Farewell Spit

A lot has happened since my last post but instead of catching up chronologically, I want to record the most recent events while they are still fresh in my mind.

On Sunday at about 10am I set off from Karamea, which I haven’t even written about yet. I had a big drive ahead to Golden Bay, back through Westport, across to Murchison, up to Motueka and beyond to Takaka. As the crow flies, Takaka is not far at all from Karamea (45 miles, or 72.4km, to be precise), but because of the landscape and the National Park the road takes a very circuitous route south, then east and then north again. It was long enough in distance (382km from the start of my journey in Karamea to the YHA in Takaka), but what I didn’t realise was that the journey also involved the crossing of a very steep “hill”, Takaka Hill, which climbs to 791 metres above sea level, more or less where you are when you begin the ascent from Motueka. The road was frosty in part and, you guessed it, there were a lot of drivers who didn’t drive to conditions. I know I must be starting to sound like a really slow, annoying driver, but really, it takes quite a bit to concern me and I am not afraid of heights. But even I couldn’t look down as I was ascending the range beyond Motueka. There were no fences most of the way (not that fences would stop a car but they at least provide a sort of artificial peace of mind) and the drops were sheer. I don’t think I have ever made such dramatic ascents and then descents in a car at any stage in my life. But that’s New Zealand for you – young, still-forming mountain ranges with steep slopes and a large number of landslips happening regularly, including during this wet winter.

Jumping ahead to the first day in Golden Bay though, and my decision to go straight to the top of the South Island, given the inclement weather forecast for tomorrow and the next day; Monday was cloudy but still not raining. My destination was only about 55km to the north.

And now it’s Tuesday, first day of the last month of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Last night I used my laptop to play Bob Marley, Angelique Kidjo and Annie Lennox out of my portable speaker and a few of us here in the YHA had a small dance party out on the terrace just out of the rain that had started coming down. In bed later I started thinking about the journey still to come across the “hill”, and hoping that the rain wasn’t going to cause even more winter slips to add to those that have already happened. Maybe that’s why people end up staying so long in Golden Bay – they just don’t want to face the journey out again!

Hmmm. I think I have been avoiding writing yesterday up because I haven’t quite processed it yet. But writing will probably help facilitate that processing…

So. I left Takaka at about 10.45am, in time to hear the start of the new book reading on Radio NZ (RNZ), which once again I was able to locate on the dial, after it had disappeared during my travels in other, even more remote parts. The road was fairly quiet, and as usual I moved over when I could to let any impatient vehicles pass, as I like to feel uninhibited about slowing down for photographs. It was not only quiet in regard to traffic but it was also still, and that together with the grey sky and reflections on the Bay very much lent itself to mood photography.

My first stop was Wharariki Beach, and from the carpark I did the walk traversing steep grassy hills through farmland to the beach, stopping frequently to capture the stark landscape with its occasional clump of windblown trees. A man behind rapidly caught up and overtook me, apologising in case he frightened me, but he was on a mission to find the person who had dropped their wallet in the carpark.

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Man looking for lost wallet owner, Wharariki Beach

Once at the beach (a sign warned of the danger of rips so I had not been tempted to change into my swimmers in readiness for a surf) I made careful note of where the track entered the dunes, so I could find it easily again later. The wind was blowing the sand across the rippled surface and I started photographing the patterns in between looking out at the rock outcrops in the ocean and the overhangs at the western end of the strand, as well as the scenery generally.

I eventually walked up to these overhangs, which seemed to be granite conglomerate and walked in under for a closer look. I could have stayed for hours on the beach but there was much more to explore in the vicinity, including Farewell Spit itself, where I saw from the tear-off map I had found at the i place when I arrived in town on Sunday night that there were several walks available.

A couple of guys were also leaving the beach so I called out to them to ask if they had lost a wallet, because as far as I saw, the wallet finder had not come across anyone on the beach in his hunt for the owner. It wasn’t either of theirs.

Once back in the car and some way back along the track I saw a turn to the Cape Farewell lookout. Cape Farewell is the northernmost point of the South Island (40.5000° S, 172.6833° E), so I wasn’t going to miss that and made the short walk up to the lookout from the carpark. Way below on a rock were a couple of seals sunning themselves, and the wind was blowing strongly, so I made sure I was leaning against the end of the fence to avoid being blown over the cliff when I ventured higher for some more photographs.

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Cape Farewell. The seals are on the rock in the left foreground.

Next stop, the carpark at Farewell Spit, where I ate my lunch – rice crackers, nuts and a mandarin – before setting out on my walk. I had perused the information board prior to lunch, in order to plan my afternoon, and I also took some photos of the aerial view of the walk, and the notes accompanying it, and oriented myself to the direction, which at first seemed back to front. As is my usual procedure, I recorded the odometer reading in my little day-a-page diary, as well as a note naming the walk I was about to undertake, and the thought crossed my mind that if I didn’t return, at least people would be able to see where I had gone, with the diary open on the passenger’s seat…

The walk I had decided to take was the Spit circuit, commencing on the Ramsar wetland side of the Spit, heading west along the the southern side of it, crossing over to the ocean beach and then coming back through farmland, via Fossil Point. The notes talked of a marked track through to the beach 4km along on the wetland side, and there being no mention of distance from the i point to the track turn-off, I conflated the two. I am quite a fast walker, even with regular stops for photos and drinking it all in, and so I probably didn’t look soon enough, but nevertheless I did not see a marked track anywhere.

As I meandered up the beach, enjoying the quiet of the wetland with the distant roar of the ocean audible on my left, my thoughts drifted to an old friend in Western Australia, with whom I had once got totally lost in Tasmania one night after dinner when we walked back to conference camp from the restaurant in the nearby village, somehow going in totally the opposite direction to that which we needed to take, and it occurred to me that I should send him the link to this blog, as we don’t keep in touch on a regular basis but are interested in each other’s lives.

Some time went past and it seemed that I should have seen the track by now. Here and there were a few footprints veering off up the dunes, perhaps of others who had also been looking for a track. I kept going towards what looked like a marker further up the beach which, by the way, comprised sand, large areas of shell grit from the squashed pipi shells that were in abundance, and still whole pipi shells. As well as that, there were frequent piles of weathered timber and dried fine seaweed, left by the tides.

But it seemed wrong so I decided to take my chances and cut across to the beach via the dunes. It couldn’t be that hard, surely? I walked up to the top of the nearest one and could see the glinting ocean beyond. The track I was supposed to be on ended up at the beach, so presumably I could just meet it further down. I began my trek across.

I am not sure how far it was from wetland to beach at that point – the Spit is said to be about a kilometre in width – but the proximity of the ocean was quite deceptive. Just as I reached the top of one rise, it became clear that there was another to ascend, and another, and another, and not far along I started to sink a little into the sand, in the areas that were browner than others. Surely this wasn’t quicksand?!

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looking back at my tracks across the dunes

I was starting to feel like I was in the Sahara (not that I have been there), with one dune after another and no evidence of the ocean drawing any closer. With such a long distance still to go, I made the decision to go diagonally across to where the vegetation started and make my way back to the elusive track that way. As I headed south-west, the slight feeling of panic that had lodged itself earlier went up a notch or three as I started to sink down much further into, yes, the quicksand, and I briefly imagined the scenario of disappearing, alone in the dunes, never to be seen again. But, best to stay calm, so endeavouring to do that, I approached the vegetation and decided to climb the ridges I could see in order to gain a better understanding of where I was and where the track might be.

But it wasn’t that simple. Rather than being continuous, the ridges were separate hills going up steeply, often covered in gorse, and dotted with invisible holes under long, wet grass. I had planned to make my way east along the base of these ridges, but soon was confronted with some small lakes which put paid to my plan of staying low.

By this time, I had already referred at least twice to the photos I had taken of the diagram of the walk and could not work out how I had missed the track, but there was no point in worrying about that now. As I realised that it was going to be almost impossible to keep going east with the lakes and the thick scrub ahead, I decided to cut my losses and go back through the vegetation and walk back along the wetland beach, the way I had come. Had I known what was ahead, I may have decided to risk the quicksand again – after all, I had worked out that it was the brown bits that were the worst – but at this point what was important was keeping the ocean behind me and heading across back to the wetland. It might not be an easy journey, but what could possibly go wrong? This next photo was about the last I took before I had to focus completely on the job in hand.

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the way back

At first it was arduous at worst, with a lot of ascending and descending, and not too much gorse. But after several valleys and hills and no sign yet of the wetland on the other side, the vegetation became much thicker and the hills much steeper. I had decided to cut across slightly diagonally again in order to make the journey a bit shorter, but soon it became necessary to head whichever way was least dense. By now there was no choice other to go through gorse, so despite being already overheated with the exertion of it all, I had to zip up my jacket with the camera and backpack safely stowed underneath and push my way through the gorse and other vegetation.

After a while it turned to flax, and there was no choice but to go down and through. I had been avoiding the lowest parts to now, imagining that, if they were anything like home, they may be quite wet, but now all I could do was feel so very glad that I had swapped my gym shoes for my sturdy walking boots before I left the car. Without those boots I would have been in still direr straits indeed.

It wasn’t long before I reached the anticipated water, out of which were growing flax plants at least twice my height. The flax here was so thick that it was almost impenetrable, and I had no alternative but to literally “bush-bash”, lifting my leg as high as I could to flatten some leaves to make a more horizontal area on which to make my way through.

Because of having to change direction several times just to make any progress, it was hard to know for certain which way I was facing, and had it not been for the sound of the ocean I may have had no idea. I knew that if I kept the roar of the waves behind me I was probably going in the right direction. But that did not stop my growing sense of panic as the vegetation showed no sign of thinning out and there were no points high enough for me to get my bearings via a good view.

In some parts it was thick enough to knock my glasses sideways – losing my glasses in the swamp and not being able to find them again could now become another thing to worry about. I recalled that I had a spare pair back in the boot of the car, if I could make it there without being able see very far ahead… I wondered if my phone would even work here, down in a valley under the cover of thick flax.

Eventually, as I apologised yet again to this protected, restricted wetland area for bashing my way through, I reached drier land and the vegetation changed again. Now it was trees that I had to negotiate – not tall, thick-trunked trees though, but a short, dense variety with thickly growing fine leaves. There was no visible way through this forest at all, but there seemed to be some small animal tracks which I began to follow. They soon petered out however and with the canopy so close to the ground, it was a matter of doubling up and almost crawling through where I could. In addition, the thick canopy made it much darker here, and also more protected from the sound of the ocean, so by now I had to just hope that I was heading south, and not west or east, along instead of across the Spit. East would have been OK though, I guess, as I would have eventually got to a farm.

After quite a bit of this (and of my level of panic rising more than during any of my many previous adventures) the trees gave way to an open grassy area, also wetland vegetation in appearance, and then more gorse. By now I had been high enough again (or the landscape had been low enough) to see the water of the wetland, and as I fought my way through the last of the gorse my panic turned to relief and a wave of emotion came over me as I reached the tranquillity of the protected beach. I am reliving that emotion to a degree as I recount it here.

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safe again

What a feeling to see the wetland again. About two minutes walk back in the direction of my initial starting point I saw ahead on the right the elusive track marked through a gap in the vegetation. I stopped and perched on a log for a short time, crying and gathering my wits, and walked back up the beach, at once being cross with DOC for not explaining things better, and just wanting to talk to or see the friendly face of someone, preferably someone I knew and who would understand.

Wow. Doing a bit of research for the blog I came upon this page. If only I had seen it, complete with its views of the track, before I set out yesterday. What a different world… A different planet even.

Like a person remounting a horse after they have been thrown off, maybe I will have to go back and do the walk again, properly this time. I’m not sure. I don’t think I want to go near there again. Not for a while anyway.

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