D’Urville’s forgotten island
Time moves slowly on d’Urville Island, but the ebb and flow of human endeavours on mainland New Zealand is catching up with this isolated outpost of the Marlborough Sounds.
May between Nelson’s Tasman Bay and the Marlborough Sounds lies d’Urville Island—literally, an island cast between two shores. Fierce tidal flows, rocks, hidden reefs, and a fickle weather pattern alternating between the extremes of Cook Strait and Tasman Bay have traditionally isolated the island. But, more than geography, it has been the indomitable independence and self-sufficiency of its inhabitants over the past 100 years that has enabled d’Urville to keep its distance from mainland New Zealand.
Ironically, that distance is more metaphorical than fact: d’Urville is barely an island at all, separated by a channel less than a kilometre wide from outer Pelorus Sound. But it is not just any kilometre of water. It is a kilometre of “seething sheets” of water in which “whirlpools of incredible violence” occur, as the French admiral Jules Sebastian Cesar Dumont d’Urville and the crew of his corvette Astrolabe found out in January 1827.
While seeking passage inside the island and coming perilously close to destruction several times, d’Urville finally scraped Astrolabe through Passe de Francais (French Pass) in memorable fashion, striking the reef that partially blocked its width and laying his ship on its side.
It was the art of exploration at its most forgettable. D’Urville despaired of that “sinister basin” in which “the everlasting west wind raged”, and urged that “except in the case of emergency I should not advise anyone to attempt it”.
Of the island which had been a brooding presence upon his left throughout that week of travail, and which, upon the urging of his officers, was to be named after him, d’Urville wrote: “It is lofty and mountainous throughout its whole extent, the coast is gloomy, very steep, and wild on the west side looking towards Tasman Bay; but it has a much less forbidding aspect on the side facing Admiralty Bay; there are even a few attractive spots.”
D’Urville’s description was a good one. The imposing sea cliffs of the west coast testify to the strong and often prolonged westerly gales that regularly lash the island, and the high mountainous backbone lends a daunting aspect to the island. Nevertheless, d’Urville’s assessment of the island as a whole was unfair. If he had only penetrated the barrier of the sea, he could have discovered an island of infinite charm and potential, and many, many attractive spots.
The Maori had long known this. To them the island was Rangitoto (red or blood-coloured sky) or, more fully, Rangitoto ki to tonga (Rangitoto of the south), and it offered sheltered harbours, good fishing and, in particular, valuable stone resources.).
Similarly, to latter-day New Zealanders who abandon city comforts and “go down to the Sounds” year after year, d’Urville Island has much to offer: an expanse of native bush free from the ravages of possums; pure stands of kohekohe in flower, and rare native mistletoes; marine vistas of resplendent beauty; the promise of a day’s fishing, hunting or diving; quiet havens for the cruising boat; and glimpses of a unique, unfettered rural existence largely free from urban complications.
But not free from economic concerns. In that regard, d’Urville Island has seen better times. Last century, as many as 600 Maori lived and prospered on the island, but a general exodus around 1890 saw only a handful remain, and large blocks of the 16,376-hectare island were leased or sold to settlers. To European eyes, the potential for development seemed obvious: the island’s central location, with a flourishing coastal trade and daily Nelson-Wellington steamer using French Pass, made it accessible indeed. Around the turn of the century, a wave of interest and speculation from farmers, fishermen and Wellington entrepreneurs saw land reach up to three pounds an acre—more highly priced than many North Island areas.
However, the certainties of farming and fishing that sustained the island during most of this century have now gone. Today, only four of d’Urville’s 50 or so inhabitants are fishermen, and only four large-scale farming operations continue. A rapid creep of scrub advances over hillsides once cleared for pasture, and former homes of those who supported themselves by fishing have been reclaimed by the inexorable tide of change.
Still, it is the lives of d’Urville’s farmers that are most entwined with its colonial history, and nowhere is this more so than in the generations of the Moleta family who have successfully farmed 2011 hectares on northern d’Urville for almost 100 years.
In 1897, Antonino Moleta, his brother Salvatore and a friend were landed at Old Man Head (now Moleta Point) with 150 sheep, and began carving a farm out of the forested hillsides, leasing and later purchasing the land from the local Maori owners. They had emigrated from Stromboli, a waterless active island volcano north of Sicily, six years earlier. It was one of those cyclical turns of fate that found them adopting as home a new and altogether different island on the other side of the world.
Using profits from fishing, the Moleta brothers employed large teams of bushfellers (the largest involved 90 men) to clear the land. They were a tough breed. Armed only with an axe, each man could chop out three-quarters of an acre of thick bush a day. six days a week. Massive burn-offs would follow, lighting up the night sky so brightly that “ships coming from Australia would see all this light and think they’d come to the wrong place.”
One steamer, the Red Pine, did, in fact, go to the wrong place, striking the Saddle Rocks of Cape Stephens in 1925. At the court of enquiry the master told of navigating through the thick fog by discerning the bush fires on d’Urville.
In 1899, Salvatore Moleta died of pneumonia on his way back to Italy to complete his military training. (At that time, Italian migrants were obliged to undertake a compulsory two-year stint in the armed services.) Another brother, Vincenzo, sailed out to take his place. Six more years of back-breaking toil followed before their thoughts finally turned to wives. Vincenzo, now 32, returned to Stromboli to collect his sweetheart—who was by then the ripe and marriageable age of 16—plus a bride for his brother as well. Antonino and Rosa married the day she arrived in Wellington, never having met before.
Life on d’Urville was hard for the women, cut off so suddenly from friends and relatives back home. The eldest sons of both families died young—cruel blows that were magnified by the isolation. Antonino and Rosa raised nine other children; Vincenzo and Angelina a modest three.
Today, the youngest of Antonino’s sons, Bartolomeo (Bob), now aged 63, owns and runs the farm with the help of his two sons, Matthew and BJ, and one shepherd. The strong attachment to the land remains, betrayed in Bob’s inordinate youthfulness and the enthusiasm with which he bounds around the farm. It is a pride born of hard-won toil, and of resilience in the face of isolation, economic change, and often diabolical weather.
The Moleta farm is named Waitai, literally meaning “water salt”—a direct reference to the wild conditions that often envelop this part of the island. “We get all the wind, northerly and southerly,” says Bob. Southerly storms sweep in from Cook Strait, bringing great seas crashing on to their beach and blowing salt spray over the farm. Cyclone Bola was so bad that they almost lost their house. Northerly conditions don’t bring the sea, but they are not much better. “Colossal nor’westers come down the valley here and shake the house. They are just as strong as the southerlies.” Some days, Bob says, the winds are so strong that the stock have trouble keeping on their feet.
D’Urville Island may well be classed as marginal farming country these days, with its maritime location, foul weather, steep contours and unstable soil, but, reckons Bob, farming now is easier than it once was, particularly with the advent of roads and a barging service.
“I used to spend up to three years at a time on the island when I was young,” says Bob. “Now my sons think it’s too long if they spend a month here without going to town.”
Matthew, for example, keeps a car at French Pass settlement. By driving from the farm to Kapowai wharf and then taking a boat to French Pass, he can be in Nelson in three-and-a-half hours, regardless of weather. In the old days, given the right weather, it was a 90-kilometre trip by boat to Nelson. Even so, says Matthew, once a month is not often enough to be flitting around the bright lights and nightclubs of Nelson.
D’Urville’s roads may have provided better access for its residents, but they are no paved highways. Four-wheel-drive remains the standard transport around the island, and it is a jarring 25-kilometre drive across the hills to Owhai Bay and the King farm.
Spreading out from the southern entrance to Greville Harbour, Owhai farm is a 1550-hectare property owned by the King family. Guy King had never heard of d’Urville Island until he met Gillian Woodman at Massey University. Her family ran the property at the time, and, together, they came to live there 17 years ago.
Wool is the main source of income, but the Kings sell stock as well, running a Perendale stud. A well-pruned forestry block and a thriving deer herd show recent diversification, and, as if this weren’t enough to keep him busy, Guy also dives for paua part time to supplement the family income.
“It is healthy, strong country,” Guy says, “but it is also a hard place to farm.” Five or six times a year the barge from Havelock will make the long trip to their farm, bringing supplies and taking off stock
“You have to be organised,” Guy says. “You have to know what you need and when you will need it. You can’t do fencing if there’s no fencing material here. The sea is an extra hurdle, there’s no doubt about that. But still, we choose to be here.”
It costs about $3 per lamb and $13 per calf to transport stock to Havelock, making d’Urville one of the most expensive places in the country to farm, in terms of freight. The isolation also leads to extra expense when hiring seasonal labour or doing topdressing, and there are high maintenance demands, with a continuous battle being fought against rust on both machinery and fencing. There are rewards, however: the stock is largely disease-free, and the mild climate permits year-round grass growth.
For the Kings, the greatest reward is the pleasure of living as they do, in a homestead looking out on a rugged break in the sea cliffs, from which Greville Harbour begins its long passage inland, burrowing into the centre of the island and ending in the sheltered and bush-clad coves of Mill and Punt Arm. Apart from the occasional fishing boat and the trickle of holidaymakers during the summer months, it is a view they usually have to themselves.
Soaking in autumn sunshine and eating freshly caught blue cod and paua—caught almost as easily as one plucks a lettuce from out of the garden—it is easy to imagine this is some kind of paradise. “Lots of people say they could easily live here when they arrive in perfect weather and spend an idyllic day here,” says Gillian King. “But I know they couldn’t. They forget about the storms, the long, cold winter days and the hard work.”
Gillian, who was brought up on the farm and is a fourth-generation islander, has deep feelings about the island: “There’s something special about it here that holds me and makes it more than a place to live and to make a living. A sense of belonging to the land. I feel privileged and proud to live here.”
Young families are rare on the island now, and Gill is one of only two mothers teaching her children by Correspondence School. “I really enjoy it. Starting off was difficult—my heart was still out in the hills. But now I wouldn’t hand over the primary schooling to anyone, particularly because the children enjoy it and do so well.”
Life for her three children is different from her own upbringing at Owhai. “I saw far less of people when I was a child, because there were no roads,” she says. “When people did get together they made huge efforts to do so.” Now, despite improved access, community gatherings are few and far between, and Gill believes this is due to the lack of families. “The lack of children can deaden the community a bit—I think it’s sad that so few families are left on the island.”
One d’Urville resident who is no stranger to isolation is Ross Webber. In 1957, Webber, a young farm worker, was casting around for a small farm to buy, and ended up with an island.
Puangiangi Island, a narrow backbone of hills rising sharply out of the sea one kilometre off the northeastern coast of d’Urville Island, was not quite what he had imagined.
“My dream was to have a small farm on the mainland, not an island,” he explains. “But this was all I could afford. No-one wanted islands in those days.”
Times have changed. Nowadays Ross is living as others can only dream: the dream of having an island to oneself, of becoming a modern-day Robinson Crusoe.
Indeed, 38-hectare Puangiangi is a veritable little island kingdom. From the highest point one can look north and see Stephens Island, south into Admiralty Bay and French Pass, and then across to the outer reaches of the Marlborough Sounds in the east. On clear days one can even glimpse Mt Egmont and Ruapehu in the distance.
“Lots of people have offered to buy the island,” Ross says. “Rich people seem to like the idea. Once I got a letter from a millionaire, or a bloke who thought he was a millionaire, who reckoned that he would more than match any price that I had been offered. The price was just nothing—no worries at all. I suppose he thought he was Aristotle Onassis. Actually I bought this island before Onassis bought his, and I had my boat before he had his. He was copying me.”
Even if purchasing the island was not the fulfilment of Webber’s thoroughly pragmatic dream, he has, in his 35 years here, made it his home, and in doing so has created for himself a unique life. He exists in a way that must be the envy of many city folk, besieged as they are by work and family demands, fraught with tension, despairing of car registration fees and the latest supermarket bills. “Actually,” says Ross, “I’ve never been in a supermarket. Never even seen a shopping trolley.”
When Ross moved to Puangiangi it was a burnt-off and ill-kempt place, being run as an adjunct to a larger farming operation on the mainland. Living in what is now his tiny woolshed, he spent his early years building a house for himself, grubbing tauhinu and improving the land. The island was soon able to carry 250 Romney sheep, which Ross blade-sheared himself, sending the clip into town by boat.
For the first 12 years he supplemented his income—and diet—by fishing, using a 21-foot boat he brought to the island.
Those early days could be lonely. “Sometimes I would go for quite long spells without seeing anyone,” he says, and the weather could get very wild. (By one translation, Puangiangi means “to be exposed to the wind”). However, Ross had his boat, and kept a truck at French Pass, and thus was able to head for town whenever he needed or wanted to.
With the passage of time, Ross has become more and more adapted to island life, and now leads an almost wholly self-contained existence. He even gave his boat away recently—”I didn’t use it very often and it was a hassle to look after.” In fact, Ross Webber hasn’t visited the mainland in 16 years.
“There are so many things to think about here that I don’t even think about going away these days.” Shopping is done by mail order or by a phone call to the general store at Rai Valley. The mail boat calls every Tuesday, and drops off the few supplies Ross needs. And Ross requires very little. He grows all his own vegetables, has an extensive orchard, and brews a great line of beer and wine. Breakfast starts with plucking leaves from the tea bush in the back yard. Until his kiln collapsed a few years ago, he even made his own pottery.
Once a month or so he snipers off a sheep, cuts all the meat off and salts and sun-dries it into biltong. “Fat of the land,” he says, pointing to a bowl of mutton fat, his standard culinary companion.
Ross has no health worries. “I’ve never had a day off in my working life due to sickness,” says this spry 62-year-old. “The last time I had a stethoscope on me was when I had my compulsory military service check-up when I was 21.” Removal of his teeth in the early days of island life means that he never has to worry about toothache. He even cuts his own hair, using one hand as a comb to get it all the same length.
Previously, Ross had a diesel generator, and later experimented with home-made windmills, but now relies on a solar panel for his electrical needs. He eats no dairy products, and so has no need for a fridge, and does his cooking on an old wood stove.
In deference to modernity, however, he did decide to get a phone connected in 1986. The former Post Office flew a helicopter to his island to install a microwave repeater station and lay a phone cable to his house—all for a cost of $100. Ross is sure he got in just in time. To get that single telephone line installed under today’s user-pays regime would cost thousands of dollars.
This knack of timing things right saw Ross begin drawing the pension two years ago—just in time to watch wool prices take a heavy fall. These days he runs just 80 sheep, and plans to fence off the ends of the island to allow regeneration of native bush.
The pension hints at a new level of indulgence for Ross: he recently traded in his 12-volt black-and-white television for a new colour model. He finds he now has more time to pursue his leisure interests and to entertain visitors. And, increasingly, more and more of the world is coming to Puangiangi—some, perhaps, out of curiosity, but many out of envy and admiration of his unique way of life.
But they may as well save their offers to buy. There are no suggestions that Ross Webber will be abandoning his island for a while.
Phyllis Aston, who moved to Ngamuka Bay opposite French Pass with her husband Pat in 1948, has weathered many changes on the island. She has raised nine children on the island, with all the trials that entailed in a place then without roads, power and proper health facilities. In fact, her first child was born on a boat en route to Nelson Hospital.
The changes have been good and bad, she says. The telephone, electricity and an improved mail service are improvements, “but I could do without the road quite happily”. Phyllis, who has never owned a car, says that the road has destroyed the community spirit on the island. “People now go to town for social occasions and sport, whereas we used to have regular district meetings and picnics here. Prior to the road no-one went to Nelson without enquiring whether anyone else needed anything. People are not so reliant on one another now.”
“We never felt we were isolated or deprived then, because everyone was in the same situation. And I certainly don’t think we are isolated now. We are only two hours from Nelson, and we can get a helicopter in cases of emergencies and accidents.”
With no road coming to their house, dinghies and launches are the main form of transport. “We seem to spend half our lives with our pants rolled up round our knees,” she jokes, helping put our dinghy back into the tide.
Of her nine children, only her youngest son, Craig, has chosen to live on the island—as much out of devotion to the sea as for any other reason. “I could make more money as a fisherman elsewhere,” Craig says, “but I just like the island. Also, the type of fishing that I do here attracts me—it’s real fishing, working a small boat around the coast. But here you make a living only. It’s a lifestyle, I suppose.
“Besides, I don’t like town. I hate being a number, queuing up to go to the bank or to get food. You just get claustrophobic. I go there once a month.”
As a fisherman, he feels an economic pinch similar to that which farmers have been feeling, and which was unknown in former times. The quota system has hit small fishermen like him hard, and there has been a notable decrease in fish stocks since his father’s time. Only two of d’Urville’s fishermen work the island now, whereas there used to be up to 16 boats. In addition, they have to compete against the many recreational and charter boats that head for the island as fish stocks elsewhere in the Sounds decline.
Times are certainly changing. “Easter is chaos. Everyone’s got boats these days, plus they have depth sounders and fish finders and radios. Twelve years ago it was never like that. Now you can count 40 boats in a weekend.”
As a back-up to his fishing, Craig does the weekly mail run around Admiralty Bay, delivering the mail by boat to residents along the east coast of d’Urville and across to the Pelorus side of the bay. It is one of those unique services that still operates at a friendly, personal level, where there is always time to spare for a chat.
It is in these interactions that the genial ambience of life on New Zealand’s fifth largest island is most strongly felt. Whatever anxiety is detectable in the lives and faces of d’Urville Islanders—if it exists at all—is an anxiety about the island’s future.
The innate conservatism of such a place means that change comes hard for the islanders. Whispers of plans for tourism, for extensive forestry plantations, for marine farms, for alternative forms of farming, can all be heard among conversations at the end of wharves and at farm gates, but most common of all are discussions about those people coming to the island, those newcomers, with new ideas.
Islanders well realise that with a decline in population and in their economic base from the heady days of farming, felling, fishing and milling, then some further development needs to take place if services are to be maintained and remain affordable. At best, those services are tenuous anyway—the d’Urville Island road has only been open since 1967, and electricity did not reach the island until 1975, and both require expensive maintenance. In addition, the regular launch service between French Pass and Kapowai wharf, the weekly mail run and the role of the district health nurse will never be immune from review.
Successive local authorities have ensured that little subdivision or extra building has taken place on the island. Guy King regrets seeing once productive farms reverting to scrub. “It’s not only seeing all that hard work go down the drain, it’s the pressure it puts on existing services,” he says. Former economic blocks become a holiday retreat or simply a place to live for new owners. These blocks would have once shared the cost of the barge, for example, and now it is more expensive for those left.
Among the new people who have appeared on the island, trickling through the cracks in the island’s traditionally hermetic seal, have been some seeking economic opportunity, but most have been “lifestylers”—people whose primary concern is to achieve a certain quality of life.
It is into such a category that Pip and Jeanette Aplin fall. Living on a small, sheltered section of land in Kupe Bay, on the western side of the island, their intentions are betrayed by the ordered appearance of the property. Gone is the typical Sounds sprawl of nets, fishing baskets, upturned dinghies and rusting tin sheds spreading down towards the sea. Rather, their home is nestled into native bush and surrounded by gardens, curios, and the unmistakable evidence of aesthetic intent.
The Aplins’ progression to this island came after working as lighthouse keepers on Dog Island, in Foveaux Strait, and on Stephens Island, d’Urville’s better-known neighbour to the north.
“It’s here that we feel comfortable,” says Jeanette. “We love the bush and have always liked the rugged life and adventuring spirit. Besides, we couldn’t afford to have such a lovely place like this any closer to civilisation.
“Our skills as lighthouse keepers gradually developed as do-it-yourself skills, and this is the sort of life where those skills are most useful. If we went to town they would be a bit wasted.”
In fact, it is those skills that pay the bills. Pip describes himself as a professional odd-jobs man. “Anything for a dollar, basically.” He looks after a neighbouring small farm for an absentee landowner, repairs boats, paints houses and acts as the local Telecom repair man.
The Aplins’ is an adaptation par excellence to island life, but then, they were also supremely well-prepared. Many others have come and gone, some finding that the economic opportunity they sought has not been open to them, others finding that island life is not what it is cracked up to be.
Each time is a reminder—as Dumont d’Urville discovered 165 years ago—that the island remains challenging, both in its isolation and its geography.