Since emigrating to New Zealand in early 2012, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the country and gradually I’ve crossed off more and more places to the point that only a few key parts of Aotearoa remain unvisited. With both myself and my partner having time off over Christmas in 2018, we had secured a motel in the Golden Bay region, a place that I hadn’t been to before. Setting off from Christchurch a few days ahead of the big day, we mosied our way up through Lewis Pass and north beyond Murchison towards Motueka before cutting west towards the infamous Takaka Hill. I visited Abel Tasman in early 2013 and this was the furthest west I’d previously been on the north coast of the South Island so as we crept towards the hill, joining the increasing traffic, I was reaching new territory. Thanks to previous foul weather, landslips had reduced the steep and winding road to a single lane in multiple places, meaning the drive was periodically held up by traffic lights and queuing traffic. As we climbed high, the view over the valley behind us opened up and when at last we reached the brow of the hill and crossed the summit to reach the steep descent on the other side, I was presented with yet another stunning part of the country.
The hills made it feel like this corner of the island was cut off from the rest of the country, and indeed it had briefly been so when the landslips initially happened. The massive Kahurangi National Park divides this corner of the north coast from the wild west coast and surrounded by hills, we descended into a lush green valley below full of farmland. Having not paid enough attention to the geography, we had booked to stay at Takaka, and it was only when we got there that I realised that we weren’t actually by the coast. My partner was tired from the drive and after a walk around the compact little town, he wanted to veg in front of the tv whereas I was antsy and eager to get to the beach. Eventually after a rest, I convinced him to come with me and we drove down to Pohara where the expanse of the sandy Golden Bay was finally in front of us. It was a gorgeous evening, and with the tide out, we took a brief wander along the wet sand.
A few bends further along the road is the local marina, created out of reclaimed land and after a wee wander to admire the boats and the man-made hole in the rock where the road cut through, we followed the road a little further towards Ligar Bay. On a raised part of the coast, just before the bay was the Abel Tasman monument. Abel Tasman was a Dutch explorer who is credited with discovering New Zealand (the country had in fact been inhabited with Pacific Island settlers for some time before his discovery) and this region bares his name, both in the National Park, and also in the name of Tasman District (the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand is another nod to the explorer). The monument itself wasn’t much to look at but the view down over Golden Bay proper and in particular Ligar Bay is stunning. Once down at this beach, we both took another short walk and I wished we had rented a place here as there were so many houses with an incredible view over the bay.
The next day we took the same drive back to Ligar Bay but this time continued to Tata Beach. Just like the night before, I was wishing we were staying round here as again there was a beautiful beach, this time with a couple of islands offshore to look at, and there was a bit more activity here as families sat on the beach while others kayaked or jet-skied out to sea. After a while, we headed back to Takaka and out the other side, heading west and making the short drive to one of the area’s most famous attractions: Te Waikoropupu Springs. The springs are the largest freshwater springs in the country and the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. But it is the purity of the water that makes them so famous, with a recorded visibility of 63m, they are almost the purest waters in the World. I’d seen pictures of stunning blues and had been eager to see them for myself for some time.
Arriving early in the morning, there was already plenty of cars in the car park, a typical finding in the height of summer in New Zealand. The country has had a tourism boom in the last decade and even in the time that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen popular places get increasingly overcrowded and over-stretch local infrastructure, resulting in a lot of development in an effort to accommodate the influx. Passing the information boards at the entrance, we followed the loop trail which meanders for a while through the nearby forest until eventually it comes out at the first open expanse of the water, where a boardwalk crosses the edge of the pond. The sun was behind a thin layer of cloud creating an unfortunately dull colour to the water here and the low angle of the sun meant you couldn’t see below the surface. It wasn’t until we continued round the trail a little and found a separate section of the pond with a boarded area facing away from the sun, that we could really appreciate the clarity of the water. I’m still not sure just how deep it is here, but it looked shallow given the clarity and the hint of the blues I’d seen in photographs could just about be discerned here.
There really was just these two main areas to see the expanse of the water. The returning section of the loop trail was again in the forest, although this time it followed a broad and fast flowing river where we watched some ducklings trying desperately to fight against the current to stay with their parent. We took our time to read the information boards back at the car park, acknowledging the crowds that had arrived as we’d walked the trail. It wasn’t just the car park that was full of activity, as there was plenty of manuka trees here and the honey bees were busy flying from flower to flower around us. Manuka honey is special, and is used not only in the food industry, but also in medicine as it has antibacterial properties and can aid in wound care.
Continuing west we turned off the main road to cut down to Patons Rock where there was yet another expanse of sandy beach. I’m not really one for sitting still on holidays, and prefer to be on the go and exploring over sunbathing on the beach, however, when I saw the various families splashing around in the water and lounging on the sand, I did get a little pang of jealousy and wished I could do the same. But we had booked onto a tour for the afternoon and so had to keep pushing onwards, so we continued on the last stretch of road to reach Collingwood, a small town that felt a million miles from anywhere. Sandwiched between the waters of the bay and an expansive estuary, we walked around the calm waterfront behind the peninsula, overlooking the mountains of Kahurangi National Park, and continued round to Golden Bay where the wind had by now whipped up and blew sand on our face as we walked amongst the driftwood on the beach here.
Before long though, it was time to join our tour and at the office of Farewell Spit Eco Tours we were assigned a bus and driver that was to take us out onto Farewell Spit that afternoon. Heading north to Puponga, we cut inland a little to reach Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of the South Island. A short walk from the car park here took us up the hillside to the sheer cliffs where under the heat of the summer sun, we looked down on a dramatic cliffscape complete with sea arch. A short walk from here took me up to join the Puponga Hilltop walk where I could see behind me over the rolling hills, and in front of me to the sparkling sea over which a small group of Australasian Gannets soared over. It was a beautiful lookout spot but I was keen to get out to the Spit where I hoped we’d spot some more wildlife.
The giant tyres of the bus seemed ridiculous for the tarmac on the drive to get to the spit but as soon as we went through the locked gate on arriving at the end of the road, it was clear why they were necessary: from this point onwards, the rest of the tour was via the sandy beach. Farewell Spit is a long sandbar that curves east from the northern corner of the South Island. Protecting this corner of the coast from the brunt of the wild Tasman Sea, it has created the deceptively calm and shallow slope of the expansive Golden Bay. The tidal movement within the bay is so dramatic that the difference between high tide and low tide on the sheltered side of the spit is dramatic, and it is believed that the shallow shelving of the seafloor here is at least in part responsible for the sadly regular event of mass whale strandings that occur in the bay. Time and time again, large groups of pilot whales beach themselves in Golden Bay, a large percentage of them dying as a result, despite the concerted efforts of Project Jonah, the country’s registered charity to try and refloat whales.
Only the lowest section of the Spit can be accessed by the public. To experience the full length of the spit, it is necessary to join a tour. After a brief spell on the Golden Bay side of the beach, the large bus cut across to the other side where we were exposed to whatever the Tasman Sea chose to throw at us. We’d already gotten a hint of the wind whilst in Collingwood, and here with the full exposure of the sand bar to our right, we paused to watch the sand whip madly towards us. We got the chance to get out nearby to explore the geology of the rocks and managed to spot a couple of New Zealand fur seals hiding out below the cliff, but then it was time to head along the expanse of the spit, the gloomy clouds to our left and the wind whipping at us as we drove.
We tanked it along the sandbar, twice slowing down to negotiate and annoy a sleeping fur seal hauled up on the sand. I was a little annoyed at our driver circling one of them which clearly pissed it off as it growled at us before it ran down the beach a bit. The sand itself was dotted with pools of water left from the retreating tide and the two buses had to work out the best way to negotiate these safely to get us to the lighthouse. The largest of these was at the entrance to the lighthouse itself, where the pool was long and of varying depth. Our driver scouted it out first of all before gunning it and making it across without any issues. The second bus was some way behind us but eventually caught up and picking a different route through the water, also made it across. In the blustering wind, we all bundled out to explore the grounds of the lighthouse, poking our noses in windows and walking amongst the dunes here. Outside one of the buildings, a whale skeleton stood and I inspected it with scientific curiosity while the others on the tour relaxed with drinks and snacks. I’m a cetacean enthusiast and back in 2005 spent a glorious 3 months in South Africa studying them, and this skeleton brought back so many memories of the anatomy lessons I’d received whilst there. After a while, it was time to board the buses for the return trip down the spit, a trip that turned rather awry…