A Day Trip to the Putangirua Pinnacles & Martinborough

You set out on a trip to somewhere, not really knowing what to expect. You begin having doubts that you’re actually in the right place. But then you make that first step towards the unknown and discover that it was totally worth the extra mile…literally.
Heidornmännchen visiting the Putangirua Pinnacles and being attacked by the Army of the Dead
On a day trip to the Putangirua Pinnacles and the Classic NZ Wine Trail, we are ambushed by the Army of the Dead.

So we were in headed into our 5th full day in Wellington and the weather was finally beginning to take a turn for the better. We had already visited the key sights we wanted to cover in Wellington and decided to make the most out of our remaining days in New Zealand’s capital city. It was time for some discovery. Time to go onto a day trip to, well…..somewhere.

Wellington harbour is a beautiful place, but there are some limitations to what you can do in and in the immediate vicinity of the city if you’re not familiar with the area. I guess that’s also why most travellers we have met so far opted to only stay 2-3 days at best. Whilst I understand their decision in the context of the limited time many of them have, it’s really a pity. There’s a lot to discover the greater Wellington area and very often you’ll discover places where most Wellingtonians have apparently never heard of.

The Greatest Thing Peter Jackson Ever Did…

…was filming The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. Given the incredible popularity of the infamous movie trilogy you can probably imagine how many people travel around the country with only one purpose in mind: Discovering as many Lord of the Rings film sets as humanely possible. And guess what, the Putangirua Pinnacles are one of them.

Now, in our own defense, I must state that this was not the primary reason why we decided to go there. We really just wanted to head out to Martinborough for some wine tasting on the Classic NZ Wine Trail. But somehow the idea of driving 90 minutes into the middle of nowhere just to have a few glasses of wine seemed rather odd. Not that we haven’t such shenanigans before, but it just didn’t feel right.

So we did some research on what else we could possibly visit in the area. The Putangirua Pinnacles basically just popped up on our screen and it wasn’t too far off from Martinborough. Reading up on what it is, we figured that it would go well with our other plans and the prospect of seeing at least one filming location from the movie seemed like good fun.

So off we went!

Crossing Rimutaka Hill

I should point out that you obviously need some sort of a vehicle for this. Depending on what you’re driving it may take little more time that your average car simply because Rimutaka Hill is more like a small mountain. So if you’re in a camper van the additional weight will clearly extend your traveling time. But in our tiny Suzuki Swift, it’s an absolute breeze.

Coming from Wellington we initially wondered why on earth the GPS was navigating is north in a huge horseshoe-shaped route, all the way past Lake Wairapapa, only to turn back south towards Lake Ferry in Palliser Bay. Well, turns out we underestimated the topography of the area. Once we headed up Rimutaka Hill we realised that this was going to be a far steeping ride with far more switchbacks than we had anticipated.

Stuttering up the “hill” we eventually reached the lookout on mountain’s ridge, which is also home to a World War I memorial in dedication to the Rimutaka Crossing. This is roughly 50 minutes into the trip, but only 50km of distance. So that should give you a good idea of the average pace around here.

After a short break we proceeded with our trip towards Palliser Bay.

Where the hell are the “Pinnacles”?

After another 50 minutes of driving through endless agricultural landscapes and long slaloming roads over hundreds of smaller hills akin to a kid’s rollercoaster, we eventually arrived where our GPS had navigated us. The only problem was: The Putangirua Pinnacles were nowhere to be seen.

We headed down the hill, moving closer to the coastline. Beautiful scenery and endless turquoise (no joke!) ocean awaited us. But not a single damn Pinnacle in sight. The most exciting thing my camera could identify, was a seemingly abandoned shipping container standing next to the beach road, as if it had decided this was the best place to get a tan.

Somewhat frustrated by the fact that we had just spent 90 minutes in the car to be greeted by a shipping container, I was very close to just heading back to Martinborough and down some wine. But Tina objected and said we should give it another mile or so. So we headed down the coast for a few more minutes. And guess what? On the lefthand side a small sign popped up that said “Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve“.

Follow the Streambed

At first glance it all just looked like a remote camp site. And yes, a camp site it is. But it indeed is also the entrance to the tracks that lead to the Pinnacles. The signs promised a fairly short return trip of roughly 90 minutes. Although we weren’t really prepared for any hikes, we figured it couldn’t be too difficult.

Given the choice of 2 alternative routes, one via the hill’s ridge and one via the streambed, we opted for the ridge. I mean, how different could they be, since they both lead to the lookout? The ridge walkway heads straight for the forest and proceeds to lead you up the hill in a moderately steep fashion. If you’re fit, this won’t scare you one bit. But if it’s hot, you’ll still break a sweat.

Curious what it sounds like here?

The par time for this walkway to the lookout is roughly 45 minutes. It can easily be done in less. The big question one needs to ask though, is whether the lookout is really worth it. I personally felt somewhat underwhelmed by it, since it doesn’t really give you much of a view of the Pinnacles and definitely doesn’t provide you with the canyon-like scenery that one would come to expect.

Turns out that it’s actually a much better idea to simply take the streambed path as it basically bypasses the rather superfluous lookout and leads you directly to the place you ACTUALLY want to go: Those damn Pinnacles! Alas, at least we got a good workout and were still in a position to head up to the base of these incredibly odd rock formations.

The Paths of the Dead

As I write this I realise that I never really explained what part of the Lord of the Rings was filmed here. Well the Putangirua Pinnacles were chosen as the set for the area leading up to the northern entrance of the Paths of the Dead. If you’re an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien then you’ll know what that means. This particular scene featured in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Curious what it sounds like here?

As you move further up the streambed – which is uphill by the way – the walls to your left and right become increasingly large. Initially enclosed by trees you eventually end up in something that bears more resembles to a canyon. The strange rock formations rise up by your side whilst you stand in the streambed filled with large rocks and rubble. It almost feels like you’re walking through the ruins of a destroyed city due to grey color of the rocks and the Pinnacles.

360° Photosphere of the Pinnacles

Have a look at the 360° photosphere below which will hopefully give a good idea of what to expect.

Enough Action. It’s Time For Some Wine!

Being the geniuses that we are, we unfortunately forgot to put on sun lotion before the walk. So despite the pretty scenery, you’re not really protected from very much if you’re walking through a streambed. So we decided it was time to head back and finally move on and close out the day with some nice wine estate ambiance.

Heading back to Martinborough is about a 40-minute drive from the Pinnacles. To be honest, much further than I initially expected. Not that it would normally bother me but I was a little hungry by now. By the time we arrived in Martinborough I also wasn’t to picky anymore…any decent wine estate would do. Commercial or not.

You see the problem with discovering new wine regions with a clean slate is that you really don’t know where to go yet. Sure, you’ll find wine everywhere. But sometimes you’re also looking for atmosphere, a view and some good food. Google will obviously help you with this, but you’re more or less guaranteed to end up in a fairly commercial wine estate.

Curious what it sounds like here?

We ended up stopping by the Palliser Estate Winery. And it was a good choice. We got everything we were looking for. The overall vibe was very reminiscent of our experiences in South Africa, just more expensive. But that was to be expected.

Heading Home

Having filled our stomachs and quenched our thirst, it was time to head back home. The final leg was a swift 35 minutes, once again heading over Rimutaka Hill – this time with more traffic – and closing in on Wellington harbour as the sun began to set over the city.

It had been a good day. And surely more are to come.

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