Windswept coastlines, solitary lighthouses and one-road towns make the Wairarapa perfect for travellers with a sense of adventure and a penchant for van life. This isolated corner of the North Island is ripe for exploration on a campervan trip out of Wellington. In two nights, three days, and about seven hours of driving, you can see some of the wildest corners of the region.
Day 1: Wellington to Castlepoint
The drive from Wellington to Castlepoint takes around two and a half hours. After winding your way over the Remutaka Range, stop in Featherston for some road trip fuel; a cheese scone from C'est Cheese, an artisanal deli and cheese store. That will keep you going until your destination.
Castlepoint feels like a world apart from the city. Fishing boats sit pulled up on to the sandy shore. Occasionally, someone bobs past on a horse. Other than a local shop, which also serves as a coffee place and takeaway joint, there's not much here other than simple baches hunkering against the hills.
Watching over the small settlement is Castlepoint Lighthouse, a monolith atop a craggy limestone knoll lashed by waves. First lit in 1913, it's the tallest lighthouse in the North Island and one of the last two remaining lighthouses in New Zealand with a rotating beam. A boardwalk scales the fossil studded ridge of the headland to reach the lighthouse, then climbs beyond to an epic lookout.
For an alternative vantage point, follow the Deliverance Cove Walking track from the car park. It curves along a pine-covered ridge above the beach, eventually leading to the mighty Castle Rock. Scramble up through golden grass until you reach the lofty peak. At 162 metres high, it looms over the coast and gives impressive views in all directions. Walk back to the car park along the half-moon of the lagoon, where surfers catch waves rolling in through a narrow gap in the rock.
Park up your campervan at the Castlepoint Holiday Park (castlepoint.co.nz) for a prime spot close to the water, with views of the lighthouse. It's equally pretty at night, with the beam of light swirling over town beneath skies dusted with stars.
Day 2: Castlepoint to Cape Palliser
The drive from lighthouse to lighthouse takes just over two hours.
To break up the drive, stop by the Putangirua Pinnacles to go for a bush walk and marvel at distinct rock formations. The track follows the streambed to the knobbled fairy chimneys of the pinnacles, reaching up from the stony ground. There is a DoC campsite here if you enjoy the peace of the bush.
The road to Cape Palliser follows the pebbled coast and is dotted with one-way bridges, slowing you down in preparation for the pace of life in Ngawi, a quirky fishing village wedged between a cliff and gravelly beach. Bulldozers tinted orange from salt spray sit in a haphazard line along the water's edge, where their rusted hulks wait to drag homecoming fishing boats from the ocean. Rogue sheep trot across the road, only mildly perturbed by passing cars.
Continuing on past Ngawi, you'll start to feel as if you're reaching the end of the world, and in some ways you are; this is the southernmost point of the North Island.
The road becomes narrow and potholed, dipping in and out of fords and clinging to the rocky cliff in places. Only attempt it if you're in a small to medium-sized campervan. On the way to the lighthouse is the largest fur seal colony in the North Island. The seals are everywhere, hopping between bushes and lugging themselves over rocks, wafting pungent smells as they go. They are often sprawled right by the parking area, so take care and make sure you keep at least a 20m distance.
The Cape Palliser lighthouse is the last stop on the road. Boldly candy-striped in red and white, it has stood at its fantastic vantage point since 1897. Climb the 253 steep steps to enjoy views of the harakeke-covered hills and surf surging on to shingle beaches below.
The camping area of Ngawi is right in the middle of the village, conveniently next to the Captain's Table Food Truck (facebook.com/www.captainstable.co.nz) which dishes up fresh fish and chips. The campsite is run on donations, so drop a few coins into the box and settle in for the evening to watch the bustle of activity around the fishing boats.
Day 3: Cape Palliser to Wellington
On the way back to Wellington, slow down and savour the region's distinct food scene.
Make a pit-stop for coffee and cake at The Land Girl (facebook.com/thelandgirlnz) cafe in blink-and-you-missed-it Pirinoa. It's the perfect amount of quirky, with upcycled outdoor seating where you can enjoy country views, and even some vintage clothing treasures to browse.
As a final port of call before making the return trek over the Remutaka Range, call in at Poppies Martinborough (poppiesmartinborough.co.nz) for lunch. You can't drive through the Wairarapa without visiting at least one winery, and Poppies is a highlight. Lunch comes in the form of decadent, seasonal platters. Call in advance to book; it's a delightful treat to end a weekend of campervanning.
DETAILSFor more things to see and do in the region, go to wairarapanz.com
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz