I join Farewell Spit Eco Tours on the last day before the time of the tides prevents vehicles travelling on the spit for a few days every so often. (Check www.farewellspit.com for dates and bookings)
My driver-guide, Elaine, is in her fourth summer and says “it’s the best job in the world” and she is driving Lily. “In front of you are handles. These are for you to grab during the bumpy bits when we go off road” she tells us as we get our safety instructions, then off we go – we have 24 kms to the start of the spit and 15 one-way bridges to cross.
Originally called Te Onetahua, meaning ‘heaped up sand’ – the long sandbar stretches out 35 km and Paddy Gillooly, manager of The Original Farewell Spit Safari, has a family history with it as old as Collingwood. He prides himself that his hand-picked guides ‘know what they are talking about – they give accurate information and can’t just be a bus driver. They also have to have great people skills and must constantly read the beach, watching for quicksand.’
First called Murderers Bay by Abel Tasman in 1642, when James Cook came he called it Massacre Bay and the early settlers first called it Coal Bay. It was then re-named in 1850s when alluvial gold was discovered in the Aorere River, giving the area its current name – Golden Bay, much more melodious and welcoming.
Growing out of a service delivery, taking fuel, food and school lessons to the light housekeepers and their families, carrying passengers began so they too could enjoy the landscape and see the wading birds. It’s from those beginnings the trip I’m on began.
I had not expected the pools of water all over the bay which replace the long wide beach I had expected – no wonder wading birds love it here – and the cockles grow so well – I’d had forgotten it’s a mudflat not a beach.
The tides rise and fall fast. ‘At about walking pace’ I’m told: not at ‘the speed of a galloping horse’ that the Nelson artist, Anna Leary, had been told as a young girl – a dramatic picture that has always stayed with her.
Whale strandings happen in Golden Bay too. It is particularly notorious for pilot whale strandings and during the 1990s there was often one every summer and is why some whale experts call these months ‘the silly season.’
Over the years more than half were refloated, but several hundred have died and been buried on the beaches where they died. The most recent major standing was in December 2005 when 123 whales beached at Puponga and after a massive rescue operation, were refloated.
After visiting the northern-most point of the South Island, Cape Farewell, a bold cliff top which provides a spectacular view of the wild Tasman Sea, we head for the spit, passing ‘the oldest resident in Puponga’ on the way: a face in the craggy rocks. Through the locked gate we drive, from here, the public may only walk.
Down the beach we drive, seeing a few spoonbills and black-billed gulls and many black swans feeding, reminding me I am too early for the godwits which arrive in the thousands from Alaska and resolve to return when I can join a bird watching tour with this company. Wading birds abound from September to April, with February and early March being the ultimate time. With so many seasonal feathered visitors, its no wonder this area has been named a sanctuary, a wetland of international importance.
Driving over the spit to the northern face of Farewell Spit I now see the huge sand beach I was expecting on the bay side. It’s impressive.
‘The spit could be likened to an iceberg – up to 250 metres deep” our guide tells us, “and growing in length at 4-metres annually. The sand dunes further along the spit are up to 25 metres high. This makes about 3.4 million cubic metres of sand.” I later find it has been growing for some 6,500 years and settlers have visited the area since the 1870s.
At our first stop at Fossil Point I pick up 3 plastic bottles which have washed up on this pristine area and search for fossils: we find a few in the rocks and I watch some Caspian terns swooping and diving into the sea. There are also some black oystercatchers with their distinct red legs and bills and shrill calls warning me against coming too close! Despite the name, here they dine on tuatua.
Down the beach we drive and I gloat as we pass the post – 2 km down the beach and 4 km from the locked gate – as this is as far as people can walk, while we continue for another 22 km to the lighthouse.
The wind is picking up the loose sand making the dunes look like the waves beside them: the Nor-wester is the prevailing wind and it is windy 70% of the time, an essential element in forming the spit and consequently Golden Bay.
‘How good is this?’ asks Elaine ‘No roads, no signage. So no advertising and no traffic so just sit back and take in the awesome picture of nature undisturbed.’ And undisturbed it is.
She has already told me it’s been about 18 months since she got stuck in the sand although in her first year it happened regularly. Her male colleagues kept telling her they would paint her shovel pink.
They had also told her “You are only really stuck if you can’t dig yourself out. If you have dug yourself out you weren’t really stuck!”
“There are probably photos of me on the end of a shovel all over the world” she laughs.
We eventually arrive at the lighthouse which has its power lines buried the length of the spit although I think the lighthouse itself is solar powered and the light rotates every 15 seconds.
As a result of many shipwrecks, the first lighthouse was commissioned in 1870, a wooden structure that had to be replaced in 1897 with a steel one. Automated in 1984, this lighthouse is also depicted in a 1969 stamp series of light houses: The Farewell Spit stamp was valued at 10 cents.
After afternoon tea in one of the lighthouse keepers old houses, I climb to the second level until my fear of heights beats me and I retreat and go to look at the Pouwhenua which depicts my favourite, pacific-wide, mythical person: the mischievous Maui Tikitiki a Taranga who is credited with fishing up the North Island while standing in his canoe, the South Island.
According to the notice beside this carving by locals, “as Maui pulled on his line, his feet were dragged along the land, pushing sand in to the dune formations which form Farewell Spit.”