In the calm before another storm, a fishing boat noses towards the rocky arms that flank the entrance to Wellington Harbour—a haven from the fierce weather that has earned Cook Strait a reputation as New Zealand’s most treacherous stretch of water.
I live on a knoll of Mt Victoria, the hill facing Cook Strait. Beyond me to the south lies the peggy-square airport, and beyond that the open sea; to the north, Somes Island and Hutt Valley. From my kitchen window the blue-brown spine of the Orongorongos stretches in line before me.
Some nights, when the southerly is blowing, it feels as if the house is about to lift from its foundations and fly down the gully. We can have three sleepless nights in a row. The noise of the wind is like being caught in an aeroplane blast, only it keeps on coming, hitting and pounding the outer walls. On other evenings the sun sinks like a fat apricot into the sea, and Wellington’s lights lie in enamelled flares across the still water. This is the one place in the world I really want to live.
When I came to write about the Strait, I discovered that the territory is as much a state of mind as it is a place. It is a mythic, magic divide: the place where a country parts in its centre and re-invents itself on the other side.
The physical details are plain enough. It is a body of water which separates the two major islands of New Zealand. It is the only gap in a mountain chain stretching 1400 kilometres from Puysegur Point at the south-west tip of the South Island to the East Cape of the North Island. Along its margins are places where sheer cliffs fall straight to the water; elsewhere rough scree and shingle beaches are punctuated with sudden stretches of golden sand.
The sharp rock boundaries and treacherous reefs that lace the edges of the Strait have snagged ships throughout recorded history, disposing of them like a Wastemaster chomping the thin bones of chicken wings. At least 85 large ships have capsized in Cook Strait with the loss of hundreds of lives. Uncounted are the myriad smaller craft that have sunk, often without trace.
In places the sea floor falls into the Cook Strait Canyons, up to 1000 metres deep. At its waist, the Strait is 22.5 kilometres wide, known simply as “The Narrows.” Southerly storms that sweep through The Narrows rise to gale force on average 22 times a year. The strongest gust of wind in New Zealand-145 knots or 268 kilometres an hour—was recorded in The Narrows on April 10, 1968, the day the Wahine foundered with the loss of 51 lives.
Since 1965, a power cable has tethered the North and South Islands, the South supplying the North with ten per cent of its electric power.
Kupe, the famed Maori explorer and navigator who sailed south from Hawaiki around the 13th century, allegedly in pursuit of a giant octopus or wheke that kept stealing his fishing bait, was the first to find the Strait. He and his companion Ngahue had crossed half the Pacific Ocean before they cornered and killed the creature in the Marlborough Sounds, in a bay they called Whekenui. Kupe then sailed across the Strait—Raukawa Moana—and landed at Seatoun, which he called Te Turanga-o-Kupe, “the great standing place of Kupe.” He named the islands lying in the basin of Wellington’s harbour Matiu and Makarao, after two of his relatives; pakeha call them Somes and Ward Islands.
Kupe’s relatives Tara and Tautoki led a later expedition to the harbour, when it became known as Te Whanganui a Tara, “the great harbour of Tara.” The Ngai Tara people moved to Te Motu Kairangi, the Miramar Peninsula, overlooking Cook Strait, where there were nine pa sites. Pakeha introduced muskets, which led to wars that displaced the resident tribes.
It’s an old story that gets no better with time.
Almost certainly, the first European to encounter Cook Strait was Abel Janszoon Tasman, in 1642. Tasman believed he was in a bay, rather than a strait, and after a skirmish with Maori that left four of his crew dead he left the area.
Yorkshirernan Captain James Cook discovered more. After anchoring the Endeavour off Arapawa Island, at the head of what is now Tory Channel, on January 23, 1770, Cook climbed to the top of Kaitepeha Peak, from which he was able to see that New Zealand was not one continuous body of land, but a series of islands. An inscribed plaque commemorates the occasion.
At nearby Ship Cove Cook hoisted the Union Jack and claimed the land on behalf of the British sovereign; he and his crew then “drank Her Majesty’s [Queen Charlotte’s] hilth in a bottle of Wine.” The celebration, as it turned out, was premature. Cook had exceeded his instructions. On a fine blue day, with dolphins at play in the water, that may have seemed of little consequence; in fact, it was another 70 years before the country was formally annexed to Britain.
Naturalist Joseph Banks, on board the Endeavour, was the first to refer to the strait as Cook’s Strait.
On January 31, 1840, my great-great-grandparents Alexander Sutherland and his wife Elizabeth arrived on the northern shore of the Strait at Petone, a board the ship Oriental. They were amongst a group of settlers who had followed in the footsteps of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, to whom the European settlement of Wellington is attributed.
Wakefield was a settlement theorist with a reputation for abducting teenage heiresses. While in jail after one such escapade, he conceived what he considered a blueprint theory for perfect colonisation which led, with the help of wealthy backers, to the formation of the New Zealand Company.
A reconnaissance ship, the Tory, was sent ahead of the settlers to assess the Cook Strait area. It was closely followed by the passenger ships Cuba, Aurora, Oriental, Duke of Roxburgh, Adelaide, Glenbervie, Bolton, Coromandel and Clifton. The settlers came in something of a rush because Wakefield hoped to foil formal land negotiations with Maori land owners.
At the London docks my great-great-grandfather, in a singularly unchivalrous move, had taken one of his children hostage on to the ship in order to lure his wife aboard. Another child, Katrean, was born on the voyage. Alexander and his wife carried their Gaelic Bible, two Wedgwood milk jugs and a pewter meat cover when they arrived, and subsequently set up house at Lyall Bay.
Less than a week after their arrival, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the north. As a result, most of the settlers found they had fewer inalienable rights to the land than they had believed.
Now, 150 years on, I gaze over hills thick with clinging houses out to the untameable turbulence of the Strait.
It is April 10, 1993-25 years after the Wahine disaster—and a knot of people has formed on the Seatoun foreshore to mark the event. When the interisland ferry went down in that boiling torrent of storm, two lifeboats reached the beach here. Seatoun is a quiet, mildly refined village. For a few years Rowan Hatch, the chemist, ran a museum about the wreck at the back of his shop. You walked past the Max Factor and aspirin counters and there it was: Seatoun’s own little corner of hell revisited.
“The time was shortly before 6.30 A.M. For a second I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me. She [the Wahine] was facing the wrong way round . . .” Stuart Young, the first person to see the ship in trouble, is recounting the story. “[She] was a blaze of lights, appearing then disappearing in the blinding rain as the storm raged around her.”
Between squalls, Young saw that the ship was drifting backwards fast, beam on to the weather, in Chaffers Passage.
“The sight of that big ship going sideways so fast in that narrow passage was enough to stop your heart.”
Hatch decided there should be a memorial on the Seatoun foreshore. We set out for the unveiling of a plaque on a day which was planned as an outing in the sunshine, with provision made for 5000. Instead, there is a southerly vying for honours with Wahine Day. A thousand or so of us, hunched into the wind, the elderly swaying against ambulance officers, pay our respects. The water is muddied with sediment, like granulated coffee across the waves, yet the bay is full of small brave boats flying their colours, and a row of elderly lifeguards stand in solemn line. The interisland ferry heaves to in the racing gale and wreaths are pitched overboard, and then Ray Ahipene-Mercer of Ngai Tara raises a lament. After him, a lone piper begins to play, and we sing Eternal Father; strong to save . . . / O hear us when we ay to Thee / For those in peril on the sea.
A woman leans against my shoulder, weeping.
“Thanks,” she says, straightens and walks off into the teeth of the gale.
In midwinter I remember the Wahine as I watch trucks, railway wagons, cars, motorbikes, caravans and bicycles being loaded through the stern hatches of another interisland ferry. With me aboard, too, she slips out of Wellington Harbour. A cool morning, a riffled sea like a grey duck’s backside, a different way of looking at the city. Cranes lean against the mass of the city, St Gerard’s Monastery hunches on the headland and small white and cedarwood houses tumble down the hillsides amongst the broom.
“Are you looking for albatrosses?” a small girl asks me.
We get a run-down on safety drill and where the lifeboats are. “Follow the instructions of your crew, and stay calm.” Nobody says, “They know what to do,” but I’m hoping.
I’ve taken a seasickness tablet. The signs in the toilets are not encouraging: IF FEELING SICK PLEASE USE THE TOILETS NOT THE HAND WASH BASIN. Or: BLOCKAGES OF SHIP’S SEWAGE SYSTEM; PASSENGERS SHOULD NOT PLACE SICK BAGS IN THE TOILETS.
I approach an assistant purser. “I’m to see the captain. He was going to get a note from Railways about me coming on board.” I offer my card.
“Don’t think he’s seeing people today—who did you say you are?” I point at the card. He phones someone up, has a quick conversation.
“Yeah, the usual stuff, full treatment, I expect.” He looks sideways at me. “I’ll get back to you,” he says.
Music has begun to play through the intercom: Riders in the Storm. A girl called Jaycie sits in the bar with truckies, having her third beer half an hour out of port. The truckies wear cowboy hats and carry cellphones. A man in a floral caftan is smoking a cigar while the drivers deal cards. A young couple who came on board in a housetruck sit nervously holding hands. They’re moving to the South Island.
“It’s like moving to another country,” the man says.
As I watch the landmarks slide by, I think of the strange story of the man in Hinau Street, Hataitai, down the road from my house, who took his dad to sea in a suitcase on board an interisland ferry. Douglas Armstrong stabbed his wife-beating father in an argument, cut him up with a skinning knife and shipped him out to sea, dropping him overboard on the way. Unfortunately for Douglas, he’d stabbed his father in the lungs, which filled up with air, floating the suitcase to the surface. The son served seven of a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. A long time ago-1938.
Then, of course, there’s the weird story of Milton Harris, the American who faked his disappearance from a ferry in 1986 in order to collect a million dollars’ worth of insurance. Another plot foiled when he was discovered intact years later north of Auckland.
Originally, the interisland service ran from Wellington to Lyttelton, as had the Wahine. It was as early as 1898 that Prime Minister Richard John Seddon first mooted a Wellington-Picton ferry, but it was not until 1962 that the Ararnoana, the first roll-on, roll-off car-rail ferry, began the run.
Today Tranz Rail runs three ships, plus a fast hydrofoil service in summer, making around 100 scheduled sailings a week. They carry 1.1 million passengers a year, 225,000 cars and more than a million tonnes of freight.
My name is called over the loud hailer system.
“We have to be careful about groupies,” the purser says when I catch up with him. Me, a groupie? Really great.
John Gordon reckons the ferry service is like a bridge on a road. “People can set their watches by the time we sail.” Fair comment. I see the ships from my window at home, and the ferries are seldom late. Gordon, ship’s master, is a big taciturn man. He began his sea life at the School of Navigation in Southampton in 47. “Worked fishing boats, then on to the Union Steam Ship Company in 1971, went ashore for five years and did accounting at Victoria, worked at Tasman Vaccine Laboratory. I patented a couple of vaccinating guns, you know. Came back to sea.” There it is, a life in a nutshell. “I hope this won’t take too long, I’m flat out today.” “Who decides when the ship goes to sea?”
“When do you decide that it’s too rough to go to sea?”
“When it’s blowing 60 knots. It only happens once or twice a year. They’re good ships.”
The ferries carry crews of around 70, mostly stewards. I get detailed off to the company of Ron Tennant, a David Lange lookalike with “Sailor’s Grave” tattooed on his forearm, and Les McMillan, a dimpled Liverpudlian. They take me to lunch in the crew’s quarters; doubtless “the full treatment.” There are red striped curtains in the galley, pink linen napkins on the table, excellent pumpkin soup and crumbed fish for lunch.
“Terrible life on the ships, terrible. Start at 6 A.M. Looks easy, doesn’t it. You don’t know the half of it. We have to do everything: clean, laundry, get rid of the rubbish—you wouldn’t believe how much—make up the bread and cake orders, and it’s still only 8 A.M. and the bar’s just about to open on the early sailing.”
Oh yeah, plenty of those, plenty of crises. “Pie-warmer breaks down—look, you hear people complaining about the pies, you want to hear them complain if there aren’t any, then the music’s too loud for some of the old people, and it’s too quiet for the ones up in the bar. Next thing you’ve got a heart attack on your hands.”
“Yeah, and there’s always babies falling out of prams. Other day, we had one fall right down the stairs, lucky it isn’t dead.”
“Oh yeah, hurt all right. Few head injuries, minor. Apoplectic fit in the movie theatre, that wasn’t so good.”
“You get crims, too. Yeah, remember that joker who had the gun the other day, out shooting seagulls on the deck.”
“You’re putting me on?”
“Nah. Guy worked in a morgue. Said he needed some light relief.”
“You are putting me on.”
“Nah. True. We arrested him. We’ve got powers of arrest, you know.”
“Is there anything you haven’t got?”
“Now you’re putting us on. You’re not going to write all this down, are you?”
A white wedge of shining gulls follows in our wake. The day has opened up: cobalt sky above, liquid turquoise below. Then we see the dolphins, a school rising and dancing on sprays of light and water—bottlenoses, going by their soft grey shadowy look. The most famous dolphin, Pelorus Jack, which used to ride alongside the Wellington-Nelson steamer through French Pass, was a rare Risso’s dolphin. How did he get there? Why did he stay? An abandoned calf perhaps, when the herd moved on. He accompanied the ships for 24 years until he disappeared in 1912. Why on earth or sea do dolphins like humans?
My companion on this journey is my husband, Ian. The ship breasts the entrance to Tory Channel, passing close to Arapawa Island. A house called “Gunyah” stands alone on a clifftop, like an eyrie. Pattie Perano’s house. The whaler’s wife used to stand on the cliff and wave a table cloth to every passing vessel. Ian misses her presence from the days when he lived on the island and her greeting welcomed him home. Gunyah looks empty and quiet.
It’s a short run through Queen Charlotte Sound in to Picton, the end of the ferry run. The bustling town of 3000, more worldly than its size suggests, has grown with the interisland service. Now that there is talk of moving the ferry terminal to Clifford Bay, south of Blenheim, many in the town are apprehensive.
Ringed by hills, the harbour is sheltered and still—more like a lake than the sea.
Enormous palm trees on the foreshore add an exotic South Pacific aura. The restoration of the Edwin Fox is a major tourist drawcard. The world’s ninth oldest ship, it is the last surviving veteran of the Crimean War, the last sailing ship to have carried settlers to New Zealand and, in a curious twist, the last surviving vessel to have carried convicts to Australia. Its trading life ended shipping New Zealand frozen meat.
New money breeds in Picton, as evidenced by the rows of pleasure craft in the boat marina. Tourist operators, mussel and salmon farmers and paua divers are the nineties millionaires.
We take afternoon tea in the lifeboat of the Mikhail Lermontov. It sits in the street beside a shopping mall. The mother ship was a 20,000-tonne Russian passenger liner, built in 1972 and given an $11 million refit shortly before it took a group of the rich and mainly elderly on their dream cruise.
They ended up in the water on February 23, 1986, at Port Gore. One died; 742 escaped in their night clothes. The cause of the disaster: unknown. Well, more or less. The boat took a wrong turn, like driving up a no-exit street. Two older women minding the Picton Museum for the afternoon are not sure of the details. They look worried when I ask. It was a big scandal. There was talk of drink. Yes, something like that, somebody was drinking when the ship foundered. All history now.
There is a display of several hundred salt cellars in the museum, a copy of the “Picton Schottische,” composed by Mrs Rudd and “respectfully dedicated to Miss M. V. Card,” old photographs of the antimony mines run by the New Zealand Antimony Company in Endeavour Inlet in the 1880s. Antimony, I learn, is a blue-grey metal used in many alloys. The mines went broke.
There is a reproduction portrait of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, after whom the Sound is named. She has heavy eyelids and bountiful fluffy white ringlets.
We set off to look over the legendary hunting grounds of the Cook Strait whalers. The sea is like stainless steel. For Ian, today is his first return to Arapawa Island after 42 years; he taught whalers’ children in a schoolroom converted out of a henhouse. We travel in Steve Ternent’s 19-foot Tsunami pontoon, designed to carry paua. Steve is a sturdily built man with powerful forearms that can pull out 600 kilograms of paua in a day. His eyes are covered by the John Lennon glasses that so many of the fishermen round here adopt. I’m given a balaclava to pull down over my ears.
Te Awaiti. They call it “Tar White”: Jackie Guard country. A sentinel group of old try-pots—huge iron cauldrons in which whale blubber was rendered down or “tried out”—mark the spot where whales were landed. Offcuts of whale vertebrae crouch amongst lilies.
Long before the Wakefields set foot in the Strait, whalers caught right whales for their oil at Te Awaiti and, later, at Port Underwood on the South Island mainland. Humpback whales used Cook Strait on their migrations from their Antarctic feeding grounds to Fiji and Tonga to breed. They, too, were pursued by men in oar-propelled wooden whaleboats, the crews armed with hand-held harpoons and lances.
In 1827, Jackie Guard, an ex-convict from the Australian penal colonies, set up a whaling station here. Described as a gigantic man with a flowing black beard, he ruled over a hellhole of danger and filth, impregnated with the stench of whale oil and arrack rum. Of such stations it was written, “if there be a Pandemonium on earth, it must be constituted by the settlement of a number of whaling gangs in the midst of a native population.”
The day has picked up, and the sun’s reflection is fragmenting in our wake as we pull in to the beach. A breeze shifts through wild rhubarb and snowdrops. A huge pile of kina (sea urchin) shells stands near the shoreline.
Michelle Adams and her kids, Chantelle and Danielle, are the only ones home when we call. Her father, John Bunt, owns Te Awaiti Seafoods factory that stands behind the house. About the size of most people’s dining rooms, it is occupied almost entirely by a large steel table.
I’d heard that the Japanese use kina (they call it um) to make sushi. “A pot of gold there?” I venture.
“We haven’t seen much gold.”
She’s cautious. “Oh, yeah. We don’t sell much to Japan. They like it 48-hour fresh, and it’s hard to get it over there inside that time frame.”
“The right sort of product?”
“Oh, yeah, firm, fine-grained texture, bright orange or yellow in colour, sweet. It’s good product.”
The total allowable catch (TAC) in the area is 150 tonnes a year, processed over a three-month period. The Adams and nine other licence-holders have divided their quota on a roughly equal basis.
“Getta couple of tonne in at once, the whole family stands round the table and shells. We’ve got a special tool, flips the shells apart, then we pack it in wooden tubs. Takes us maybe 17 hours going non-stop, get it all packed down while it’s fresh.”
“Tough on the back?”
“Kills you. You wanta die for a week.”
Yellerton Bay: around the corner, so to speak. Joe Perano, son of a migrant Italian, Giuseppe Giovanni Agostino Perano, set up another whaling dynasty, founding a shore station in Tory Channel in 1909. The Peranos’ operation was “modern”—they whaled from high-speed launches and used explosive harpoon guns. The station factory employed up to 45 men, most of whom belonged to a small tightly knit community of families such as the Heberleys, Nortons and Adams. From May to August the crews spotted whale herds from a lookout point called Angel’s Rest, taking in Cook Strait from Perano Head (formerly Wellington Head) in the north to Cape Campbell. When the humpbacks’ giveaway spouts erupted, a wild scramble down the hillside to the dinghies followed, the men rowing like fury out to the whale chasers. The record catch was in 1960, when 226 whales were harpooned.
The ruins of the whaling station huddle near the shoreline: a pile of rusting equipment, storage tanks which held over 600 tonnes of oil, pulleys, and some rust-eaten corrugated iron. We sit amongst the debris in a stream of balmy air munching sandwiches and feeding gulls, stars of rust drifting on to our hair. Trevor Norton harpooned the last whale in New Zealand waters on Tuesday, December 22, 1964. The sense of loss is palpable; generations of men and whales disappeared. For ten years, between 1978 and 1988, not a single whale was seen. Now, slowly, they are returning.
Adrian Perano, one of Ian’s old pupils, is waiting for us at the jetty. The homestead at the water’s edge is a long, low bungalow with leadlight windows and dark-stained timbers. Mighty oak trees and a rolling, manicured lawn invite a garden party. But life had been no party for the Peranos, whalers turned farmers, since the bottom fell out of farming. Adrian, Robyn and their two children are moving on. Packing cases and half-filled cartons stand in the emptying rooms. A big vase of daffodils is placed in the study overlooking the bay; family portraits have yet to be packed.
“They say farming’s picking up,” says Adrian. “Maybe on the mainland. Not here.”
In the years following Ian’s teaching stint on Arapawa, a small purpose-built school room replaced the henhouse. The cabin where Ian slept has been empty for 30 years. Wood floor, iron bed frame, kerosene lamp, less room to swing a cat than the dunny. It still looks good, he reckons. Pukeko, paradise ducks, spur-winged plovers, tui and bellbirds outside. Symphonies to wake to in the morning; who needed a radio?
“It scares me to think of leaving here,” says Robyn. “When I ring up to make appointments in town, I say its Mrs Perano of Tory Channel speaking. Soon I’ll just be Mrs Perano of Fyfe Street in Blenheim.” She turns away. “It’s hard to cope here. The loneliness—well, it just creeps up on you.”
“You’re a millionaire, aren’t you?” Adrian says to Steve. You can pick the edge in his voice. Soft black gold. Flesh.
Over at Lily Valley, Betty Rowe, a small woman with an expansive manner and an American accent, is definitely not lonely. She’s got goats, sheep, grandchildren and husband Walt for company. Her wildlife sanctuary contains not indigenous fauna but imported goats and sheep, remnants of a band which have free-ranged on the island for centuries.
A conservationist’s nightmare?
“They’ve got it all wrong,” she says. “I’ll tell you what, these are no ordinary sheep and goats. The sheep are curly-horned Spanish merinos with long trailing black coats, and the goats are believed by geneticists to be Old English milch goats, totally extinct everywhere else since 1952. That winter was so bad it wiped out the last males in the United Kingdom.”
The theory is that Captain Cook dropped the ancestors of these goats off during his travels in the late 1700s. Indeed, the characteristics of Arapawa Island goats, as pointed out by Betty, closely match descriptions of Cook’s animals: long legs, thick body, fine matted underwool coats, fringed along the back and down the hind quarters, erect ears, and high-angled horns. As if to clinch the argument, the goats kid between May and July, the Northern Hemisphere breeding season, unlike mainland goats that kid in the spring.
But if the goats are unique, so too is centuries-old forest on the island. Betty wants to save the goats; the Department of Conservation wants to save the forest. DOC reckons the two aims are incompatible.
Betty and Walt set up their 120-hectare sanctuary in 1987 to provide a haven for about 40 goats. The Rowes believe they’re making ground with the argument. They have steady streams of visitors, and the goats have been recommended in breeding circles as a sound genetic stock to improve domestic meat and fibre-producing goats.
Lately, overseas interest has provided a new focus in the battle. The Plymouth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a living museum where life in the 17th century is recreated, complete with people and animals, has bought some of the goats.
The ecological tussle has taken its toll on Betty, though. “Although I renounced my US citizenship, I understand what it means to be a minority, an introduced species in this beautiful land,” she says ruefully.
As we leave, Steve offers to call back with some paua. She flinches. “We’re to-tal vegetarians,” she says.
Riding down the Sound in a slipstream of dusky gold light, the dark pulling itself around us, the flat bottom of the pontoon goes chop chop chop against the waves. The bottom of the sea is too close for comfort.
On an acid-bright day, we float on a sea so mellow it purrs. Standing on the bridge of the ArahlI/71, Captain Adam Anderson is as urbane as Gordon was taciturn, but he’s impatient of amateurs who put to sea without taking basic safety precautions.
“These ferries are not designed for rescue work,” he says. “About the best we can do as a rule is heave to and provide protection for small craft in trouble until help arrives.”
He’s used to finding divers, fishermen and yachties in trouble. “It’s a cold sea, and hypothermia strikes very quickly. People have no idea how quickly conditions change in the Strait.”
The sea might look like dark satin, but by lunchtime on the dogleg of the journey back to Wellington the captain sees an ominous swell from the bridge—to the casual observer no more than a bulge in the ocean’s girth.
“It’ll be blowing 80 knots this time tomorrow,” Anderson declares.
Down at Lyall Bay next day, I’m enveloped in the rolling boil of the wind, clawing handholds of air in order to stand up beside the car. Marram grass has been planted in a pattern like hair transplants to stop the beach sliding into the sea, but still the sand swirls away and comes back blinding in the face.
A few days later, the sky is cracking open like an egg again. Two and a half thousand passengers are stranded by cancelled ferry crossings. Sixteen roofs lift in the night. Once the Aratika resumes sailing, it takes nearly five hours to cross from Picton to Wellington. I watch the ship through the binoculars. I’m afraid. It looks like it’s going to go over again, just like the Wahine.
Later, the papers say people screamed and threw up all the way across. Captain Gordon, stoic as ever, declared the voyage “quite comfortable and pleasant.
In the last few years fast ferries have entered the Strait, whisking passengers across in just a couple of hours, knocking an hour and a half off the conventional voyage. Big waves intimidate them a little more readily than they do the Arahura, but their speed has proved a hit. Gripping the guard rail at the back of the Lynx in the buffeting wind, you can’t help but be awed by the enormous rooster tails of churning foam. It’s like being chased by the Huka Falls.
Although the waves fanning out away behind look inconsequential, residents of the Sounds were vociferous in claims that their lives and shorelines were at risk. They talked of two-metre boulders being tossed around like pebbles in those smooth mounds of water, but since a court found insufficient evidence of damage to marine life, the issue seems to have subsided.
“I’d sit on the beach at nights, and every second house was an Italian family. If it was a beautiful night they would put the record player on after everybody had their tea—spaghetti, fried tomatoes, you know—and they would sit out on their fences in little groups all along the street, playing records, ‘Come Back to Sorrento,’ all those old songs.”
The personalised plate of Carl Muollo’s BMW spells CARL in big letters. He is a thickset man wearing a gold chain at his throat, and he owns the San Antonino cray-and line-fishing boat, always anchored close inshore to Tapu-te-Ranga Island at Island Bay. He was the first fisherman to catch hold in the Strait, he reckons.
There used to be 40 or 50 boats in the bay; now there are eight or so. Muollo’s father came from Paolo, Italy, in 1922, followed by four brothers.
“The Delabarcas and the Meos came, the Volpicellis and the Grecos, before that the Cricillos and the Barnaos. There were fishermen from Sorrento, the Isle of Capri, from Stromboli, Sicily and Palermo. The foreshore was their boatyard. We settled in alongside the Shetland Islanders. Great fishermen. We all got along pretty well.”
The immigrants had plenty to learn. “They were used to small fishing sardines, anchovies, little tuna. They fished with lanterns at night. All things they had to unlearn when they came to Cook Strait. You got to note that there is a lot of bad water out there in Cook Strait.” Carl recalls his father passing a fishing boat that was having trouble with its motor. “He called out to them, ‘Are you okay?’ Yeah,’ they called back, and he carried on. Next minute he looked back, and the boat was gone, never to be seen again. That was how fast the southerly came up on them.” Four crewmen were lost, and the wreckage of the Santini, was strewn along the shore.
“You have to know where to go through the water,” says Carl, “where to pass, the way the tide is moving. Sometimes the sea can be as big as mountains, and maybe you have to pass right in by the rocks, even though the waves are breaking over them. It is all charted in my head, you know.”
Cook strait swimmers need a fisherman’s knowledge of the water. I talk to Philip Rush, who has made seven of the 36 crossings since Barrie Devenport’s epic swim in 1963. Philip was the first to make a double crossing (16 hours, 16 minutes, in 1984). A fireman now, he coaches other swimmers.
–The tides and weather have to be exactly right, in conjunction with each other, so there can be a gap of years between swims. Swimmers need to tackle the water at low tide when there’s less water going through the Strait, and a wind speed of preferably 10 knots and not more than 15. A pilot boat follows at a distance and the trainer accompanies the swimmer closer in an inflatable boat, feeding them, keeping them on course, giving encouragement and keeping eye contact. There are so many variables: the wind, the pilot’s ability, the swimmer, the tide, marine life, like stingrays and jellyfish.”
On February 5, 1994, Myra Williamson, a 19-year-old student, swims Cook Strait north to south in 8 hours 1 minute with a 20-knot southerly blowing. Great swim. She makes me think of girl-wonder Meda McKenzie streaking backwards and forwards across the Strait, as if she was taking a taxi, when she was 15, back in 1978, the toast of the country.
Philip marvels at the dolphins that frequently appear and accompany the swimmers “It’s as if they are saying, ‘How are you doing there? What’s your problem?’ And, you know, it’s quite an emotional time, and when they are there, you feel safe. Once I had a white pointer shark hanging round, and these dolphins just led it down the aisle, right out to sea.”
Cook Strait infiltrates life on the seaward fringes of Wellington. A woman wearing a pink apron, hair down to her waist, wanders across the road at Island Bay and sits on a rock. Two gangsters in three-piece suits stroll along in the spring sunshine, followed by a woman in a red-and-yellow turban, talking into a cellphone, and a Middle Eastern terrorist.
A film crew follows them into the Brass Monkey café. You can see the snowcapped Kaikouras of the South Island, ferries pass each other going in opposite directions, a container ship is guided out to sea by red tugboats and the Island Princess melts into a blue and gold horizon. This is a good place for watching flaring marigold sunsets fall into the sea. A reckless scatter of the wild flowers which tangle all over Wellington’s hills grows around the patio.
A young man balances on the seawall, spray swirling around him, a plate of pasta in one hand, cellphone under his chin.
“Location? Location,” he says. “Follow the road through Island Bay towards Red Rocks where the seals hang out. The Brass Monkey. Yeah, I reckon that’s where we are. It’s round by Cook Strait anyway.”
Breaker Bay, a few dents around towards Wellington, is where you can find Ray Ahipene-Mercer, environmental campaigner, believer. “Nobody can take away what’s in here,” he says, touching his heart lightly. A slight, almost frail man, he makes his living making guitars—mellow, slim-throated, deep-bodied creatures like living things. Collectors’ pieces. “The devil music got me young,” he says, referring to his days on the road with such bands as Led Zeppelin, UB 40 and Rom-Music, looking after their guitars.
As an honorary fisheries officer, he patrols the coast for paua poachers. He reckons he catches fewer than 10 per cent of the offenders, but puts thousands of paua back in the water. He’s been beaten up for his trouble.
Being Ngai Tara is “a very good reason for living right here,” keeping an eye on things, he says. The waterfront is the width of the road from his front door. “My ancestors fished around the corner at Moa Point. They wouldn’t believe it’s been turned into the bloody toilet of Wellington. There’s 54 million litres of sewage a day getting poured in there. This tide of human filth sweeping in—look at it, the waves are yellow, they have to put up signs to warn people off swimming and fishing. And the City Council takes tourist buses around there. Would you take your visitors to look at the lavatory?”
Plans have been on the drawing-board for years to create a new sewerage scheme. The Wellington City Council has decided to retain Moa Point as the site for a treated sewage system, while locals have been fighting for a scheme at the mouth of the remote Karori Stream. The arguments have meandered for years between the Planning Tribunal and the courts.
“My dream is that I’ll live long enough for the beach to be clean enough for me to hold a party there for all the people who believe in what I’m doing,” he says.
He’s happier about his and partner Fiona Malcolm’s efforts to guard the small shambling band of blue penguins nesting across the road. They are responsible for the first official bilingual road sign in the country—”SLOW DOWN! PENGUINS CROSSING. KIA TUPATO! HE KORORA E WHITI ANA.”
Ray keeps a dead penguin in his freezer with the plastic waste from a six-pack of beer wrapped around its neck. In summer, school groups come to visit and he shows them the evidence of harm done by litter. The kids sit on the picnic area beside the sea and Fiona dresses up as Penny the Penguin for the small children. They talk about marine life and how to look after the environment. It’s progress, but never enough. The kids listen, but do the authorities? “I mean, this is a traditional nesting site for the penguins, yet we have a road that goes through the middle of it. The struggle goes on, you see.”
Across the harbour mouth stands the skeletal finger of Pencarrow Lighthouse. Mary Jane Bennett made history here as the only woman lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. George White Bennett and Mary Jane had guided ships through the entrance by a light from their cottage window until George was tipped out of a dinghy in 1855 and drowned. When a lighthouse—the first in the country—was built on the clifftop in 1858, Mary Jane took the job intended for her husband. But low cloud often obscured the light, and in 1906 the current lighthouse was built on the rocks below. A half-dozen lighthouses dot the Strait and Sounds, not counting the one built at Island Bay by a man as a surprise home for his wife.
Harsh winds sweeping over a shallow coating of sandy soil have created a moonscape around Baring Head. Nonetheless, Christine Curran has managed to create a garden she calls L’Amour, after American frontier novelist Louis Dearborn L’Amour. “I come out day and night and turn that hose on, often till one o’clock in the morning, watering by starlight, pumping water from the Orongorongo River.” The Currans have nine children, and times have been hard. The garden wins prizes, has appeared on television, brings busloads of tourists, helps pull in a living. Curran never takes anything for granted. “That huge, vast emptiness demands attention. On those rare still days when the Strait is like glass I find myself scared to breathe for fear I’ll disturb the stillness, or perhaps that the wind will see it as an invitation to get up to its tricks.”
Writer Yvonne du Fresne, descended from Danish/French Huguenot settlers, dsecribed finding her amour in the gaunt allure of Makara, to the west of Wellington, one Saturday morning in the 1960s. “The sky had sparse, wind-combed fleeces of cloud, and the sea was so blue when I stood in it that I actually looked to see if my skin was “This is the place, I said. There must be a house. And there was, in time—a small, warm, strong house on a hill overlooking the sea. It was built the same year I was born, so that must be a sign, I said. Every morning I sit in my sun-porch, pen at the ready, eyes narrowed to filch yet more writing material from the endless treasure of this region.”
Now ECNZ is interested in harnessing the abundant wind on nearby Quartz Hill Farm with 40-80 turbines in what may become the region’s first wind farm. It could produce up to 10 per cent of Wellington’s electricity needs, although local opposition to the scheme, based on the noise of the thrashing rotors, is running high.
Poachers, too, seek to draw from Makara’s bounty, though nobody here is keen to talk about them. MAF officer Mike Beardsall tells me that Cook Strait is heavy-duty villain territory for poachers, people who have graduated from drugs and who tote guns, strip paua beds and sell their illegal catch, inventing ingenious ways to ship the booty out to Asia. On one occasion a whole container load of paua was concealed by a single layer of Wattie’s peas. The illegal catch is equal to the value of legal fishing in Cook Strait, he estimates.
Well, we don’t know about that, people say, when you ask around Makara. They would rather tell you about how Lady Bledisloe used to come for her Sunday walks and twirl her parasol in the 1920s.
The planes roar overhead in the mornings when I talk to Lauris Edmond on the phone. We count. About five seconds and the noise reaches her place. Gaps in a conversation.
The first plane crossed Cook Strait on August 25, 1920. Captain Euan Dickson left Sockburn, near Christchurch, at 7 A.M., in an Avro 504K biplane. A crowd got word of the flight when he stopped to refuel at Kaikoura; they gathered to offer tea and cakes.
Climbing away to 6000 feet, he dropped again to a farm near Blenheim, guided in by the smoke of a fire which had been lit to show him the way. He landed at Trentham Racecourse at 4.40 P.M. with five minutes’ worth of fuel to spare. In Parliament, Prime Minister Bill Massey stopped proceedings to announce the arrival. “The feat,” wrote the leader writer in the New Zealand Times, “is to New Zealand what Bleriot’s flight over the English Channel was to the aviation of the whole world.”
Air New Zealand and Soundsair operate commercial flights over the Strait now. None of them are large planes. My friend Veetie says that she gets in the plane and starts to cry. “I look at my Italian leather boots and hope that somebody will still be able to use them when they pull me out of the water,” she says.
It’s late winter when I fly over the Strait in a Metroliner. The sky is filled with dark scrambled nimbus, a weird buttermilk light leaking over the waves, Arapawa a dark inkspot dividing Tory Channel from French Pass. Cook Strait as far as the eye can see. We perform lurching jolts and fresh kick-starts into the wind. I lift off from my seat like ejection from an air trainer.
“Keep your seat belts fastened all the way, we’re heading into considerable turbulence, temperature in Wellington eight degrees.” Gale strength and rising.
Journeys, journeys, backwards and forwards across a body of water. This one is all right. The connection made; the link holds.