This Labour Day weekend, I was determined to do something other that sit around at home so I decided that we were going to go for a walk.
My walking buddy Karen (who has done practically every single trail in New Zealand and then some) had suggested Red Rocks as a good one as it was nice and flat and there was a chance we might see some seals. The former appealed to me greatly and the latter to my daughter so that was settled. Neither horizonal terrain nor the opportunity to see some fluffy marine mammals were of interest to my son so he decided that he’d stay home.
We found a description of the walk on the wellington.gov website. The start of the walk is in Owhiro (pronounced Oh-fear-ro) Bay which is roughly 8km south of Wellington city centre. The walk stretches round the rugged coastline to a place the locals refer to as Devil’s Gate at Sinclair Head.
It looked like it was going to be a nice day when piled into the car on Saturday morning. It took roughly an hour to drive down to Owhiro Bay and following a brief stop to check where we were supposed to park, we carried on further down Owhiro Bay Parade and found a spot in the car park at the start of Te Kopahau Reserve. As usual there were plenty of parking spaces in the car park despite the area already buzzing with hikers and mountain bikers.
We made our way to the end of the car park and found the start of the trail which was clearly marked as is nearly always the case with trails in New Zealand. A couple of large illustrative information boards flanked either side of the path courtesy of the Department of Conservation, one showing a map of the reserve and the other, what wildlife we might encounter.
My eyes lit up when I saw dolphins, whales and orcas. I hoped very much to see any one of these creatures but deep down I guessed that there was probably as much of a chance as seeing an orca as there was as seeing Pierce Morgan frolicking in the surf. Urgh. What a horrible analogy.
Right at the start of the trail, we were confronted by some enormous steps that looked like they had been carved into the hillside.
My husband guessed that this had been done to prevent slips but I later learned that this was part of the old aggregate quarry. The quarry was opened in 1908 and closed in 1999 after it was bought by the council. Under pressure from local residents and environmentalists, the council then undertook a rehabilitation project where the giant steps up the hillside were re-contoured, and re-planted, presumably to eventually blend in with the surrounding reserve.
As we continued walking I was struck by how magnificent the waves were that day. The sea was an incredible azure blue and as the waves broke on the shore, the foam was a brilliant white. After hearing me moan that I couldn’t get a descent shot, my daughter calmly took the camera from my hands and took this picture:
Perfect. Just perfect.
She didn’t get it quite right a moment later however, when she spotted a little bird waddling along the beach and cried delightedly “penguin!”
“Where?” I blurted, ripping off my sunglasses and fumbling to take the lens cap off my camera. I’d been aching to see a penguin ever since we arrived in New Zealand. I followed her gaze to a spot on the pebbles where a black and white shag was ambling along.
“It’s just a shag,” I said despondently, briefly wondering what the shag had done in life to come in second to a penguin.
“That’s so embarrassing,” said my daughter in a small voice. “And I said it so loudly too.”
“It’s an easy mistake to make,” I reassured her. “The information board said we could see penguins here so if you see a bird waddling just like a penguin and the same colour as a penguin, it’s only natural to think that it’s a penguin. It’s only when it turns to the side that you can see it’s sort of ‘s’ shaped.”
She didn’t seem particularly convinced that people regularly mistook shags for penguins so I dropped the subject and we pressed on.
Just as I was thinking what a lovely quiet walk this was despite the number of people on the trail, I heard what sounded like a motorbike coming up behind us. It was in fact, a motorbike coming up behind us. We stepped on to the beach to allow him to pass but not used to sharing trails with vehicles I thought this was a tad inconsiderate even though the biker deliberately slowed down as he passed us, being careful not to kick up stones or gravel into our faces. Once he’d passed, he picked up speed again and zipped off into the distance.
No sooner had the motorbike disappeared around the coastline than I spotted a convoy of 4 x 4s heading towards us. Again we stepped off the trail and on to the beach and watched confused as they crawled past. Where were they going? This trail was a dead end!
It was then that I remembered something I’d seen on the website. Something about it being preferable to walk the trail on a Sunday because it was closed to vehicles between 9am and 4pm. And also something about it being a top local off-roading destination.
So that was how it went. Every few minutes we’d have to step off the trail to allow a line of Suzuki Jimnys to amble past, the occupants in their sunglasses and baseball caps bouncing around inside like they were on some sort of slow motion fairground ride.
We had to move for motorbikes too although they would more often lurch off the path and onto the beach where, unencumbered by pedestrians, they would accelerate across the gravelly sand and entertain the passing walkers with their ability to beat the breaking waves with their speed and agility. It actually looked like a lot of fun.
About half an hour in, the path climbed up a little and became a ridge where we were greeted by a swarm of large, fat flies that bumped lazily into our arms and faces as if they’d only just woken up. There was an enormous pile of seaweed which had washed up on the shore and we guessed that’s what had attracted our unwelcome companions. They weren’t the biting kind so they were more an annoyance than a threat and after about 10 minutes, they disappeared, presumably lured back by the smell of the rotting seaweed.
The path then appeared to merge into the beach and disappeared under a rivulet of run-off water from the reserve that was just deep enough to make crossing it impossible without getting wet feet.
So we glanced around to see if we could find an alternative route and sure enough, a little bridge had been built for this very purpose, closer to the hillside.
On we walked, me stopping every 5 minutes to take more photos:
About hour into the walk, we came across a striking collection of rocks in hues of red, purple and green.
The Māori refer to these rocks as ‘pariwhero’ (paree-fe-ro) with ‘whero’ being the Māori word for ‘red’ and ‘pari’ meaning ‘cliff’ or ‘bluff’.
These rocks, or so the story goes, were stained by the blood of the famous Polynesian explorer Kupe when he cut himself on a paua shell during a fishing expedition. Or another explanation offered is that they are covered in the blood of Kupe’s nieces after they flung themselves on to the rocks in a fit of distress after learning of their uncle’s death. An even older story claims that the rocks are red with the blood that was used to bait Maui’s hook when he fished New Zealand up out of the sea.
boring geological explanation is that the rocks on this part of the foreshore contain small amounts of iron oxide, or rust for those of us who need laymen’s terms for anything chemistry related. I could list all the different types of rock that can be found here such as alternating black argillite/sandstone, pale green argillite, sandstone, dark green argillite with cream coloured bands and lenses, pillow lava with chlorite rich fractures, banded red chert with red argillite, red argillite with up to 33 species of radiolaria, green then red argillite, banded white/pink chert, red then green argillite, sheared green argillite with pink siliceous argillite fragments, red argillite, grey argillite with elliptical calcareous concretions, phosphorite, and weathered pyrite nodules but honestly, who could be bothered?
I looked about eagerly to see if I could spot any seals but the rocks were completely barren of any marine life. Not even a seagull. As this was only a very small outcrop of rocks, I told myself that the real red rocks would be further up the coast. After all, the website had said that the trail was 7.4km long and we had only walked 3.4km at this point. The real red rocks, I assured myself, would be decorated in seals as far as the eye could see who they would obligingly pose for photos too.
As we carried on walking, the path climbed upwards and cut between two large rocks before descending back down on the other side.
A little further, we came across an area where some off-roading vehicles were parked up. This must have been the end of the trail for them although some of them were having fun turning around on an extremely steep loop of path that traversed up the hillside.
Confused, I checked the map on my phone. To my dismay, I saw that the little blue circle of Google Maps had us pinpointed on a place up the coast way past Sinclair Head.
“We’ve gone too far!” I said incredulously. “But where are all the red rocks? And where are all the seals?”
It was then I remembered something else that I’d briefly seen on the website, something about seals only being on the rocks in the winter time and then realised my mistake. In my mind October was pretty much winter but in New Zealand, it’s spring. The seals were long gone.
And as for the mountains of red rocks I had expected to see, that small crop of rocks we’d past a little while back were the red rocks. Just to give you an idea of how isolated they are, here’s an ariel shot from the wellington.gov website:
The 7.4km that the website had listed as the trail length was there and back. And we had unknowingly already passed through Devil’s Gate when the path cut through the two large rocks.
We decided that there was no point in walking any further so we picked a spot to sit down to eat our packed lunches. As I munched on my roll, thinking wistfully about what great photos of seals I would have taken, my husband pointed out that there were 3 golf balls on the beach.
Golf balls? They looked so out of place. Did they wash up on the shore? Or, as I now imagined, did people get in their Suzuki Jimnys in the dead of night, navigate out to this remote location, break out their golf clubs and use the beach as driving range, perhaps employing seals as targets to improve their backswing?
Once we’d finished our lunch, we packed everything back up and headed back down the path. This time we were treated to some entertainment in the form of some 4 x 4s trying to navigate Devil’s Gate. It didn’t look easy. The path is steep, narrow and extremely uneven and what’s worse, you can’t see what’s coming the other way. But I guess that’s what off-roading is all about. Sensibly, most drivers had one of their passengers get out and stand at the peak to ensure that the car wouldn’t collide with another oncoming vehicle.
It was getting pretty warm now and I was actually grateful that we weren’t going to be walking 14km today. On the way back we noticed a large animal carcass that had washed up on the beach. My daughter put her hands to her mouth in horror as I explained that it was a seal. The fur was slick and brown and although there was no semblance of a head left, the black rubber-like tail was a dead giveaway.
“Well, at least we saw one seal today,” I said, drily.
As we passed by the red rocks again, I noticed a white ship in the distance. My husband said that it was one of the Interislanders, the ferries that take people between the North Island and the South Island.
“Does that mean we should be able to see the South Island from here?” I asked my husband.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s over there.”
Squinting into the distance I could just make out the faint shape of a land mass, lying like a giant crocodile in the water.
“Wow!” I breathed, as if it were an undiscovered tropical paradise rather than just the other half of New Zealand. I raised my camera and took the best photo that I could. It’s not great but you can just about see the ‘mythical’ South Island:
“How long does it take to get there by ferry?” I asked my husband, snapping the lens cap back on the camera.
“About three and half hours,” he replied. “And it’s a really boring journey.”
I cast my mind back to the golf balls lying on the beach and fleetingly wondered if they were the result of some passengers trying to stave off the monotony by hitting tee shots off the deck.
“So the distance between the islands must be about the same distance as the The Channel”, I calculated remembering the journeys I had made on ferries to France as a kid.
“I guess so,” he said indifferently, never really interested in my analogies which, to be fair, are often wildly inaccurate or inappropriate. Just look at the Piers Morgan one.
Back at the car park, both my husband and I headed for the toilets and my daughter waited outside with the camera. When we came out, she said she had found a little museum a vestibule area adjoining the toilets and had duly take a photo for me.
Feeling hot and tired, we fell into the car and headed for home. I made a mental note to come back here in winter so that I could get a photo of a seal…….and perhaps a penguin……….and maybe an orca……..
Leave a Reply