When possible, my husband and I like to go on roadtrips. We load up the van with snacks and water, I bring along a blanket or two (in case I get cold) and we blast tunes (since our Japanese car doesn’t get many radio stations here in New Zealand) as Josh drives on the windy roads. I’m usually the co-pilot, looking out for road names, squealing at all the sheep, and telling him when to turn.
A few weeks ago we decided to go see “Old Stinky” at the Wellington Botanical Gardens. Better known as the corpse flower, it is a pungent plant that blooms rarely and when it does, it’s for a short time. When in bloom, it emits a strong odour similar to a dead corpse… hence the common name. And while we may not find it particularly appealing, the way these flowers look and smell are meant to attract pollinators. Carnivorous insects, such as dung beetles and flesh are the primary pollinators of the corpse plant. If you notice, Old Stinky is a deep burgundy colour — it’s imitating the deep red colour exposed flesh gets. As a botanist explained to us, corpse flowers also have the ability to warm themselves up to 36.7 Celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit) to further imitate “meat.”
So how does this plant imitate the stench? Science! And chemicals. A scientist wrote a post in the Chicago Botanic Garden's blog that shows what this stench consists of:
The corpse flower is not just your regular flower (if the meat-stench didn’t give it away). It’s called an inflorescence — a stalk with many flowers. Wellington had a corpse flower in bloom (or so Stuff, a NZ news website, said) so one rainy afternoon we drove out into the city to smell it. It grows up to around 3 - 4.6 meters (10 to 15 feet) so Old Stinky was rather small in comparison. However, we were both really excited and brought our fancy camera to capture our faces when the smell of rotting meat hit us. It never came — seems we missed the stinky.
Disappointed, and already out, we pondered about what we wanted to do. I had been wanting to go out to Cape Palliser for a while, as apparently the drive out was incredibly scenic and the Putangirua Pinnacles were nearby. You may recognize it even if you’ve never been to New Zealand: it was the location for the 'Paths of the Dead' scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. If you’re a fan, see all the film locations here. Neither of us are big Lord of the Rings fans and were going there more to see the “hoodoos.”
I’m not a geologist by any means, but this is how I understand it: the Aorangi Range (where we were) used to be an island millions of years ago. As the mountains eroded, what they were made out of (scree, gravel, etc) formed a sedimentary layer as it was washed away. The sea levels have risen/fallen in the millions of years after, and the exposure to wind and water (like the Putangirua stream) have weathered away the conglomerate. Some of it is protected by the sediment having cemented together… these are the Pinnacles. They continue to be shaped today with heavy wind, rain and even earthquakes. Nobody for sure knows how long they have been forming but erosion has definitely accelerated.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision, we climbed back into the car and decided to head out that way. It’s only about 50 kilometres southeast of the major Wellington city, but it’s 100 kilometres by road. For the next two hours we went through mountains and valleys, losing GPS signal and phone service. We would stop every wee while to take pictures and stretch.
The Cape Palliser area is not only rich in views but also history. There are multiple early Maori occupation and heritage sites for those who are history buffs (like my hubby) and breath-taking views of Palliser Bay to keep everyone entertained. The Cape is also home to the largest fur seal colony in the North Island. These seals stay warm by being covered in two layers of fur, making their pups look extra fluffy and adorable when playing with their pup friends. Breeding season for these animals is November to January, so be especially wary of territorial males. If you want to go up to the lighthouse (I recommend it), it’s a fast 250 steps up to the top. Trust me, you may be out of breath once you reach the top but the view is so worth it. Palliser Bay is gorgeous, but also deadly; in fact, during the 19th century, there were about 20 ships wrecked in or near it. The Cape Palliser lighthouse was installed in 1897 to help warn people of the treacherous conditions.
At the car park, we quickly grabbed our camera equipment and set off. Already we could see some of the ‘hoodoos’ and you can see the top part of the Pinnacles once you walk along the stream for a bit. It had been raining for a few days so the stream was a bit fuller than usual, and we soon came to a fork in the road. You had a few choices: either walk up the streambed to where you can walk into the Pinnacles, take a bush walk that leads to a look track junction on to the lookout above the Pinnacles, or walk up the streambed and at the base of the Pinnacles go onto the loop track to get an overhead look of them.
With rain moving in, we decided to just walk into the Pinnacles. We weren’t prepared for how rocky the streambed was… though looking back, what did we expect it to be? The recent rain the North Island had been getting meant we ended getting pretty muddy. We wondered aloud how the filmmakers lugged all that equipment to the Pinnacles as it was pretty hard to navigate to with just basic camera equipment. Shout out to dad for gifting me the camera!
At the beginning of our walk we had seen Department of Conservation (DOC) signs warning trampers about the baits in the area. In New Zealand, traps and bait stations are used to target specific pests such as stoats, rats and possums. We took a few wrong turns along the way (it doesn’t have the best signs or a clear path) and ended up seeing a few baited traps – no pests though.
The Pinnacles are probably New Zealand’s best example of badlands erosion that results in the hoodoos. And the pictures often do them little justice. Standing at the base of them, having the past literally look down on you is eerie-feeling in the coolest way. Even in the stormy weather we had, they were beautiful (and looked more like the movie). Since it was raining on and off, we made sure to keep an eye out for falling rocks. Thankfully it wasn’t too windy, and we wondered how this place looked after the Kaikoura 7.8 magnitude earthquake that most of the country felt. We were fascinated to see shells embedded in these towering figures, and the ground was littered with petrified wood.
Overall, it took us about 2 hours to walk the stream bed up to the Pinnacles and return more-a-less the same way. With soggy shoes and pink cheeks, we climbed back into the car and drove through the farmlands until we found a dairy shop to grab some snacks at. If you ever make your way down to New Zealand, make sure you see this beautiful masterpiece!
Hi! I'm Melissa, an Australian-based Latina science educator, podcaster, and freelance writer. I spend a lot more time on Instagram and Twitter, but blogging is my first love. Thanks for stopping by — I hope you stay a while.
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