In the period between Christmas and New Year 2007, I spent four days in a lovely part of New Zealand called Golden Bay, based in the tiny village of Collingwood. This is a brief illustrated report of what I got up to.
On the day I arrived in Collingwood I checked into my motel and then went for a wander to see the village. This took about three minutes. Then I followed some signs which lead me along a country lane and up a couple of steep tracks to a lookout. You get a nice view out over the Aorere river estuary with the Whakamarama ranges in the background. A little further along the track take you to a cemetery, unused since 1895. A display board lists all the people thought to be buried in the cemetery, along with their dates of death and the cause of death, where known. It provides a graphic demonstration of how tough colonial life must have been: about 10% of the people died from drowning, presumably from crossing the rivers in the time before bridges.
The saddest story at the cemetery is told by a headstone. It would seem that some poor couple lost their four-year-old and their six-year-old in separate incidents in the same year.
|A Sad Story told in Stone.|
In the cemetery is a fascinating plaque, inviting you to look out over the surrounding farm land, and imagine the capital of New Zealand sited there. Plans were drawn up for just this (the plaque reproduces the plans). The town was to be themed around the Battle of Trafalgar, and thus was to have streets named "Dreadnought", "Royal Sovereign", "Revenge", "Swiftsure", and "Broadside". (The present village of Collingwood - only a tiny corner of the original proposal - is itself named after Lord Nelson's second-in-command.) The optimism was fuelled by a short-lived gold rush. Once the gold ran out, the plans were scrapped.
On my first full day I set out from Collingwood and walked south along the beach. The tide was very low, revealing vast mud flats. I walked out onto the mud flats, and got some 700m out from the shore (according to my trusty GPS) before hitting the water. Then I angled back towards the beach and walked south. It was an amazing walk. The beach runs dead straight for about five km. To one side you have the vast sparking ocean. On the other side you have a range of steep, bush-clad hills, dotted here and there with baches. The consistency of the sand under foot was perfect for hiking, and I made good time. And most amazingly of all, there was almost no-one else to be seen on the whole stretch of beach! I passed one or two other people out walking, but that was about it. Where else in the world can you have five kms of beach to yourself in the peak of the summer season?
|Bach in Bush.|
I could tell from the map that the section of beach ended in a big inlet, and that I was going to have trouble crossing it. And so it transpired. Although the tide was low the inlet was very muddy and had almost no beach. I briefly considered trying to wade across the inlet and through the mud, but decided it would be lunacy. Since there was no beach to speak of, I decided that the only option was to walk inland to the main road, and cross on the causeway which carried the road across the inlet. While I was blundering around trying to find my way to the road I stumbled into someone's little patch of paradise - a big chunk of land right on the estuary with a basic-looking house and vast vege garden. A man appeared and asked if he could help. I told him that I was trying to cross the inlet, and he said that he and his wife were heading that way, and that they would give me a lift. He told me that he had bought his section for $100 in 1964! They very kindly drove me across the causeway and dropped me off with a hand-drawn map of walking tracks in the area.
I walked back out to the beach and carried on along coast, which by now had swung around to the southeast. After another couple of hours walking I got to a point marked on the map as 'derelict jetty.' This turned out to be the remains of a very long structure, long since decayed to the point where only a few clusters of upright timbers remain. Curiously, the jetty is best preserved at the seaward end. I had my lunch on a log beneath a tree, looking out at the remains of the once-fine jetty.
I returned to Collingwood in the afternoon by the same route, although it was quite a different experience as the tide had come in, and the vast stretches of beach had been reduced to thin strips. The walk back necessitated much scrambling over rocks and wading in the surf. I was also attacked at one stage by an irate oyster-catcher. It repeatedly dived at my head, waving off at the last minute with a flurry of wings. It was a surprisingly scary experience, and I felt my vegetarian principles leaking away as I armed myself with a sturdy length of wood and prepared to do battle. Fortunately after ten metres or so I was clear of whatever it was defending, and it lost interest in me.
I talked briefly to a local at one of the beach communities as she was checking her inbox. (A physical box-like thing on a short pole by the road, a clever device with long network latency but very high bandwidth.) I said to her, "Do you get to live in this lovely place do you?" She replied, "Yes, aren't I lucky? But - where do I go for a holiday?"
I didn't find any other friendly locals to give me a lift back over the causeway, so I had to walk along the road. Once across the inlet, I examined the map the couple had given me. It documented a community conservation project, which was trying to regenerate bush in the area between where I was and the beach. The area is riddled with tracks and other features all named after people (I assume) involved in the project: "Bob's Bit", "Mickey's Loop", "Marshall's Marsh", "Jimmy's Jungle" and "Baas Deviation". I walked through this area to the beach, and thence back to Collingwood.
The next day I took an "eco tour" onto Farewell Spit. The Spit is basically a vast sand-bar (the biggest in the world according to our guide), and the whole thing is a conservation area, so you're not allowed onto it except as part of a licensed tour. The tour consists of being driven along the beach on a big-wheeled bus with a high chassis. The bus I was on was called the "Maryann". While the tour was great fun, and I got to see a piece of the country I've never seen before, I found it immensely frustrating that there's no way to walk along the Spit. (Although they did let us out for a bit of a wander at certain points.) You can't even open the windows. Still, it was still much better to be cooped up on the bus than to not see the Spit at all.
The tour starts off driving along the southern side of the spit for a few hundred metres before crossing the spit on a rough track through bush to the northern side. You spend the rest of the tour driving along the northern beach until you reach the lighthouse at the end.
While on the southern beach our driver/guide (an ex-pat Bavarian called Kersten) stopped by a big mound in the sand. This turned out to be a huge dead sunfish, about the size of a cow. Kersten told us that this was the site of one of the biggest whale strandings on record (128 whales in 2004), and also close to a point where he discovered the carcass of the biggest giant squid ever to be found.
On the northern side of the Spit Kersten pointed out a few blackened timbers poking out of a salt-pan between two dunes. This he said was all that remained of a ship called the Messenger which wrecked on the Spit in 1879. The spit is getting bigger all the time as sea currents deposit hundreds of tonnes of new sand every year, and this was graphically illustrated by the fact that the remains of the Messenger are now 50m or so inland.
Another hour or so driving along the beach took us to the lighthouse, first built in 1870. The first lighthouse keepers planted trees, presumably to keep themselves from going insane among the sand dunes. According to Kersten they met with failure until someone hit on the idea of bringing topsoil in from the mainland in saddlebags, and mixing it with the local sand. The trees seem to be thriving, and after a couple of hours driving through areas called "Gobi Desert" and "Little Arabia", you arrive at what is predictably called the "Oasis". The effect is quite startling, as the Oasis, with its 100-year-old trees, looks like a little English park in the middle of the sand dunes.
|Some of the Lighthouse Keepers' Trees.|
The current lighthouse (not the first one, but still built in the 19th Century) is still in use, although the light source, power source, and optics are all modern. The lighthouse is now powered via an undersand cable from the mainland. The lighthouse has a central non-structural metal tube: this originally held the drop-weight that drove the rotation of the lenses. The lighthouse keepers had to wind it back up to the top by hand every thirty minutes during the night.
After an hour or so to climb the lighthouse and wander around the Oasis, it was back on the bus for the return trip.
We stopped at one of the sand dunes, and we were allowed to climb up it and run/tumble down the leeward slope. The bigger sand dunes are crescent-shaped, and are forever moving eastwards as wind blows sand up the shallower windward slope until it tumbles down the steeper leeward face.
|Running Down the Sand Dune.|
The final stop on the tour was an interesting geological feature called Cape Farewell.
|The "Maryann" at Cape Farewell.|
Aside from the frustration of not being able to get out and walk, I found the wildlife disappointing. It is a conservation estate, largely because of its importance as a nesting and feeding ground for birds, and I so I was expecting vast flocks of birds. Although Kersten was forever pointing out this and that bird species, they were mostly in ones or twos, with never more than six or so to a flock. Not knowing a South Island Pied Oystercatcher from a Bar-Tailed Godwit, I guess the fault was with my expectations rather than with the birds.
We got back to Collingwood to find that the main street had been blocked off (thus reducing the traffic flow from nearly zero to actually zero) for a craft and produce market. This was a fairly limited affair, but still quite fun. I bought a limited-edition hand-drawn map of the area as a souvenir of the trip.
Then I went down to the village jetty to watch the end of the Collingwood Raft Race - a yearly tradition. As the rafts came into the jetty, they were pelted with eggs and rotten gherkins and other organic crud - all part of the tradition. Some of the people were also covered in cow shit - it also being part of the fine tradition to plop the stuff on the competitors as they pass under a bridge some way upstream.
The winning raft was a very fine piece of work. It consisted of two long plastic tubes, each with a bicycle frame mounted on it. The bikes drove a large paddle-wheel mounted between them. The raft won by a considerable margin, but it was clear that the two cycle-rafters were working very hard to drive the big paddle-wheel around.
|The Winners!||Despite corporate sponsors and motors, these jokers still came last.|
While reading a tourist brochure while eating a truly awful vegetarian lasagna at the village's one bar-and-bistro I came across mention of some caves I'd never heard of, the Te Anaroa Caves. ("Te Anaroa" is Maori for "The Long Cave", so "The Te Anaroa Caves" translates to "The The Long Cave Caves", but never mind.) As I love going into caves, I resolved at once to visit them. It would take me a while to walk out to them, but there was another feature nearby called the "Devil's Boots" that I wanted to check out as well.
(I had chosen the vegetarian lasagna as it was the only vege item on the menu. When I ordered it the man looked startled. "Vegetarian lasagna?" he said, there being meat lasagnas on offer as well. The thing itself was ghastly. The filling was a tasteless mush, and the only pasta seemed to be a layer on the bottom, and it had been baked so hard that the pasta had gone like cardboard. In the end I folded the horrid thing in half and ate it like a leathery taco.)
On my last full day in the area I walked out to the caves. According to the map there were two ways to get there, one a sealed road, the other a dirt road, running on opposite sides of the valley. I decided to walk out to the caves by one road and back by the other.
The walk out (which took about two hours) was great fun. There was almost no traffic, and the gently-rolling land was very lush. There was lots of stuff to look at, like rivers and ponds and stands of trees, and the two ranges that bracketed the valley changed pleasantly and drew in as I approached the head of the valley.
My first stop was the "Devil's Boots". These turned out to be curious limestone formations thrusting out of the ground with improbably-large overhangs. They are called the Devil's Boots because, if you use your imagination, they look a bit like the boots of a person buried upside down in the earth up to their shins. Imagination is certainly required as, for example, there are actually three 'boots'. I guess the third is the devil's tail, or something. They're actually very neat features. Unfortunately the road passes right between them, and in fact the area around the boots is used as a carpark, so it wasn't possible to get photos without cars in the way.
|One of the Boots.|
Just up the hill from the Devil's Boots are the caves. They are on private property, and you can only visit them as part of the thrice-daily guided tours. Things were a bit slow the day I visited: my "tour party" consisted of two people, just me and the guide. The tour guide - a very friendly and enthusiastic woman - is the daughter of the current landowners.
The caves, while quite small, were fantastic, and packed with all kinds of neat stuff. As you walk through the first section it's clear where the caves get their name. It's basically an underground canyon, in places barely wide enough to allow your shoulders to pass, soaring up to 20 metres above your head. By far my favourite part of this section was an area where there is plenty of room for your body, but the walls of the canyon suddenly draw in at about neck height, and then close almost completely just above your head. In cross-section the cave is therefore a bit like an Egyptian sarcophagus. Furthermore, because of the inconsistent erosion of the layers that make up the walls, you get the impression of a series of horizontal blades sticking out towards your neck. The guide said that this section was called the Barbers' Shop, as it was a very close shave (yuk yuk).
Beyond the canyon the caves alter utterly in nature. The guide claimed that the farther section was only discovered in 1903, when Timmy the dog scrambled over a cave-in, and the Famous Five, err... I mean the children of the land owner, had to clear enough of the rubble to enable them to squeeze past to recover the dog. This second section consists of six or so small, interconnected caverns. While for some reason there are no stalagmites and stalactites in the canyon section, the cavern section is just dripping with them (har har).
Much of the ceiling consists of forests of very fine stalactites. Most are a muddy brown colour, but every now and then there is a patch of pure white stalactites, which are startling in contrast.
|Cluster of Stalactites.|
One peculiar feature that I don't think I've ever seen before are what I thought of as 'sails' of calcium carbonate. In this cave, when water reaches the edge of an overhang, it doesn't drop down to the floor below as you might expect. Instead it runs down the underside of the overhang, thus depositing its load of calcium in very thin triangular vanes.
Strangely, many of the larger stalagmites have no corresponding stalactites on the ceiling above them, giving the impression that they were formed elsewhere and placed in the cave. This idea reaches its full expression in a huge feature called "Lot's Wife". This is a stalagmite far, far bigger than any of the others, which fills up the corridor it sits in almost to the very top of the cave. It was hard to tell, but the curved top is so close to the roof of the cave that it may have actually blocked the drip that created it. According to the guide stalagmites form at a predictable rate, and that by the standard measure Lot's Wife is around three million years old. Amazing stuff.
In another cavern, the low roof is formed by a sheet of ex-seabed, embedded with thousands of fossil seashells. The feature is thought to be 40 million years old, and so considers Lot's Wife to be just a youngster.
Collingwood itself had the feeling of a place in decline. Even though it was smack-bang in the middle of peak season, there were very few people about, and just about the whole town was for sale. (The motel I stayed at had just changed hands, and the village's only pub, only food store, and one of the two cafes were all for sale.)
One constant and unexpected nuisance was how hard it was to get around by foot. I couldn't believe it - the area is (or should be) a ramblers' paradise BUT the only way to get about is on the roads, and the roads are designed for the mighty motor car. There are no footpaths anywhere, and the verges of the roads are narrow to non-existent. They're supposed to be a bunch of greenies and hippies and tree-huggers over there - and yet everybody drives everywhere! It seems that no-one's even heard of walking. It's all very strange. It wasn't so bad on the inland roads, as the traffic was very light, but walking along the main Takaka-Collingwood road was a slightly scary experience.
Still, I had a great time. It's such a magical part of the country, and I wish I could spend more time there. There's still plenty that I didn't get to see.
|The Whakamarama Range from Collingwood Beach.|
The pictures in this article are a subset of those available in the full gallery.