Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Wairarapa

On recommendation from a classmate we decided to spend a weekend exploring the Wairarapa region of New Zealand. The area covers the south eastern tip of the North Island and is named after Lake Wairarapa, a large shallow lake ringed with wetlands. The region is known for beautiful coastline, forest parks, wine making,
and lots and lots of sheep. All this only 90 minutes away from the heart of Wellington. We hired a car and I got my first chance to drive on the left side of the road--thanks for the help Dacia! Having no idea about distances we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to keep to our planned itinerary. At the end of it all we had witnessed a whole spectrum of weather, saw amazing countryside and coastline and survived an embarrassing (and frightening) off road situation that nearly left us stranded.

After an eventful overnight at the Greytown Hotel, NZ's oldest pub (which has survived into the modern day through its ability to faithfully attract a loud, enthusiastic crowd of drinkers -- not the greatest for a restful night's sleep!) we drove on until we reached the Pacific coast at Castlepoint. We're getting used to the weather in NZ, but on this day we encountered something new -- a brilliant sunny day with gale-force winds. This means that our day at the beach included intermittent clouds of stinging sand that pelted us as we walked along (at the end of the day we had sand just about everywhere -- ears, nose, shoes, pockets…) We didn't let it stop our fun though, just took off up the highest neighboring peak and made the best of it. On our hike up Castle Rock the wind was at our backs making the steep climb somewhat easier. Conversely, the way down meant that we had to lean into the wind and downhill—kind of scary when you see how steep Castle Rock is. We tried to capture the experience of being on that summit in several photos, but they somehow fail miserably to show the chaos of the situation. We had to shout to one another even though just a few feet apart. Our jackets and pants flapped as though we were standing up on the back of a pickup truck going down the highway. I kept checking my pockets to make sure my wallet and keys were still there, it seemed anything not actually attached was going to fly away, over the edge of the cliff.

We fought the wind all the way to our car and beat a hasty retreat back to the relative safety of the inland hills. It was totally exhausting being out in those conditions, like we had spent an entire day hiking when, in fact, it was just over an hour.

The roads here in New Zealand can best be described as curvy, narrow and just about empty. In an earlier post I mentioned that the max speed limit on the island is 100 kph (62 mph). This sounded a bit slow to me at the time (I’m coming from the flat plains of the midwest where 75-80 mph is not uncommon). At that point I was assuming that the main roads would be something like freeways. But I was wrong. As soon as you get outside Wellington the main roads become basic two-laners with an occasional passing lane. This means that the majority of the roads on the map, the little ones shown in white that criss-cross the countryside, are basically dirt or gravel. When it occurred to me that all these tiny, windy little roads carried the same 100 kph speed limit I soon realized this wasn’t slow at all. Many of the turns are so tight it would be difficult to take them at 30, and only a fraction of these turns have any kind of warning sign to prepare you for what's ahead. We marveled at false encouragement given by 100 speed limit signs that immediately preceded a drop into a steep valley or down a series of tortured switch backs. Driving these roads was great fun for me though, and I kept my eyes on the road while Dacia enjoyed the scenery and held on tight.

I did pretty well for my first time behind the wheel of a right hand drive automobile. Sure I got in on the wrong side half the time and I don’t think there was any danger in reaching for the seatbelt over my left shoulder (only to grope in the air) and I’m sure no one was confused when I indicated my lane changes with the wipers instead of my turn indicator… I only drove on the wrong side of the road once and that was because we did a U turn and I took it to the left which had the effect of resetting my sense of direction (you would take a U turn to the right here). Dacia noticed about 45 seconds later and luckily there were no cars on the road ahead for us to frighten.

Cape Palliser sits at the south east tip of the North Island. The road on the way to the lighthouse follows a dramatic coastline that is desolate and empty, except for a small fishing village called Ngawi. On the way we crossed Te Humenga Point. Te Humenga has been identified as one of the earliest settlement sites of New Zealand. Ancient stone walls can be seen that date back to the 12th century. Without a modern building in sight it’s easy to imagine how the land might have looked back then. Further along we reach the lighthouse which sits atop a rocky cliff. A climb up the 258 stairs offers views up and down the coast. The rocky shore is composed of lumpy ‘pillow lava’ that erupted on the sea floor over 100 million years ago. One particular outcropping is home to the only successful breeding colony of fur seals on the North Island. During our exploration of the rocks we came across hundreds of seals. Just as you might expect with puppies, the young seal pups, though timid, were also very inquisitive and friendly. After getting used to us being around they eventually approached us, sniffed us with their long, wet whiskers and even allowed us a brief pet of sleek seal fur.

The trip was almost over, but we decided there was still time for an extra adventure. According to our map, there was a 4x4 route around Cape Turakirae that would save us from crossing back over the steep and winding Rimutaka Mountains. We were tempted by the thought of a coastal drive and, given that we had a four-wheel-drive vehicle we decided to give it a shot. Four hours later, with the adrenalin slowly draining from our veins, we were back where we’d started—back on the paved roads, headed back up into the Rimutakas and thankful that at least this way there would be guard rails along the steeps.

The turn around point came a couple hours of very slow going past the last town, after the 'road' had dwindled to a narrow shelf in a pile of landslide rubble several hundred feet above the ocean. In this particular section it dipped down around a rocky cliff back to sea level and spilled us out onto the beach. Driving in sand feels like you’re trying to run on water—there is a sinking feeling, both in the pit of your stomach and in the car as its wheels spin faster and faster and bury themselves in sand. Both of us had taken turns panicking, so we decided to scout the road ahead to see if the walking helped calm our wits, and to see if the way forward might look even worse than the way back. We were in the middle of nowhere. The only other people we had encountered on the road were two angry looking teenagers on dirt bikes who came speeding past us—obviously not willing to offer any help or even sympathy. We had stopped just short of rounding a point and we walked ahead to get a glimpse of the lighthouse that would indicate the start of the paved road. Instead we saw about another 10 miles of desolate shoreline with no lighthouse in sight. Directly ahead, the trail seemed to climb vertically up a hill before disappearing completely into a recent landslide. We paused to enjoy this utterly empty stretch of coast that offered stunning views of Cape Palliser and the bay. I don't expect we'll be passing that way again anytime soon! The rest of the Wairarapa however, will definitely be seeing more of us.

You can watch a slideshow or view pictures from the trip.


At 5:22 AM, Anonymous Bill Buzenberg said...

Wonderful, adventerous trip--I can imagine driving on sand and the road leading to nowhere--sounds much like the Peace Corps experience we had in Bolivia...roads that really aren't vehicle roads, and trails that would be fine if walking, not driving. Congratulations for driving on the right...tense, no? What creatures of habit we are. Great to see all you photos.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger dMw said...

Did you feel the earthquake? Watch out for the Tsunami. Be safe.


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