To me it will always be “the impassable coast”—that section of primeval coastline that stretches 30km between the Heaphy River in the south and the Kahurangi in the north.
It has always attracted me; an area so harsh and inaccessible that it has remained virtually untouched. A wild place that deprives of comfort, replenishes the soul and reminds us what this country once looked like. Protected by the vast hinterland of the North West Nelson Forest Park, it remains the last section of true wilderness coast left outside of Fiordland and Stewart Island.
I had searched out a few locals who had traversed the route; their stories fuelled what had become a burning ambition to attempt it myself. I pored over maps and historical notes, in particular Charles Heaphy’s account of his second exploration in 1846 with Thomas Brunner from Massacre (Golden) Bay around the West Coast as far as Arahura and back—a marathon journey that took them five months. They were the first Europeans to traverse this section of coast, and their journey created intense interest. William Fox, then the New Zealand Company Agent at Nelson, wrote to Colonel Wakefield, “I think Messrs Brunner and Heaphy are entitled to the credit of having accomplished the most arduous expedition which has yet been undertaken in New Zealand, and to much praise both for the enterprise which dictated it, and the courage with which they carried it through.”
I began to imagine a trip that followed in the footsteps—and handholds—of these two intrepid explorers. As ambition ripened into obsession, I persuaded three others to join me: John Mitchell, Andrew Dixon and Brian Cooper. We planned to follow the coast from the Anatori River southwards to the Heaphy River where, after fording, we would connect with the Heaphy Track and return home. Although our intended route was only part of Heaphy and Brunner’s original exploration, it represented the most difficult and unmodified coastal section.
Setting a date two months ahead, to coincide with especially low spring tides, gave us time to “train” together, as we jokingly called it. In fact, our training consisted of short, sharp day walks to various peaks in the N.W. Nelson Forest Park. It would be wrong to say there was no competitiveness between us, but it was all in good humour amongst close friends.
We forded the Anatori River on Wednesday, November 20,1991. The tide was high but ebbing as we made our way over giant blue papa (siltstone) rocks which had fallen from the Kaipuke Cliffs, and scrambled around bluffs between waves. This section of coast down to the Kahurangi River, referred to as the Taitapu Coast by Heaphy, affords relatively easy access; the fossiliferous clay and limestone rocks are easily modified by the hostile environment, with resultant sandy beaches and low hills.
Where fences peter out under windblown dunes the cattle come down to wander the beach. Near Kahurangi Point one remarkable dune intrudes into the forest and acts as an enormous marker for trampers. Constantly replenished by sand blown up from the coast, it surrounds and envelops fully grown rata trees. I speculated whether or not Heaphy’s description of the “remarkable white landslip” at this point is the same dune we see today.
The epicentre of the 1929 Murchison earthquake was here, causing massive slumping into the sea and destroying the homes of the lighthouse keepers. Some dozen ships had been wrecked in this vicinity before mariners’ demands were finally met in 1903, and a lighthouse erected. The red sector of the light indicates the position of Kahurangi Reef (formerly known as Stewart’s Breaker) seven kilometres off shore.
Lois Benjamin, of Collingwood, related to me the dramatic story of her grandparents, resident lighthouse keepers when the big ‘quake struck. On June 17 Arthur Page and son Alva had been cutting scrub high above the house when they heard a terrific roar. The trees began to shake, and the men were thrown to their knees as the hillside heaved and cracked open.
As the land steadied, they ran back along the ridges to find a scene of devastation at home. A huge slip had crashed down on their house, smashing it against the lighthouse before flinging it over the cliff into the sea. From where they were standing it looked as if a 40-acre paddock had been floated out to sea, with cabbage trees and pongas still standing.
Despite their worst fears, they found Mrs Nellie Page unharmed; when the ‘quake struck she had been climbing through a fence to take some packages to the shed, some 20 metres away. Terrified, she ran to keep just ahead of the widening slip as it crashed through her house with such force that it snapped knives and forks. Even though earth and debris built up six metres against the tower, its solid concrete base and 25mm cast iron construction saved it from serious damage. Alva later took over as lighthouse keeper from his father, with 45 years of combined service between them.
“Kahurangi” translates as “clothing (or cloaks) of the sky,” referring to the ever-changing cloud formations characteristic of this area. Stricken by unfavourable weather from the start, Heaphy and Brunner were detained by hard rain and sought shelter in a cave after their throat-deep crossing of Big River. “Wet through during the whole of the day,” wrote Heaphy in his journal. The next day: “Rain and thick weather,” followed by a day of “Strong S.W. gales and rain.”
In consequence of the great delays they had experienced, and consequent diminution of their provisions, Heaphy describes the “curious but satisfactory meal” obtained by accompanying some local Maori on to the reefs. “The mutton fish, or pawa, although resembling india rubber in toughness and colour, is very excellent and substantial food for explorers, both European and native; and when it can be obtained, which is only at low water, spring tides, is much prized by those gentlemen. The sea urchin tastes like spider crab, and though very palatable, would be much improved by vinegar and condiments. But the sea anemone is the most recherché. Half animal, half vegetable, as we unscientific people must describe a zoophyte, it is the most extraordinary food that ever afforded nutriment to the human body, and must be eaten to be comprehended. Suffice to say that in its capture it must be jerked quickly from its holding on the rock, or it contracts itself into a small lump and nearly disappears in the crevice from which it grows. In cooking it, care should be taken to keep it apart from other victuals, and in eating it the eyes should be kept tightly shut.”
Finally making camp at the Kahurangi River “from whence the difficulties of our path would commence,” Heaphy and Brunner discussed the warning given to them by Eneho, an old Maori at Westhaven Inlet only days before: “. . we should never reach Kawatiri, as any white man could not fail to be expended on the coast which lay near Rocky Point, and the old rascal and his companions grinned when he mentioned Tauparikaka cliff as the utmost possible limit of our journeying.”
My companions and I received warnings of our own, from cattle musterers with whom we shared the relative comfort of the old lighthouse keeper’s house at Kahurangi. “We had to rescue the last bloke that tried and fell in,” said one. “You’ll be back this way Sunday. They all turn back,” intoned another. It had become a matter of considerable pride that we succeed, although it would be a safe bet to say that all before us at this point had probably felt the same way. One recent attempt, recorded in the but book, stated simply: “Karamea or Bust, and I Bust.”
Next morning, after a hearty bacon-and-eggs breakfast, washed down with left-over m us terer’s stew, we shouldered heavy packs and set off overland for the Kahurangi River, barely making headway as we strained forward into gale force S.W. winds. I thought again of Heaphy: “Our loads consisted of 351b of flour each, with tea, sugar, pearl barley, powder, shot, instruments, books, boots, two blankets, amounting to 801b each . . . being exceedingly fatiguing.” As a mark of respect I resolved not to complain of pack weight again.
At the Kahurangi River the geological formation of the country changes, and a coarse red granitoid appears, altering the character of the coast with precipitous cliffs and rugged offshore rocks. While waiting for the tide to drop, Andrew gathered a selection of gaudily coloured plastic rubbish, mostly fishing industry flotsam and jetsam—the one intrusion even this rugged coast cannot discourage. Heaphy was detained for a further two days here, constructing makeshift huts from nikau fronds. “At night the gale caused the water to rise so high as to break within a few feet of our huts, and to debar all passage along the beach; above us was a perpendicular cliff, and in front a swollen river, causing our situation to be at once unpleasant and exciting.”
Squalls drove in from the S.W. as we forded the river and boulder-hopped for only a few hundred metres before encountering a sheer bluff. Brian edged around on a high ledge before returning with the already suspected verdict: “Up and over!”
It would be no exaggeration to say that in some places it took 10 minutes to make 10 metres of progress, sweating and swearing up that almost vertical slope. Although the predominantly kiekie scrub afforded good holding, it had obviously adapted well to the extreme coastal climate, forming an almost impenetrable interwoven barrier. We alternated be‑tween walking over it, crashing through it and crawling under it.
At the top we compared wounds and made reasonable progress through the rata and manuka before finding a steep slip to descend, only to realise at the bottom what a terrible mistake we had made. We were now sandwiched between the bluff we had just bypassed and another even worse, with the wind making even sitting difficult. Brian investigated a possible low route, clinging to the crevices and sidling around the cliff out of sight.
The power of the waves hitting the cliffs below us was awesome. Their relentlessness confuses your equilibrium; sometimes you think you are clinging to a swaying cliff over a motionless sea. Add gale force wind, squally rain and the odd giant wave sending up spray that leaves you saturated, and you have one of Nature’s headiest cocktails.
Having vowed only minutes before not to subject ourselves to any more “kiekie bashing,” we retraced our steps back up the slip to the ridge, before finding a waterfall by which to descend to the coast once more.
The knowledge that we were walking into a natural storehouse gave us the confidence to expect to find our food en route. We took tea for the billy, but left behind the usual essentials in exchange for an old screwdriver (to prize off paua), knives and an onion sack to gather it all in.
John, who has a background in botany, would suggest what berries, plants or fungi might be edible, what seaweed would go well with the paua, or even what green wood could be relied on to burn when everything was wet. Brian was an eager hunter, knowing where to look for food by exercising a sensitivity to animal behaviour and the changing elements. Much of his boyhood had been spent clinging to cliffs near Filey, in Yorkshire, searching out seabird eggs. Watching him climb ahead of me would often inspire a quizzical thought as to how he survived his childhood at all!
As the journey progressed, we also became expert in analysing wave patterns: watching for that extra-large recedence which would allow a headlong dash across a memorised series of boulders before the next wave surged in and covered the whole area in a sweeping breaker. Although emergency procedures had been discussed, it became quietly obvious that there would be little hope of rescue or survival if one of us were struck and swept out by a rogue wave. Heaphy himself describes waiting half an hour at one point “before a wave presented itself which we could deem safe,” so that they could dash to safe ground before the area was covered in “12 or 15 feet” of breaking wave.
We made good progress on the low tide rounding Otukoroiti Point to make camp at Christabel Creek, having covered a bare four kilometres in just under eight hours. Unable to find any sheltered campsites, we were forced to construct an enormous driftwood wall to stop our tent being blown away. We dined on paua, kina and sea lettuce as the red sun sank into the ocean. Surreptitiously flicking the seaweed off my plate, I noticed it landed next to two other small piles. “Nice sea lettuce, John,” I said, grimacing.
We spent a restless night in gale force winds. John slept outside in an adjoining bay; he is simply at home in this sort of environment, and at least slept soundly without a flapping tent.
Seals became numerous as we traversed southward. There were five in the creek near our camp, staring at us from under flax bushes before charging past us to the safety of the sea. We noticed that they sought out these fresh water pools, and wondered if soaking in them was a way of ridding themselves of marine parasites.
We would often smell seals before we saw them, especially as we were usually walking into the wind. Sometimes the stench was overpowering. There are two smells that I shall associate with this coast: firstly, the salt-laden smell that accompanies the incessant wind; secondly, the fetid smell of the seals.
Next day we pressed southwards again, over enormous house-sized rocks, each one presenting a major logistics exercise to pass. The occasional dousing reminded us how close to the sea we were. Several steep headlands dividing rocky bays necessitated scrambling up and over, often belaying with the rope, before coming to Tauparikaka cliff.
The reader might casually enquire why an inland bypass did not avail itself whenever these obstacles blocked our progress. Heaphy’s account at this point explains the predicament we were constantly faced with. “Against this projection the waves broke on the perpendicular face of the rock, so as completely to prevent it being passed below, while inshore the mountain rose steeply and high, presenting in that direction as impassable a barrier. About 80 feet above the sea, however, where the point jutted from the mountain, was a place which seemed as if it might afford footing along the summit: to this we ascended by a difficult rocky way, through karaka bushes and among large fragments of granite. On the other side the appearance of the way was appalling, and we certainly for a time deemed the descent impracticable without a ladder. The sight of a rotten native-made rope which dangled over the precipice made us perhaps imagine the descent to be more critical than it in reality was. At length, after looking down several times, we perceived a ledge and some holes in the face of the rock which might enable us to descend, and we summoned up courage to make the attempt. The worst part of the way was round an overhanging rock, where it was necessary to lean backwards in order to get from one ledge to the other. Below this the way was less dangerous, but great care was yet necessary to avoid slipping from the slanting rock into the tide beneath.”
The mention of the “native rope” is worthy of comment, implying regular passage. Maori from Kai Tahu, the tribe dominant south of Nelson and Marlborough, were known to visit some parts of this coast in order to obtain greenstone. Heaphy ascertained that some of the Ngatirarua tribe from Arahura traversed the coast to Whanganui Inlet.
We lunched at Seal Bay amid hundreds of seals—the first real colony. There were newborn pups everywhere, and the bulls were challenging each other for territory. After coming ashore and giving birth to a single pup, the female will mate again some ten days later. Unintentionally, we had chosen this rather intimate time for our intrusion, and had to be continually on our guard against hyperactive males and overprotective females. We observed some ferocious fights: males tearing flesh from each other—several bulls we came across had suffered terrible wounds, and were barely able to move.
There was one anxious moment when Brian lurched sideways to avoid a lunging seal which only seconds before had been soundly asleep. In his haste he caught his boot between two boulders and sprained his ankle, collapsing in pain right beside the escaping seal. Andrew and I alternated between real concern and hoots of laughter as we helped him sit up. A few minutes’ rest, and with the help of a stout stick, Brian was back up front with only a pronounced limp to give away the fact that anything untoward had occurred.
Once a sealing station, this site had been abandoned some nine or ten years before Heaphy, on account of the scarcity of seals. Small groups were commented on by Heaphy and Mackay, but did not appear to match the substantial population evident today.
I tried to imagine the hardship of the early sealers on this coast: around 1830 a sealing boat was stove here, and the crew, with the exception of two, perished. Some Maori from Whanganui Inlet who were there collecting karaka nut killed the hapless survivors in revenge for the loss of their chief’s child, who had gone to sea in the vessel to which the boat belonged and never returned.
Beyond Seal Bay we came to a particularly obtuse bluff. The cliff rose vertically, but we had no alternative other than to strike upwards as best we could, and hopefully cross into the mouth of the Moutere River. The few metres of loose, crumbly granite gravel, the transition zone between bare rock and scrubline, was often the most tortuous: no foot- or handhold could be trusted.
It was here that I experienced my most terrifying moments, inching upwards in toeholds I had cut with my Bowie knife, unable to even call out to Andrew for help because the words wouldn’t come out. To finally grab the lowest flax and pull myself up through the steep kiekie was sweet relief indeed.
A wonderful view of the Moutere River, the first substantial watercourse since Kahurangi, provided a suitable excuse to rest on the small saddle. I felt physically drained, every exposed part of my skin was covered in kiekie cuts—deep incisions that seemed to get more painful by the hour—and I had become separated from the others. I charged downwards, falling and stumbling through the kiekie before finding myself on the edge of a precipice with Brian below, shouting instructions on the best descent.
Dropping our packs on the sand, we explored the disused deer trap on the flat beside the river. When deer commanded boom prices it was worthwhile to trap the animals here and lift them out by helicopter. It took Andrew only a few seconds to figure out how the ingenious trap mechanism activated, springing the gate shut behind the unsuspecting deer.
In fading light we chose a camp site just before Rocks Point under a beautiful nikau grove which provided good shelter from the continual wind and rain. Keen to relax, we set up camp within half an hour, finding dry wood, lighting a roaring fire, shucking and frying paua, pitching the tent and getting the sleeping bags ready for the wonderful moment when we could lie down out of the weather and unwind.
Next morning we walked straight into a biting sou’wester and intermittent rain, and had to lean forward and clutch rocks to pull ourselves around Rocks Point. There before us was the almost luxurious sand stretch of Big Bay, with its majestic hills covered in nikau, rata, flax and kiekie, and creeks bubbling through gaps in the greenery and down to the sea.
Rounding Toropuihi Point, we encountered a strange phenomenon: foam driven by the wind and heaped up into drifts that were blown about like snow in a storm. We jumped from rock to rock, probing with sticks among the crashing waves and foam, up to our waists in places.
The main seal colony at Wekakura Point required careful manoeuvring to get around. Newborn pups were everywhere, and the bulls were particularly aggressive, charging and bailing us up against the cliff. We aborted an attempt to climb around this colony, wasting a good hour crawling upwards through steep flax before hitting totally impenetrable kiekie. Retracing our ascent and path back to a wonderful golden beach, we lit an enormous bonfire, and stood close around it in the rain, relishing the warmth on our damp bodies.
We used such times to rearrange or repair gear. The wear and tear on our clothes and equipment was diabolical; bed rolls were in shreds, packs holed and my new boots were now well and truly worn in on the hard granite. I mourned the loss of my trusty Bowie knife somewhere in the kiekie above me; maybe in years to come someone crashing around up there will find it—just a rusty antique knife with no known past.
The tide was receding as we trudged around headlands which had been impassable only hours before. The long 10km section from Wekakura Point to Heaphy Bluff is a palm-strewn golden sand beach, divided into three sections by Kotaipapa and Whakapoai Points. The granite here is more of a grey colour, with occasional pieces of quartz, conglomerate and secondary rock intervening. But this geology changes abruptly at the sheer 200-metre limestone cliffs that form Heaphy Bluff—another obstacle that must be scaled, not skirted.
Instead of returning to the coast, we chose this point to cross over into the Heaphy River valley, and thence to connect with the Heaphy Track.
Darkness was falling, with heavy rain imminent, as we followed the creek down through tangled supplejack, finally breaking out on to the river bank. In front of us was a flood-swollen torrent that defied several attempts to cross. Fighting disappointment, and reluctantly letting go our hopes of sleeping in Lewis Hut that night, we climbed back into the dank bush to set up camp in heavy rain. We despaired of crossing the river at all now, and began discussing our alternatives while devouring the mussels collected before we left the coast.
The following morning dawned bright and clear, and, as if in anticlimax, John found a wide waist-deep ford in the receding water several kilometres upstream. We scrambled through some bush and stood on the Heaphy Track, congratulating each other on our triumph.
We covered the last 56km of the track by the following afternoon, walking into Browns Hut at Bainham with exaggerated handshakes, cheers and humour, then collapsing one by one in exhaustion.
We had succeeded. We had beaten the odds. But as well as that, we had gleaned adventure and comradeship that only a hostile environment can bestow. We had all excelled in different skills, at times rescued and assisted each other, explored and pushed the limits, and witnessed first-hand a terrain few have traversed.
Julius von Haast summed up his account thus: “I may be permitted to warn persons who are liable to giddiness not to travel by this route, but rather to select that which leads up the Aorere River, and from thence to the Heaphy; but for a man with a stout heart and a strong head, nothing can be more interesting than the journey along this coast, particularly if accompanied by a friend of the same qualities. They may, it is true, meet with disagreeable mishaps, but they will be amply compensated for their troubles by the wild beauty of the scenery, which is such as cannot be described in words.”
How long will this magnificent coast remain a “wild” place? Many share the urge to escape the so-called “civilised” world, but how much intrusion can this coast take before it needs a management plan, before a rudimentary route becomes blazed by the regular passage of feet, or before the seal colonies of Seal Bay and Wekakura Point need further protection? The very nature of the terrain will exclude all but the hardiest traveller, yet I somehow hear the distant whirr of helicopter blades bringing the world to the wilderness.