drew us out to this amazing peaceful place we never would have come to otherwise.

The sun sets over the South Island, which had been barely visible until the Kaikoura Ranges, some 80 miles away, sliced into the soft egg-yolk belly.
The sun shoots shadows of the Kaikoura Ranges into the sky, looking like the unkept-eyebrows of an angry old man. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The bright patch in the center turns out to be distant clouds reflecting the sun; at first (and with the naked eye) we thought it might have been an ice-covered mountain lighting up, but the shape of it changed over time.
Here in the wide version the shadow-rays create an image that reminds me of the Arizona state flag.
Yeah, why would we not stay in this place as long as possible?


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