The end of the rainbow
Hidden amongst mountains in the north-west corner of the South Island, Golden Bay has always been isolated—beautiful, quaint, but a back eddy from the main stream of life. In an age of pervasive market forces and economic recession, how is the Bay faring?
As soon as I settled into that old sofa at the Collingwood motor camp, I knew I was doomed. Within seconds, small, gleeful, insistent prods forced my gaze to acknowledge the wretched poster on the wall. “Take a kid fishing,” it beamed.
I grimaced. Hadn’t I spent enough time already this holiday dicing putrid fragments of decomposing bait, changing hooks, unravelling lines, to say nothing of liberating our biggest catch—the seagull?
Apparently not, for in no time at all I was standing on the bank of the Aorere river as my young charges did battle with . . . cockabullies.
On this summer’s evening, at least, the river looked peaceful. Yet up in the old Collingwood cemetery more than one tombstone was inscribed, “Drowned while attempting to cross the Aorere”. W. E. Washbourne, an early pioneer in the district, ascribed his longevity to an inability to swim, meaning he was never tempted to tackle swollen rivers.
Many died that way, and not just pakeha. Back at the Parapara River, Maori claimed it was a taniwha that stole people away. Still, the rivers were central to the shaping of Golden Bay. They gnawed at the entrails of mountains, wearing them down to build fertile valley floors and the wide, soft beaches which sprawl around the Bay.
Mountains, cast from a pot-pourri of minerals unequalled in the country, beckon in abundant rain. The enfolding sea keeps the climate mild. As if in gratitude, tender broadleafs from the north, as well as those ancient, shining warriors of the cold, the beech, festoon the slopes with a rare wealth of plant variety, and provide homes for many a bird and beast, including magnificent carnivorous snails, the great spotted kiwi, lizards, bats and our largest spider, the 13cm Nelson cave spider.
Above the tree line, gardens of subtle alpine plants garnish the fractured rocks of the summits. Most of the mountains and forests of Golden Bay are included within the North West Nelson Forest Park, a wilderness area second only to Fiordland National Park in size.
Despite its enormity, there are not many access points into the park from Golden Bay—best known is the Heaphy Track, which attracts 35004000 visitors each year. The terrain here is obstinate and unforgiving. It has spawned names like Kill Devil Creek, Dragon’s Teeth, Devil’s Dip Saddle, Kill Devil Spur, Rheumatic Creek, the Drunken Sailors and Break Me Up Creek.
To the east, a second major reserve, the Abel Tasman National Park, is more placable. The coastal areas are granite, whose weathered minerals give rise to the golden sands for which this part of the Bay is famous.
Here, too, is the place where four of Abel Tasman’s men were killed by hostile Maori while rowing between Tasman’s two ships, the Heemskirck (60 tons) and Zeehan (100 tons), on December 19, 1642. Tasman, who was seeking water, named the spot Murderers Bay, and sailed on. Bucking up the west coast of the North Island, his ships were unable to land anywhere, and he had to continue to Tonga for water. A memorial to his ill-fated visit stands on a cliff near the old cement works.
Further inland, the mountains turn to marble. Here, over eons, whispering streams have hewn secret caverns and passages deep under ground. The most famous of these, Harwood’s Hole, is a yawning maw which could swallow city tower blocks with ease. To stand on the edge is to feel the mountain sucking you into its gigantic throat. At one time a river plunged down this marble plughole, but gradually the water sank down less obvious places in the porous rock back towards its source. Now the Hole is dark and silent. Throw a stone in and you’ll count seven seconds before you hear its faint impact a hundred or more metres below.
At about the point where the Pikikiruna Range becomes the Arthur Range, Highway 60, the only route into Golden Bay, coils its way over the summit of what is known locally as Takaka Hill. It is an impressive road, flanked by sentinels of fluted grey marble and twisted into a number of exhilarating hairpins. One of these, Eureka Bend, is said to have derived its name from the joyous shout of carriage drivers who negotiated it in a single turn.
The road was officially opened in January, 1888, and the crossing by buggy took five-and-a-half hours, one way. It was never an easy route, and even today snow and rain, those taniwha of the atmosphere, take their share of vehicular prey.
In winter, 1990, torrential rain caused 80 slips on the eastern side of Takaka Hill, swallowing parts of the road and isolating Golden Bay for a week. But the Bay is used to isolation, and was well populated long before the road went through.
Settlers had first been drawn to the lush valleys by the promise of abundant, accessible timber. Indeed, the first pakeha activity in Golden Bay was boat-building at the mouth of the Aorere, using trees the river had plucked as booty in its wild campaign against the land. (Locals still race to claim good logs washed down the river during the floods.)
Two boats were completed by a builder named Rolfe: the Elisa, of 11 tons and the Erin, of something over 20 tons. They were drily described as “in form such as probably prevailed about the time of the subsidence of the waters on Mt Ararat”.
In 1857, gold transformed the Bay, and changed its name for good. The discovery was in the Aorere catchment, and it resulted in New Zealand’s first gold rush. Within little more than a year, the embryonic settlement where Collingwood now stands had grown from two tents to a township boasting seven hotels and a handful of stores.
Plans were drawn up in England for a substantial town to be sited on elevated terraces east of the present settlement. Unfortunately, by the time bureaucracy had finished determining the shape of Collingwood, the peak of the gold rush had passed, and the only part of the town that came to fruition was the cemetery. Even there, the ground proved so stony that a more penetrable site was soon chosen.
Meanwhile, the settlers ignored the district scheme and stayed down at the river mouth in an area known as Gibbstown, after its first settler. Now, after 130 years of waxing and waning—including frequent fires and fleeting consideration as the country’s capital—Collingwood cheerfully hangs on, a congregation of buildings old and new, a small jetty up the river and, further away again, the area school and a tidy little hospital.
It remains the second commercial centre of Golden Bay, and traditionally has serviced a sparse, far flung rural community. Photographs of the town 100 years ago could almost be mistaken for today, despite practically every building having been replaced! Somehow, in Collingwoodindeed, in all of Golden Bay—the past and present intermingle more comfortably than in most places.
The uncharitable claim that Golden Bay is 20 years behind the rest of the country. Wasn’t it only after World War Two that Collingwood chose Saturday for its half holiday for shops to be closed? Until then, Wednesday had been the day, and weekends didn’t exist here. In Collingwood I received my first sixpence and florin in years, as change.
Over recent decades, tourism has made a useful contribution to the local economy. Transport can be organised to the famous Heaphy Track from Collingwood, so many hikers spend a few nights at the friendly little motor camp here. Popular tours to Farewell Spit leave from Paddy Gillooly’s garage on the main street, and the Scenic Mail Run, a typical example of local enterprise, picks up its passengers in town as well.
Spring brings the whitebaiters to freeze in Golden Bay’s streams and rivers. Small sleep-outs inhabited by rodents for the rest of the year are taken over by fishermen whose annual pilgrimages are at least as regular as those of the small fish they relentlessly pursue.
But it is Christmas that brings the hordes to Golden Bay. “Loopies”, the locals call them—holidaymakers, mostly from Christchurch, who descend like migrating birds on the beaches, and cram the campgrounds to capacity. They come because of the natural features—the sea, the rivers, the mountains—but also because, barring campgrounds, the human presence here is small: 4500 people sprinkled over 1500 sq km. Still a mere six pages-worth in the telephone directory, despite a doubling of the population in the last decade.
Yet natural beauty is not rich in calories, and Golden Bay is at the end of a dead-end road, far from significant markets. How do the permanent residents survive there?
The answers kept popping up throughout my sojourn. Traditionally, there were two economic pillars in Golden Bay: dairying and the Golden Bay cement works at Tarakohe. As Brian Coulter of Enterprise Action, a small community-based job creation service in Takaka, explained to me, “People predicted the total collapse of Golden Bay whenthe cement works closed in 1988. You know—`Last out, close the gate at the top of Takaka Hill!’ But dairying was up that year, and we survived surprisingly well. About half of the nearly 200 made redundant from the cement works left the district and half of those that remained have either retired or found new jobs.”
Takaka, near the eastern end of Golden Bay, is the region’s commercial heart. West of Takaka, credit cards are politely refused, and there are no banking facilities. Shops and the usual civil accoutrements of small-town New Zealand traipse along the main street for a kilometre or so. Traditional stores rub shoulders with boutiques, an arts cooperative, a health food shop.
In the information centre at the entrance to town, Ann Pearson, 21 years a resident in the Bay, and Elsie Wood, of 42 years’ standing, field visitors’ questions, including mine. Elsie, looking sideways at Ann, explains that newcomers started arriving 20 years ago, some of them “alternative lifestylers” (a term infinitely preferred to “hippies” these days). The influx is continuing, with many Europeans, especially Germans, coming recently. “When we arrived,” says Ann, “There were people here who had never been outside Golden Bay. All the new arrivals have diluted the conservatism of the original old farming families, so there is now a real breadth of people and interests in the area.”
This diversity is reflected in the number of societies in the Bay. Quick browsing revealed the groups one might normally expect in a country town, such as Scouts, Bridge Club, Forest and Bird, and Rose Society, plus a few more unusual titles like the Marble Mountain Country and Western Club, Onekaka Home Brew Club (meets every Sunday afternoon), the Peaceful Evolution Mission, African Roots Dance Classes, Machine Knitting Club and the Takaka Drama Society (presenting such theatrical delights as, “They came from Mars and landed outside the Farndale Avenue Church hall in time for the Townswomen’s Guild’s coffee morning”).
A slender volume, Golden Bay in the Best Possible Taste, gave details of a distinctive Golden Bay cuisine, served with wit and erudition. Among those recipes not in Aunt Daisy were Possum Pâté, Kelp Pickle, Tequila and Chilli Ice Cream, and Chris Astill’s Bean Recipe. The succinct nature of this gourmet delight enables us to reproduce it in full: “Cook beans. Feed beans to pig. Eat pig. Don’t get it wrong.”
At the other end of town, past the high school and community gardens, the road heads west across the substantial Takaka River and on towards Farewell Spit. A side road winds inland up to Pupu Springs. These gushers are Australasia’s largest freshwater springs, producing literally a river of water-14 cubic metres per second, or 250 million gallons per day.
A few hundred metres downstream from where visitors admire the dancing turquoise waters as they leap from their underground chambers into light and air, some of the flow is diverted into Southern Ocean Salmon’s fish farm.
The fish live in large concrete pools covered with shadecloth (to protect them from sunburn). They are harvested at three years of age and about three kilograms in weight. This summer, 250 tonnes of prime fish will be taken, mainly to grace Japanese tables.
Fish are moved occasionally, to allow cleaning of the pools. A huge mobile suction pump is used, propelling water and fish together. Although it causes no physical damage to the fish, many may die of shock following a move. Salmon, like deer, are highly strung and can die readily from oxygen shortage which excitement can provoke.
Manager John Balck says the success of the operation relates directly to the quality of Pupu Springs water. “It is a constant cool temperature (11.7°C), which means fish grow more slowly than in the warmer sea, but the cool water holds more oxygen. High water temperatures mean that sea salmon farmers daren’t move fish at all over summer.
“Also, because our water has been underground for an average of three to four years, it contains very few microbes, so we get almost no disease. In sea-ranching salmon operations, disease can be a real problem. Fish are always dying and attracting sharks, which rip great holes in the enclosing nets. Divers constantly have to patrol the nets, checking for damage.”
Nestled up under the eastern flank of Parapara Peak, just a few kilometres beyond the salmon farm, is the Pupu Powerhouse. Like quite a few things in Golden Bay, it turns out to be quite different from what is expected. Forget Benmore, even Huntly. This powerhouse looks like your average iron-clad garage, connected to a small reservoir on a nearby ridge. The reservoir is fed by water from several kilometres away, conducted here by a concrete race that seems glued to the side of the steep face, and a walkway has recently been installed on its edge.
This remarkable conduit was originally built to bring water for gold sluicing at the turn of the century. When the gold rush passed, Takaka’s first power station was built at the site, in 1929, but eventually both powerhouse and race fell into disrepair. Only recently have they been refurbished, and the station is now the country’s first privately owned power scheme, selling its output to Electricorp. A small local group—the Pupu Hydro Society (membership 26, but with only five main builders)—restored the 250kW station at a cost of $300,000, much of which was loaned by society members.
With the sale of power bringing in $75,000 per year, members expect to recoup their investment in a few years, and will then fund community projects with the profits.
The quest for gold in the hills west of Parapara led to the construction of many waterworks during the latter part of the 19th century. As soon as the first gold from Collingwood was sold at Nelson in February,1857, prospectors flocked to the area. By March, the population had risen from about 10 to 400, and May saw over 1000 at the diggings.
In this first phase of the mining (which lasted for three or four years) gold was won from alluvial deposits left by ancient streams Though erosion had long buried the gold-bearing gravels, nuggets and flakes could be recovered from some stream beds where water had cut down to the original deposits.
Elsewhere, it was a matter of tunnelling through masses of boulders, and the work was desperately hard. Water was a constant problem. Either there wasn’t sufficient to wash the gravel, or else you were drowning in it. Alcohol was regarded as essential for warming bodies chilled by a day’s work in icy waist-deep water.
At night you knew you had wandered off the track to the diggings when the deep mud gave out. Getting supplies from Collingwood took eight days on foot from more remote areas. Later bullocks and bogey carts (with slices of tree trunks for wheels) ploughed over tracks “which would have been thought impossible for anything except a cat or dog”. Inextricably mired bullocks were butchered and “their frames distributed around at ninepence per pound”. Prospectors typically carried 50 kilograms of gear and supplies as they crashed through the bush or slithered through gully and river.
The rewards for this hardship were uneven. A few achieved instant wealth, but for most, life on the goldfields was a matter of grim survival. Many did not earn enough to cover the cost of their provisions. Accidents and fights claimed lives. In 1861, at Golden Gully, a man was incinerated under suspicious circumstances in a house fire. Since he had purchased gold on the day of his death, an old digger was directed to pan out his ashes to see if he still had it on him when he died. He hadn’t.
Small settlements sprang up on the inhospitable hillsides of the diggings. To the casual visitor today, the desolation of hills covered in harsh scrub and home only to clicking fern birds makes the very idea of civilisation here inconceivable. Yet signs remain: a collapsed stone chimney, drainage works and the occasional tool or artefact.
By the early 1860s, falling returns in Golden Bay, together with rumours of gold in Coromandel and Otago, drew the more nomadic diggers away. Those that stayed attacked the hills with greater and greater vehemence. From 1880 through to the early 1900s, sluicing plants were set up to wash away whole hillsides.
These operations required vast amounts of water, and elaborate flumes were erected to conduct water to mining sites. A four-kilometre race took water from Druggan’s Dam, a moderate sized man-made lake in the hills above the Aorere Valley, down to Doctor’s Creek for sluicing. Another took water from Boulder Lake eight kilometres to the slopes of the Quartz Range.
Later again, stamper batteries were employed to pulverise rock in an attempt to retrieve what earlier technology might have failed to unlock. Gold dredges were enthusiastically assembled on the Aorere, but, like the sluicers and stampers, they yielded indifferent results, and have faded into the shroud of time.
Diggers (or “hatters” as they were often termed) persisted, a few into the last decade. Although they have now all gone, one operator still earns a living from gold. David McBurney and two helpers use a bulldozer and traxcavator to dig down to the gold-bearing layer some 10 metres below the surface of Druggan’s Flat. Gravels from that layer are screened, and finer fractions sieved to eventually yield gold which David melts in his garage into one-kilogram ingots.
Work is done on site for 15 hours a day, and operating costs are $1000 per day. Not only does he have to dig deep to get at the gold, but he has to fully restore the land afterwards. The last site he worked was pakihi—a dense, grey waterlogged soil which contains little or no air. After mining and restoration it was transformed to useful dairying pasture.
Sufficient work remains in his claim for another 12 to 18 months, but David is considering shifting to the Yukon. “The gold fields are much richer there,” he says, “and Canada is keen to encourage mining. Here, environmentalists make it hard for miners. Getting a license takes two to three years and costs $5000 $10,000. In Canada it takes less than a week and costs $10.”
Gold is only one of the considerable range of minerals present in Golden Bay. Coal was taken by sealing and whaling boats from Whanganui Inlet at the tip of the west coast in the 1830s. Large-scale mining of the deposits at Puponga, just south of Farewell Spit, was carried out intermittently from 1897 until 1972. Coal was shipped out from what was once the southern hemisphere’s largest wharf (one kilometre), now reduced to serried ranks of stumps marching out beyond the broad tidal flats.
At the other end of the Bay, limestone was quarried for cement products until 1988. The brand name “Golden Bay Cement” persists, but no cement comes from here today.
Marble of many hues has been taken from several sites, and is still extracted at the top of Takaka Hill. While Golden Bay marble has been used as a premium building stone (in Parliament buildings, Nelson’s Cathedral, the Aotea Centre, to name a few), much of it ends up crushed in more mundane predicaments (fertiliser, putty, toothpaste, tyres, paint and as the calcium in bread).
Back behind Collingwood, the country’s only dolomite mine chews on the sharp edges of Mt Burnett. Dolomite differs from limestone and marble (which are almost pure calcium carbonate) in containing a significant percentage of magnesium. This hardens the rock, as well as imparting a wider range of colours. Like marble, dolomite also ends up in a wide variety of situations—as a fertiliser, in roofing chips, as a pottery glaze and in glass and steel manufacture.
Towards the centre of Golden Bay, the colourful ores of iron, limonite and haematite outcrop abundantly. In the late 1870s, a paint works was established at Parapara, crushing the coloured ores to produce a range of red, yellow and brown paint pigments.
Nearby, at Onekaka, a substantial iron works opened in the 1920s, but slumping prices forced its closure in 1926. Sewerage pipes for Auckland are thought to have been made there.
The story is told of a young employee of the iron works who dreamed of owning an Ariel motor‑ cycle, but lacked the means to purchase one—a single-cylinder model cost a princely £64. The fellow found he could get £75 compensation for the loss of the forefinger of his left hand, and suddenly the bike was within reach. A friend obliged by crushing his finger with a five-pound hammer on the rail track that carried iron down to the wharf.
When the motorcycle agent came over from Nelson to close the deal, he persuaded his customer to buy a two-cylinder model for £90 on a deposit of £60, with the rest on time payment. Unfortunately, when the iron works closed soon afterwards, the man lost his job and his bike was repossessed . . . but he never recovered his finger.
Far back in the mountains behind Golden Bay, another interesting mineral was mined. asbestos. In the earher part of the century—before it was widely known to be associated with the cancer mesothelioma—asbestos was something of a wonder mineral. Its long, tough fibres imparted extraordinary strength to otherwise brittle materials (such as fibrolite) and its insulating properties were remarkable. The country’s only potentially economic deposit was found to be in the hills above the Cobb Valley. Mining by the Hume Pipe company began in 1949, and continued on a modest scale until 1963. An estimated 20 million tonnes of lower grade (short fibre) asbestos still remain in the area.
Lying in a shallow valley just a few hundred metres inland from Cape Farewell, the South Island’s most northerly point, is a monument, vast and rusting, to the search for yet an‑other Golden Bay resource: oil. The aim was to drill at an angle out beneath the sea floor, but incredibly hard rock thwarted the attempt. Now the rig—supposedly the largest ever brought to this country for onshore drilling—has maybe rusted beyond repair. Meanwhile, seismic surveys continue at the base of Farewell Spit.
All the goldmining, together with logging and repeated clearing of vegetation by burning, has had a severe effect on the landscape of Golden Bay. Even before these human activities scoured the land, heavy rainfall, steep hillsides and a high proportion of rock conspired to produce poor, infertile soils over much of the region’s foothills and terraces.
Pakihi is common, and whatever fertility exists in these soils is invested in the plants growing on it. Burning (which was carried out frequently) destroyed the plants, while the heavy rains washed away their bequest of nutrients from the remaining ash. All fertility disappeared from the land, and only a small cartel of particularly hardy plants could survive—titree, gorse, umbrella fern and small red carnivorous sundews are major components, and even they struggled.
In 1974, Dick Nicholls was squatting in a car case near the Parapara Inlet when a friend suggested that he try to do something with 400 acres of derelict Lands and Survey land at nearby Milnethorpe.
Dick had had a low-key interest in plants since childhood, when he used to transplant seedlings from the lushness of Egmont’s forests into the tame Taranaki landscape he inhabited. So he tapped out a modest proposal to the commissioner of crown lands in Nelson, entitled “The Milnethorpe Revegetation Project”.
“I can’t recall all that I proposed,”laughs Dick, “but it was to do with them paying me a modest allowance to establish native plants on this pakihi wasteland. It was the age of ohus, which Lands and Survey desperately feared, but these back-to-nature groups had softened them up a bit for the unorthodox.”
Dick ran into problems immediately. No native plants would grow in the pakihi, so he tried plants from anywhere and everywhere. Some survived, “particularly certain Australian gums and acacias, which grew where nothing else would.” Now he has plants from all over the world, and the returning soil fertility is allowing natives to be introduced.
Some 80 species of eucalypt (perhaps the best collection in the South Island) are represented, although only four or five are really good. The oldest plants are only 15 years, but they top 15 metres. In the more established areas, the place has the feel of real woods. It is a bit more airy than New Zealand bush, and the idiosyncrasies of plant mixes give a particular charm. Under foot is a thick layer of leaf mould and twigs, even fallen trees. This organic matter being slowly incorporated into the soil is the very heart of the project. Dick takes nothing back from the land, not even firewood. Ferns are appearing, some planted, others self sown.
“The real icing on the cake is the birds that have moved in,” says Dick, “especially the tuis and woodpigeons, because these carry seeds in from surrounding areas. The birds are quite happy eating nectar from exotics, and are even nesting here now,”
The work has not been established by Dick alone. Initially, he worked for Lands and Survey, and came to occupy a modest house they shifted on to the block. More recently, the Department of Conservation took over the land, and Dick with it, so they have been partners in what has been done. There have been tensions with some in DoC over the project, since it doesn’t fit into their normal range of activities, and because many of the species Dick has introduced are not native—indeed, some are considered noxious.
Financial pressures forced DoC to lay off a number of staff in 1988, and Nicholls was among them. He remains living on the property, and continues the work unpaid.
Dick Nicholls embodied a characteristic of many people I met in Golden Bay. He had drifted there, then stayed because the place suited him. And he was doing something he believed in or enjoyed, perhaps both. Yet the cost is considerable. Barring a win in Lotto, he is unlikely to acquire great wealth—even meagre wealth—and his accommodation depends entirely on the prevailing attitude within DoC.
Many of the Golden Bay locals I encountered seemed to have consciously chosen a measure of financial insecurity for the sake of living in Golden Bay. Only a handful of houses in the entire bay would feel comfortable in even a moderately affluent Auckland suburb. Most are small, functional, unostentatious. Status symbols are not big in Golden Bay.
Up on Takaka Hill, Bruce Mitchell lives and works at the start of the Canaan Road, a rock-strewn track that winds inland and stops near Harwood’s Hole. At an elevation of 750 metres, Bruce’s place is rarely hot, and in winter the temperature often drops to freezing.
He and his family live in a cottage that was built in 1910, and his studio—an old farm barn—hasn’t excluded a draught for the last three or four decades. From this eyrie Bruce creates superb free-form sculptures using fragments of dead trees and local marble which lie all around.
Pieces range in price from $25 to $2000, and some are large—not the sort of thing your average holidaymaker can afford or even transport. One suspects the Mitchells survive on very little, though when I visited in late April, an American had purchased three pieces over the summer, so 1991 is shaping up well.
Much of Golden Bay seems to survive on crafts, or some combination of crafts and the dole. Lack of employment forces this, to some extent, but the freedom and individuality offered by the artistic lifestyle seem to particularly suit the Golden Bay temperament. The place has a national reputation as a crafts centre, and offers a “Craft Trail”—the equivalent of a pub crawl for art lovers.
Bruce Hamlin, who, with Rosie Little, runs Estuary Arts Pottery at Parapara, suggests that crafts fit well with a desire to nurture the land. “It’s been mined, the timber felled, the sea harvested. Somehow we have to find more sustainable ways of relating to the land.”
It makes sense: a high-value, labour-intensive product using negligible amounts of resources, in contrast to the usual extractive industries, yielding large amounts of low-price commodities.
Rosie Little believes that the craftspeople’s relationship with visitors is often a symbiotic one. “Lots of Christchurch people consider Golden Bay to be heaven on earth (which it isn’t), and talk of shifting up here (which they never do), but in the interim they buy a few pieces of our pottery to keep their dreams alive.”
The Golden Bay artistic disposition was brought home to me on a sweltering December day as artists, aspirants, and the merely curious (including myself) gathered in the countryside of East Takaka for “Art Attack”. Staged at the Fairholme Gallery, a gracious homestead at the foot of the Pikikiruna Range, the activity proclaimed itself to be an “authentic 1990 event”.
In return for a modest entrance fee, participants were supplied with materials appropriate to their chosen vocation—fabric for the wearable arts, brushes, paints and hardboard for painters, a pile of junk and bamboo poles for the sculptors’ machinations. Small groups of painters daubed impressionist works in the shade. Others, frustrated by the constraints of dull hardboard, decorated living substrates, with startling results. One artist with a welding torch was deflected into repairing the cars of fellow artisans. Above the sculptors, a trio of native pigeons struggled to swallow small plums entire from a huge and ancient tree. At day’s end, music, drama, and poetry were performed, and offerings auctioned. Selected paintings reached close to $30!
Tukurua, catch paddle crabs from a dinghy, then spend a few messy hours extracting the high quality meat. They also supply cleaned crab backs and intact claws, thus enabling a legless crab to be reconstructed on the plates of fastidious diners at elite Auckland restaurants. Alison nurses part time, and Jeff teaches music and practises kinesiology to round out their living.
What do you do with a less than successful kiwifruit orchard? Paul Butler chops and dries the fruit, packages it in tea bags and sells it as a herbal tea. More recently, he launched tea made from kawakawa (native pepper) and horopito—both labelled as “organically grown in nuclear-free New Zealand”.
At Puponga, the South Island’s northernmost settlement, I was welcomed by a lively old couple, Betty and Oscar Climo. Oscar had a few reservations about claiming to have lived all his life in Puponga. “Well, I was born back at Collingwood, and didn’t arrive here until I was two weeks and one day old. Mothers were discharged at two weeks, but back then there was no road out here, so we had to wait an extra day for the tide to come right so we could travel along the beach.”
He met Betty while recovering in hospital at Biggin Hill after being torpedoed—five times! She took up the story in a mock sarcastic tone. “He told me about all the facilities associated with the coal mines here at this wonderful place, Puponga, but when we got back here after the war, there was nothing!”
It wasn’t that Oscar had been guilty of embellishing the truth to snare Betty, but during the war the mine had closed, and with it the town. “In the early days I would have left if I could,” Betty confided, “I came from a very flat part of England, and the hills here oppressed me. Now I love them.”
They remember cyclone Allison (1974) when wind-blown salt spray without accompanying rain killed much of the forest up on the inland ridges to the south of them. Oscar worked on a local farm for 23 years, and also did odd jobs in mining. “Donald the locomotive fell through the wharf as it was taking the last load of coal to the last boat to be loaded here,” he chuckled. “Now there are only 14 permanent residents left down here at the beach, all superannuitants.”
“How do you survive?” I enquired.
“To be honest, we’ve been better off on the pension than when I worked,” said Oscar. “We don’t have a car, but our son Bill (the camp manager in Collingwood) and friends take us into Collingwood for shopping, usually once a week. We have all we want and we’re just fine.”
In the early days of Golden Bay—even up to the inter-war years—the sea was the main route for transport. The road between Takaka and Collingwood was not completed until about 1913. Many in both towns opposed the road, claiming it would let in undesirables. If you lived in Collingwood, these were Takaka folk, and vice versa.
Many settlements had wharves, and a fleet of small vessels ferried people and freight as regularly as the vicissitudes of the elements permitted. Isolated farmers, lacking wharves, would row out at night with a lantern, hoping to be met by the boat to receive supplies and offload produce. Strandings were not uncommon and passages frequently uncomfortable—”For the first half hour you were afraid you would die, and after that afraid that you wouldn’t.”
South of Puponga, a road leads westward through the hills and out towards the west coast. It bifurcates on reaching the tidal flats of Whanganui Inlet, with the right-hand fork heading around the northern shore of the harbour past the lovely Kaihoka Lakes to give access to a few large farms.
The Ferguson place is one of these. It includes the north head of Whanganui Inlet—a buttress carved from exposed hills “as sharp as a hen’s face”—and is part of a striking series of inland-facing bluffs which starts at Puponga and runs down parallel to the west coast for 30 or 40 kilometres to Anatori.
Bruce has farmed these scowling hills for 50 years, and his father worked the land before him. He has 1700 acres, carrying 2100 ewes and 160 breeding cows. Most income is from wool.
For the last 20 years Bruce’s married son Dave has also farmed the Ferguson land, and now Dave in turn has two secondary school-age boys on correspondence. But the future of farming in Golden Bay troubles Bruce. “This is primarily a farming district,” he says. “Some saw the influx of alternative lifestylers in the ’60s and ’70s as a new labour force to clear the land, build roads, do shearing, and so on, but they weren’t interested in that.
“Low returns from farming mean that we are in danger of having a whole generation of young people not prepared to take over the hard work of farming. When I started, you could make a living from 500 ewes. Now you need over 2000. Farmers have had to increase the size of their holdings just to survive. Local body amalgamation means that Golden Bay has no county council any longer, but is run from Richmond by a district council on which we have two representatives. Nobody knows how we will fare under this new system.”
At Bruce’s suggestion, I walk across the farm to the coast. The tide is on the way in, replenishing the weed-filled rock pools where paua, purple crabs and the occasional crayfish lurk. The architecture of the coast is among the most impressive I’ve seen anywhere. Open beaches alternate with huge cliffs, rugged islands with intricately sculptured limestone ravines and pinnacles, and deep pools with bars of coloured pebbles.
Access to the area south of the Whanganui Inlet involves taking the other fork of the road back behind the harbour. Built during the depression, the road crosses a number of causeways and bridges as it snakes around the upper tidal reaches of the inlet. At high water in summer it makes a rare and wonderful sight, for in many places the ancient forest, bedecked with scarlet rata flowers, steps right down to high water mark. It is one of very few harbours in New Zealand where stands of virgin bush touch an estuary.
Geographically, this area is separated from Golden Bay by the craggy Wakamarama Range, but since its only access is from Golden Bay, administratively it has always been part of the Bay.
Timber and flax milling have been important industries here, and as early as 1860 the discovery of gold drew prospectors to the area. Travellers took advantage of a rather basic accommodation house at Mangarakau, just south of the harbour, which consisted of a big Maori whare with a bare earth floor, a chimney at one end and a door at the other.
The ground was both bed and mattress, yet the place was frequently crowded, as noted in the following account of travellers arriving at this haven of rest late on a wet winter night. “We found the whole ground floor to the chimney packed as closely as possible with Maoris and Pakehas sound asleep. Old Ellis saw the smouldering coal fire at the far end and just walked straight for it, bringing forth some very strong language as he trod with his watertight boots on the various sleepers. Having reached the end, he stood up all night with one leg on either side of the fire. As he afterwards told me, he did not spend a very comfortable night for fear that he would go to sleep and sit down in the fire. Olie found a Maori that he knew, so he slept with him in his blanket. I got as close to the fire as I could and then lay down on top of those on the ground. I did not have a very good night as the beggars under me would keep moving. . .”
The original bridge at Mangarakau (in use until 1926) was euphemistically described as a low level bridge—at high water the entire structure was submerged and unusable. The present road down the coast is named Dry Road, to differentiate it from the old wet routes across the mudflats, swamps and rivers.
The road continues south to the Turimawiwi River, but only brave vehicles tackle the ford across the substantial Anatori River. With its slippery, muffler-crunching boulders, and a wide sheet of water rippling down to the sea, the ford is something of a challenge if you don’t own a high wheelbase vehicle.
A collection of decrepit tractors are corraled on the near side, next to the whitebaiters’ huts. At low spring tides, the locals fire them up and the diesel-puffing flotilla crawls around the coast down as far as Big River on paua-collecting expeditions.
Brett and Michelle Hart are the last permanent inhabitants down the coast, living on a farm just south of the Anatori. Their 1200 acres seem as precipitous as the Fergusons’, maybe more so, and they also graze sheep on DoC land around Kahurangi Point ten kilometres beyond the Turimawiwi.
“We lose 10 per cent of all classes of stock each year,” said Brett. “Most die from broken limbs, falling into holes or drowning, the country is just so rough. Another problem is fencing wire. Constant salt in the atmosphere means it rusts away in seven or eight years.” Leaving the hospitable Harts, I hiked south to spend the night in the old lighthouse keeper’s dwelling near Kahurangi Point lighthouse (now automated). It is an exhilarating region of sweeping beaches, tea-coloured rivers, more absorbing rock formations (some fossiliferous) and sombre bush flowing away up inland towards the Heaphy Track.
Beyond Kahurangi, the coast becomes steep, rocky and inaccessible. On my return I had a question for the Harts: “Sheep are not renowned as swimmers,” I remarked, “yet the Big River estuary was a metre deep today, and 200 metres across. How do your sheep get down to the Point?”
Michelle laughed: “It’s a case of sink or swim. If they want fodder, they learn to swim for it. We try to move them on spring tides, when the water is shallowest. Lambs stick with their mothers, but once they are weaned they can cause a few problems.”
Up the Anatoki Valley behind Takaka, the Benge family indulge in a more unorthodox farming venture. No sheep and cattle for these farmers; the animals Ruth and Matthew Benge are trying to introduce to the New Zealand farming tapestry are llamas, alpacas, yaks and miniature horses—though Ruth would like ostriches as well! Enough animals to start a zoo, which in essence is what they are doing, although with a few twists.
Bencarri Farm Park is the name of the zoo-like arm of the operation, and as well as boasting all the beasts mentioned above, it includes donkeys, horses, goats, deer, 50 varieties of bantam, and large eels. All the animals are tame, and the public (for a small fee) are encouraged to touch and caress them, and, in the case of the eels, feed them: mince for main course and custard for dessert.
“Llamas and yaks are pack animals in different parts of the world, so both have had a long association with humans, and are very quiet,” Ruth explains.
My children’s favourite was Sidney, an orphaned black alpaca. With large, lustrous eyes, soft fur and vocal noises that sounded like a lamb saying “thank you” with its mouth shut, it seemed like something designed in Disneyland solely to capture hearts. Pleading looks from certain family members told me that small mental wheels were spinning fast.
“What’s a little thing like that worth?” I casually asked Matthew.
“About $20,000, maybe more.” I could see why the locals referred to him as “Mercedes” Benge.
“We’ll stick with the two dogs,” I told the kids.
Later, I asked the Benges what niches they envisaged for their animals. “Mainly the pet and animal curiosity markets,” they replied, “except for the alpaca, which produces the ultimate fibre. It’s light, fine, warm, has absolutely no stretch, and never wears out. The fibres are maybe 10 times stronger than wool—which is why the fashion industry dislikes it.” Local spinners and knitters are keen to purchase the fibre, even at $110 per kg for raw fleece.
In the United States, there is a big demand for these animals as pets, and prices reach $200,000 for rare black animals. Many of the 60 llamas on the Benges’ 150 acres belong to overseas investors who pay the Benges to look after them.
Beyond Bencarri, the road seems to hesitate, contract, and then push on beside the Anatoki River into the hills. It continues through a narrow gorge for two or three kilometres, but astonishingly, when nothing but wilderness seems to lie ahead, a river flat opens up in the heart of the mountains. Here lie two particularly interesting pieces of the Golden Bay mosaic: the Happy Sam and Rainbow Valley communities. Both have been here since the mid-1970s, and a measure of their acceptance is the fact that Golden Bay, alone in the country, recognises communities in its district scheme.
Happy Sam (named after an old dog) was described to me by one of the incumbents as “a large flat out of town, a base from which people come and go”. All present during my visit were male, rejoicing in such names as Mole, Grub and Bunny. The main building was impressive, with a high domed roof supported by a massive stone pillar-cum-chimney. In one corner, feijoa wine was being concocted. A certain male messiness prevailed.
Income is generated in a variety of ways. One absent member worked on a fishing boat. Another had a flower-growing operation. Moray, who was showing me around, ran a souvlaki stall in Takaka, as well as growing feijoas.
Most members showed a keen interest in gold, which could still be recovered from the adjacent river and surrounding streams. The men spoke of an enormous rock slab that had recently been levered up. “Underneath you could just pick up the gold in your fingers . . .” a reverential silence celebrated the memory. “Each stream produces gold with its own characteristics,” said Moray, conjuring up a vial full out of his clothing. “These globs are Slate River gold. Anatoki is very bright.” A second vial showing even more gold materialised. Did he carry more? I didn’t like to pry, but his ashes could definitely be worth panning out.
“Gold digging is for the young,” he confided. “Standing in the river clad in a wet suit all day shifting rocks is hard work. Usually you’re trying to dig down three or four feet, sometimes deeper. Then there’s a flood, and everything disappears.”
Across the road is Rainbow Valley, a cluster of buildings on 200 flat acres bisected by the river. The dwellings have a comfortable, hand-hewn look, and the grounds are a relaxed mix of bedded flowers, lawns, and trees. I feel as though I’ve slipped back into the late ’60s, and it’s a nice change.
A breakaway group from If Vaitati, near Dunedin (see New Zealand Geographic, Number 3) started Rainbow Valley 17 years ago. “We were influenced by reading William Morris and ideas of going back to the land,” said Mike Scott, one of the founders. “Living together seemed a very natural and right thing to do. People had strong moral feelings back then. When we came here, we obviously thought it was a great spot, but those who have stayed have had to fight real environmental adversity. Coping with the sandflies, cold, rain, and constant threat of being washed away by the river has given the place a lot of heart.”
People interested in living permanently at Rainbow Valley spend a year on probation. After that, if they still want to stay, and everyone else is happy about it, they pay a membership fee of around $5000, which entitles them to build a house. “We have no leader,” says Anne Taylor, 13 years at Rainbow, “and decisions are made at community meetings, with different people taking turns as chairperson.”
Chewing freshly made bread and sipping home brew from a coffee mug, we talk about the vexed issue of economic survival. “Seven years ago we started making wonderful possum skin coats, but with the rise in anti-fur sentiment, demand dropped, and that business ceased four years ago. Carol and Simon have started Te Whare Mahana (the warm house), a community-based care facility in Takaka for people with psychological and emotional disabilities. Simon has been involved in saving and running the local cinema as well.” Government incentive schemes, music teaching, and the sale of applique quilts and cushions are also mentioned. The community farms most of its land, which provides additional income and meat.
What has Rainbow Valley achieved? Several people volunteer answers. “We have survived for 17 years.” “Women have true equality.” “I’m not afraid to talk to anyone here about anything whatsoever.” “People protect each other.” “Our flood protection bank is enormous!” “The wider community accepts us, and parents are regular visitors.” The conversation ripples out. Idealism, now tempered with realism, burns in their eyes, while outside the children play rugby in the rain.
In Golden Bay almost all the accessible bush has been felled, the rocks uprooted, the minerals extracted, and the soil destroyed. It was inevitable that settlers would demand more from the sea than that it serve merely as a highway. Fish and shellfish of many types were abundant, and enjoyed by Maori and pakeha alike.
As with much of the New Zealand coast, it was not until the advent of large, efficient trawlers in the last 40 years that fish numbers declined precipitously. Only 15 years ago I recall being able to purchase glorious scallops in Takaka for $10 a case. A decade ago they were all but wiped out, though since 1983 a scallop enhancement programme, which involves collecting scallop spat, growing them in mesh bags and then releasing them, seems to be restoring the shellfish to some abundance.
However, a new delicacy from the sea has appeared on Bay menus in the last few years. It is called geoduck (but pronounced “gooey duck”) or sometimes just “duck”, to add to the confusion. I watched these unusual-looking shellfish being unloaded on the wharf at Collingwood, and later talked to Alister “A. J.” MacDonald of Westhaven Fisheries about them and his other fishing ventures.
Nine years ago, A. J. was a Southland sheep farmer, but when a marriage break-up forced him to re-evaluate his existence, he decided that life was more than sheep. After desultory dabbling in other jobs, he ended up harvesting cockles in Tasman Bay, where he caused an outbreak of universal consternation by his use of a modified tractor (the “Fergie Fisher”) for collecting the shellfish, instead of the expected boat and dredge.
After much skirmishing with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, A. J. relocated to Seaford, in western Golden Bay, where beaches were wide, cockles apparently endless, and “there were no damn people to eat them”. These days he has permission to harvest 220 tonnes of cockles, most of which he air-freights to the United States, but his fishing interests also include such heterodox species as whelks and geoduck.
The Fergie Fisher was merely the first in a series of mechanised cockle-catchers that have now reached a pinnacle of excellence. Slowly, a mutated farm bike is driven over the cockle bed, forcing a ramp into the sand. A 40cm swath of beach is vigorously brushed as it travels up a slatted conveyor, so that only larger shells are retained. Within seconds, all small organisms and sand drop directly back onto the beach, leaving the strip with a gently raked appearance. In five minutes, two men and this magnificent machine can harvest a bin of cockles that would otherwise entail two hours of hard digging.
Whelks are also sold live, to Japan, and are caught in 15m of water using home-made traps baited with salmon skeletons. Geoduck are more difficult to harvest and process. They live buried under 50cm of sand, again in 10-20m of water. A diver exposes them by sluicing away surrounding sand with a jet of water. Filling 15 bins requires 8-9 hours of hard work on the sea floor.
Processing involves brief cooking, to assist removal of the baggy orange skin, and dividing the animal into valuable siphons or necks (which are sliced to yield something like small squid rings), and viscera, which are sold separately as duck “oysters”. The neck meat fetches A. J. $18 per kg from Japan, while many of the “oysters” are consumed by local gourmets.
Geoducks are particularly slow-growing (average age in Golden Bay is 14 years, but some specimens in Canada are over 100 years old), so harvesting requires caution. A. J. built his factory in Golden Bay rather than Nelson in order to generate employment in a rural area, something he feels strongly about. Nevertheless, he argues that fishermen in Golden Bay should be paid not to fish. “It’s too destructive,” he says. “The whole Bay should be turned into an experimental aquaculture area, and polytechs should start to teach sustainable aquaculture.” Perhaps the scallop enhancement programme and the one or two mussel farms the Bay supports represent a glimpse of the future.
It is mid-morning on Thursday. April 25, 1991—ANZAC day. Between the Junction and Telegraph hotels uptown, the Takaka Citizens Band, resplendent in blue, and with 100 years of history beneath its polished belt, strikes up and steps out. Behind the band, 70 or 80 World War Two veterans form up and march, proud, erect and even.
Outside the old council chambers, they halt for an address by Sir Wallace Rowling. Others speak and pray. The last post is played. With grave difficulty, and some help, an old soldier rises to attention beside his wheelchair. Dead comrades, friends, and family live again in the power of that moment.
After remembrance poppies are laid, the veterans march back to the RSA hall for lunch. I am struck by the vigour of these men, all of whom must be at least into their 70s. One particular group of four men went to school together, entered the navy together, served on the HMNZS Gambia, which fired the final shots of World War Two, together, and are still reminiscing together today! Two of them claimed those last historic shots, fired off the coast of Japan, were directed at a steel works; the others maintained the target was a lighthouse. It didn’t matter after all these years. The important thing was 70-year friendships.
Yet, somehow, amongst this group, such bonds did not seem that remarkable. After all, wasn’t this Golden Bay, where the unexpected was commonplace? Didn’t sheep swim here, and $50,000 animals of curiosity rub shoulders with humans who survived on $4000 per year? Where else were “ducks” harvested from the sea floor by divers, to be airlifted to Japan?
Where else did the past mingle so freely with the present as here? Where else do you wait 25-plus years to become a local, and people gracefully live entire lives in one modest house? One farmer wouldn’t even leave the property for his wife’s funeral, and habitually wore two pairs of trousers, presuming the holes would not be congruent. Didn’t I see a saddled horse hitched to a ute outside the Junction Hotel in Takaka’s main street one night?
Part of the attraction of Golden Bay is undeniably its physical environment—high mountains enclosing verdant valleys, forests above pasture and river, a glorious shoreline. Takaka Hill is the door that shuts the world out from this paradise, and sets it apart. Yet despite the grandeur of the natural surroundings in Golden Bay, the scale of existence remains very manageable. There are no buildings of more than two storeys, no traffic lights, only a basic airstrip, but plenty of old cars. A power station is built by five men, and a woman, Betty Duffield, no longer young, goes to a peace camp on the Kuwait-Iraq border to try and stave off war. One man spends a third of a lifetime trying to grow trees in a wasteland, and an ex-sheep farmer collects cockles for a living.
A living here depends on how you choose to piece it together. Most people in the Bay at least know of each other. Every individual remains significant. “Isn’t this the best place to be?” asks one of those old veterans. I’m not about to disagree. My kids are convinced that Collingwood is the fishing capital of the world. Where else do cockabullies win fishing contests?