The ground was dark as I stumbled down towards the gravel shore to photograph the Cape Palliser lighthouse silhouetted against the striped morning sky.

I was only half awake, still entombed in the warm feeling from my sleeping bag. Suddenly the ground started to rumble in front of me. I caught a waft of stale fishy breath. Several large seals rumbled away from me, just as startled as I was at this early morning disturbance. I quickly headed in the opposite direction, cursing at my inability to see properly.

The rugged coastline at Cape Palliser on the south coast of the North Island is marked with a red and white painted lighthouse that towers high on a cliff overlooking Cook Strait. Since 1897 it has shone a beacon of light to warn ships of land at the entrance to the strait, a notorious stretch of ocean where gale-force winds funnel between the North and South Islands.

Tai is dwarfed by the towering hoodoos

On the drive out to the Cape with my two sons, we take the road to Lake Ferry, only to discover that it’s not a lake, but a sleepy little village on the shores of Lake Onoke. In the 1850s a ferry service provided access across the lake for early settlers establishing sheep and cattle farms, hence the name Lake Ferry. The village sits on the shore of Lake Onoke near where it runs into Palliser Bay. Tons of water rushes out through the narrow exit in the gravel bar that’s dotted with terns and a solitary fisherman.

Some 13kms along Cape Palliser Road from the Lake Ferry turnoff, we pull off at the Putangirua Pinnacles scenic reserve. We were given a tip by a geologist friend, who said we must visit these towering gravel chimneys or ‘hoodoos’, exposed by years of wind and water erosion. My geologist son OJ gives us a running commentary as we hike up to the surreal valley. The boys are dwarfed by the steep cliffs that look as if they could shatter into a thousand pieces at a moment’s notice. The pinnacles were used in the eerie Paths of the Dead scenes in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King film, the third and last of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of the classic J R Tolkien fantasy.

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