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Not everyone saw the beauty of Cape Palliser

Captain Cook named it Palliser in honour his friend, but an explorer who came later gave it a less flattering name. MARK PACEY of the Wairarapa Archive recalls the misadventures of d’Urville.

In February 1770, Captain Cook sailed near to the southern coast of Wairarapa. Looking upon the rocky outcrop, he named it after his friend Sir Hugh Palliser, with whom he had sailed on HMS Eagle. From this point on, it has become popularly known as Cape Palliser.

It must be acknowledged that this is not the only name for this area. Centuries before Cook, explorer Kupe also arrived here. Unlike Cook, Kupe lived in this area of Wairarapa for a time. It was just up to the coast at Rangiwhakaoma [Castlepoint] that he had his fight with the wheke.

One of the stories tells of Kupe standing on the rocks and looking out when he saw Tapuae ō Uenuku across the sea. He named the rocks Mātakitaki, and in honour of this, the other official name for the area is Mātakitaki-a-kupe.

In January 1826, another explorer came to the area. Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville was born in France, 20 years after Cook came to Aotearoa. D’Urville was a keen academic and spent time in libraries reading. Amongst the books he devoured were tomes on the voyages of Cook. Enthralled, he decided he would like to follow in his wake.

In 1822 he sailed on the Coquille and remained at sea for three years travelling throughout the Pacific, returning to France in 1825. He didn’t stay long and was soon off again back to the Pacific region. His was a scientific expedition and he aimed to bring back as many examples of different plants and insects as he could. He also wanted to undertake an extensive survey of the coast of Aotearoa.

Setting out in 1826 on the Astrolabe, d’Urville would first sail by the coast of Australia before continuing on to New Zealand, which he reached in January 1827. Starting with the South Island, d’Urville sailed up the east side of the island, mapping and collecting samples. He also picked up two Māori who joined him on board. After crossing Cook Strait, he found himself off the coast of Cape Palliser and decided he wanted to get closer.

“No sooner had we dropped anchor, than I embarked in the whaleboat with Messrs. Quoy and Gilbert to investigate the character of the region and I took Koki-Hore with me to introduce us to his compatriots as men on a peaceful mission. We still had seven fathoms [42 feet] depth within half a cable [304 feet] from shore and four fathoms at less than 50 feet: but we had the disappointment of seeing that everywhere, a terrific surf broke on the coast and deprived us of putting the boat in there. We hugged the coast for more than three miles without finding a single spot where it was possible to run ashore without the gravest danger”.

D’Urville paddled around for a while longer, even thinking about jumping into the surf and swimming shore, but thought the risk was too high and that he might not be able to get back. He was also worried that Māori might try to follow him back to his whaleboat and noted that his ship was now too far away to offer any help should things turn ugly. He sailed from Wairarapa and continued his New Zealand voyage.

The French explorer’s experience in Wairarapa was not one that he would hold in high regard. He wasn’t impressed by this inhospitable piece of coast, and despite having been named Cape Palliser by Cook, d’Urville offered his own name for the area by Cape Palliser after his experiences here, la Baie Inutile, Useless Bay.

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