Cape Palliser, NZ

31.3 mi / 10.8 mph / 965 ft. climbing
Home: Putangirua Pinnacles DOC Campsite

For breakfast we brought out our insulating foam mat to sit on at the picnic table, something we haven’t used in months, partly because it hasn’t been this cold, but mostly because we rarely use picnic tables in New Zealand; at holiday parks we eat in the kitchen in normal chairs, and at DOC sites picnic tables are fairly rare.

Our view upon exiting the tent in the morning.

But otherwise, it was a beautiful clear day for an unloaded out-and-back ride along the ocean coast to the tip of Cape Palliser, the southernmost point of the North Island. The water was glowing in the light, in some places nearing the fake-looking turquoise of the inland glacial lakes of the South Island. Our main target was the fur seal colony that lives at the Cape, but there is also a famous lighthouse, and non-stop views to scroll past on the lightly-trafficked road.

Bright blue Palliser Bay, and the mountains that hide Wellington from view.
In New Zealand, even the sheep can afford oceanfront real estate.
#FindRett rounding the unpopulated version of the Amalfi Coast. On the way back (when we were riding on the water side of the road), it was clear that at some point a load of engineering had been done to protect these cliffs from the sea, and also that the sea had trashed most of those protections (maybe in last year’s storms?)
Rett saw these distant rocks and said “it seems like seals should be on those rocks”. “Wait, are there?” My telephoto lens confirmed it, but the crazy thing is that we didn’t see any more seals for the next ten miles.
Coast riding, some of the bluest we’ve done.
Ngawi, a harborless fishing town famous for using bulldozers to haul their boats on and off the beach (it’s not clear to me why bulldozers are preferred over any other vehicle type).

As we rounded into the tip of the Cape, the road turned to gravel, and the coastline became rockier and even more-dramatic. We stopped and looked 50 feet straight down into a particularly rock-filled wave-crashed cove, and after a few moments realized that there were at least a dozen seals camouflaged on the rocks or diving through the water. We had found the fur seal colony! We watched their antics for a while, but then I dragged Rett away so that we could continue to the lighthouse and see if there were any better spots along the way.

Now riding the gravel road around the southern end of Cape Palliser.
The black sand beaches made a crazy contrast with the bright blue water.
This seal pup is about to climb right over the face of the older seal.
A seal pup raising his snout to the sky.
This group of pups (I count at least six) is about to get all wet again.

The lighthouse was dramatically perched high up on the rocky cliffs, and the 250 steps up to the base is something we would normally do, but we were both still suffering from colds, and knew we would have some headwinds to face on the way home, so we decided to skip it to preserve our energy.

Rett riding to the Cape Palliser lighthouse.
Hmm, that lighthouse is pretty high up there.
Maybe we’ll just rely on my telephoto lens to tell us what it’s like up there, rather than climbing all the way up ourselves.
Me at a relatively-meaningless spot, the (almost) southernmost point of the North Island. We’re actually now further south than Blenheim, the city we rode to on our first night on the South Island.
A seal saw me posing and figured he ought to do the same thing.

While we did see more seals on the way to the lighthouse, we didn’t see a higher density than our first stop, so we simply returned to those rocks, set up our chairs, and ate lunch while watching all sorts of goofy seal behavior. The pups are a few months old now, so they have more the cuteness of toddlers than babies, but perhaps their growing sense-of-adventure made them even more fun and silly than they would have been earlier. The best part was that not a single other human stopped, it was just us and the seals, in this place where tickets to the show cost $0!

We’re now up to at least 10 pups on these rocks.
Another wave comes to annihilate the pups (actually they picked their spot pretty well; the blasts mostly died out before the kids got drowned).
There are probably ten seals hidden in the various crevices in this frame, but even without any of them visible, it remains an incredible stretch of coastline.
Sometimes the fur seal pups look like beavers.

The seals make all sorts of noises (cries, squawks, honks, coughs), and Rett began mimicking the plaintive calls that the young ones make. This led to a call-and-response with a pup that had clambered up towards us, and while they say to stay 20 meters away, it’s not really our fault if the seal comes to us, right? He was definitely really curious, and I know Rett was working really hard to keep herself from trying to pet him.

A wary but curious bug-eyed pup comes out from his bush to say hi to Rett, the seal-whisperer.
I don’t know if he was curious about me too, or just the giant “eye” of my camera lens pointing at him.
No Rett, we can’t keep him!

After that intimate encounter, Rett was mostly satisfied, but it was still work to get her back on the bike and heading “home”.

Rett sadly riding away from the seal colony.
A bit of a pattern in the uplifted rocks here.
This sea cave with-a-skylight was directly next to the road, and when a wave flowed into it just right it would let out an incredibly deep and forceful THRUM.
#FindRett riding up and away from the black-and-blue beach.
The day’s lighting was world-class, so I couldn’t resist stopping to take pictures. This was almost our undoing.

The color-saturated water, combined with black sands and the clarity of the sky, presented some of the best lighting conditions for photos that I’ve had in a long time, so I couldn’t resist stopping frequently to take still more photos while Rett rode on ahead. After one stop, I rounded a curve and didn’t see her ahead where I expected her to be, but figured she must have just gotten far enough ahead to be on the other side of the rise. But when I got to the top of that rise, nope, not yet visible on the other side. Sometimes when she gets off on her own she likes to put the hammer down, so I figured this must have been one of those times, so I similarly accelerated to try to track her down. When I rounded the next curve and still didn’t see her, that’s when my doubts started to really increase. I hadn’t seen her bike anywhere on the side of the road, so that said she was still somehow ahead. There had been some steep dropoffs at points, and no particular reason that she would have slid off-road and crashed down one of them, but with other explanations dwindling, I was beginning to get more and more worried.

A pickup truck approached from behind and I waved it down to ask if she had seen my wife behind me. No, though she generously offered to turn around and look. I wasn’t yet that worried, so I thanked her and she said she would tell her to stop and wait for me if she spotted her ahead. That made it seem like forward was still the best way for me to go, though it didn’t eliminate the “fell-off-a-cliff behind us” possibility. Torn, I continued onward until I was back at the village of Ngawi, where a food truck was now open and I asked the several customers sitting outside if they had seen her go by. No again, which really meant that she must be behind somehow, so at that point I turned around. Approaching Ngawi, my phone got service again, so I had sent a message to her, but if she was behind and out-of-service, that wouldn’t help.

But finally a message came through from her, she was alive, and heading my way. Phew! Shortly after she crested the hill ahead, and I stopped to let her come to me so that I could give her a piece of my mind for putting all this doubt and confusion and worry into me.

For her, it had been tremendous luck, and an animal encounter to match or exceed her seal-pup encounter moments earlier: she had spotted a pod of orcas! They had been swimming really close to the shore, and in her animal-driven childlike excitement that overrides any sense of forethought or responsibility, she had laid her bike down on the side of the road and ran down to the beach. It’s literally the only time in her life that she hasn’t parked her bike standing upright on its kickstand, so that explains why I didn’t see it when I rode by. I also didn’t hear her yells as she saw me ride past behind her. Which then meant that she cut her time with the orcas a bit short as she left to track me down. And she was also disappointed for me that I didn’t get to see them. All problems which could have been prevented with 10 seconds of care when she initially stopped!

But I was happy for her that she had an intimate orca encounter, and not too terribly sad that I missed it; after all I had a good sighting (more distant, but more-activity) on my own a year ago in Seattle, so now we were “even”. So despite the moments of stress and annoyance on my side, it was an incredible day of animal encounters for Rett, though we tried to not think too much about why the second set of marine mammals had been swimming along the coast toward the first set that we had observed…

Still more of that irresistible black-and-blue (or in this non-wet version, more of a dark-gray-and-blue).
Returning close to “home”, where the cliffs take shapes similar to the eroded columns of the Putangirua Pinnacles.

Returning to camp we were surprised to find a big digger parked there (blocking our sunset view!), that had dug some trenches across the camping area and down to the stream. But otherwise it was even quieter than yesterday, so spending a second night (rather than backing out to the amenities of the holiday park) felt like an excellent idea. It was also the only real option at this point, because fighting headwinds on the way “home” had worn us out (even unloaded), so the idea of climbing back over the big hill relatively-late in the afternoon was a non-starter anyway.

The water at the campsite (only available out of the small sinks in the toilet rooms, which unusually were flush-toilets) was probably fine to drink (despite the standard DOC boil-recommendation), but given Rett’s vomit-night of a couple weeks ago and our current illness, we decided to play it really safe. I had carried three extra liters from Martinborough in our bladder, and with boiling a bit extra when cooking our meals, we would have enough to make it through to tomorrow without taking any risks.

A cloudy and less-impressive sunset than yesterday’s, but the still-warm black sand was nice.

For the second night in a row, the white cliffs across the stream from our campsite were mysteriously glowing in the darkness of the moonless night. I had brought my chair closer to the stream, still facing the cliffs, because that I could get a bit of mobile reception there. When I finished up the Internetting I needed to do, I stood up and turned around and was surprised that the toilet building must have a giant floodlight that I hadn’t noticed before, now shining right into my eyes. Except no, of course that’s not a light from the toilet, it is the moon! It was shining through a gap in the steep hills on our side of the stream, so close to the ridge that if I moved 10 feet right or left, the rising hill hid it completely. So the white cliffs don’t have a magic internal glow after all, it’s actually the magic hidden moon just trying to trick us into thinking that! Well played, moon.

Moonlit cliffs of Putangirua, of course framed to include the Southern Cross (it’s lying on its side near the top of the frame, 1/3rd of the way from the left edge). The bright star closest to the ridge of trees is Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbor.
The moon that’s lighting up the cliffs has barely risen over the crest of the hill high above our campsite. The tree is probably 200 yards away (and 300 feet up), which made the moon appear to move incredibly-fast right-to-left behind it. By the time I would get the shot focused, I would need to take a step to the right to get them back to their original alignment.


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