A wise man once said that when you drive over the Takaka Hill, you leave all your troubles behind. In Takaka, the gateway to Golden Bay, this certainly seems to be true, for here life moves to a relaxed and friendly beat, and its locals, many of whom are creative artisans, endorse strong environmental principles. In nearby Collingwood, where there are “no strangers only friends never met”, the end of the road draws nigh. Here where the mountainous Wakamarama and Burnett Ranges roll down to meet the blue-green horseshoe of Golden Bay, the world’s longest spit of sand curves into Cook Strait like an overgrown talon. Farewell Spit is one of NZ’s most important bird sanctuaries; here amongst the shifting dunes and indigenous grasses, over 90 species of native and migratory birds make their home. We spend three days exploring this unique ‘cul-de-sac’. We visit local artists and shop in boutique stores, hike in the Abel Tasman National Park, fish for salmon, visit the world’s clearest springs, gorge ourselves silly on ‘Rosy Glow’ chocolates, and take a four wheel drive tour up Farewell Spit to spy on native and migratory birds.
As we pass through the small beachside settlements of Tasman Bay and on to Motueka, it’s clear to Bob and I that creative folk – artists, potters, sculptors, weavers, carvers, photographers and poets – abound in these parts. We pass several small boutiques, galleries and studios displaying unique wares, as well as simple roadside stalls where excess homegrown produce is sold.
Orchards of apples and hops sweep by as we begin the steep drive up Takaka Hill, passing Ngarua Caves to reach the top where we’re offered fabulous views of the Anatoki Range and flat coastal plains below.
We take a drive by Takaka’s collection of quirky cafes, then hike through the craggy limestone outcrops of the Grove Scenic Reserve in Clifton, where native trees and ferns cling precariously to the top.
At the Wainui Falls, a 30 minute hike brings us to a swing bridge with an impressive view of the thundering water. We enjoy a cup of thermos coffee on a large boulder in the sun then hike back down the trail to continue our drive through dense forest to the ochre-tinted sands of Totaranui in the Abel Tasman National Park.
“Let’s go somewhere quiet to picnic,” suggests Bob, in contemplative mood after the waterfall experience.
Information on all the hikes – which range from 20-minutes to five days – is provided in the Dept. of Conservation office. We choose the one-hour Coast Track to Anapai Bay which journeys over the headland and when we arrive we have the beach all to ourselves. After a refreshing dip in the warm ocean, we eat our tasty salami-based picnic and laze in the sun before returning to Totaranui, where - much to Bob’s delight - I suggest we go salmon fishing.
We drive back to Takaka then head to Anatoki Salmon, a fresh water salmon farm located in a sheltered valley beside the Anatoki River.
You can buy direct from the farm, or fish to your heart’s content, paying only for your catch. As we only need one fish we share the rod but it’s Bob who pulls in a beautiful 3.4 kilo fish which is then efficiently weighed, gutted and gilled, and placed on ice in a polystyrene container for easy transportation. There’s a BBQ and smoking facilities onsite but we opt instead to head straight to our accommodation at Sans Souci Inn, an eco-friendly lodge near the beach. When we arrive our friendly hosts, Vera and Reto Balzer whisk our salmon into their manuka smoker.
After settling into our rooms we explore the inn, it’s housed in a long, circular mudbrick building with clay tiles, turf insulated ceilings, and spotless, sweet-scented composting toilets, then we join other guests and relax in a cobbled courtyard amid lush, tropical plantings. After a delicious dinner of delectable smoked salmon, we find that Sans Souci’s eco-friendly ways are quite a talking point amongst guests, many of whom are outdoorsy types and keen environmentalists. Bob, intrigued by the inn’s unique bathrooms, quizzes Reto about the composting process until late in the evening – discovering, amongst other facts, that it takes around two years to produce a safe, organic fertiliser.
"Well then," I hear Bob saying to Reto as I slip quietly off to my room, "Why on earth aren’t we all composting?"
In the morning we enjoy a light breakfast before taking a leisurely stroll around the friendly township of Takaka, perusing its array of quirky craft studios and galleries, and small boutique village stores, before driving to the Waikoropupu Springs, the clearest freshwater springs in the world.
“Wow,” says Bob, gazing at the iridescent blue and green springs which sparkle like polished paua, “They’re beautiful!” The springs rise through thick layers of marbled rock and discharge around 14,000 litres of water per second. We hike around the edge of the pools passing water milfoil, forget-me-nots and rushes on a track that leads to various viewing platforms. There are several informative display boards en route and we learn that the springs are home to freshwater snails, long finned eels and koura (freshwater crayfish). “Look,” says Bob, “they were once used by the Maori for ceremonial blessings.”
We spend time soaking up the peaceful atmosphere then drive through the countryside to the Mussel Inn Bush Café, a country pub selling local food and drink. We join others on the wide, shady verandah screened by vines of hops, and relish every mouthful of the thick mussel chowder we’re served, washing it down with an organic beer that is brewed onsite.
Bob pops inside to settle our account and returns with an amazed look on his face, “There’s a bounty for possum tails,” he says incredulously, obviously recalling all the squashed possums we’ve seen on the road during our circumnavigation of NZ. “Every tail earns a pint on the house and if you bring in a rat’s tail, you’ll get a chocolate fish!”
Bob marvels at the locals’ endorsement of strong environmental principles all the way to Tukurua, where we leave State Highway 60 and follow a back street lined with roadside stalls. We stop to admire pottery at Flax Gully and fragrant handcrafted candles at Living Light Candles, before driving to the beach where we step upon aureate sands to delight in the sparkling arch of Golden Bay.
Then we continue on to Collingwood and check into a local B&B. Later, at our host’s suggestion, we climb the hill to St Cuthbert’s, a tiny Anglican church built in 1873 for a bird’s eye view of this tiny town. Below, the 1905 Courthouse - now a popular café - buzzes with patrons and a steady stream of visitors stop to inspect the historic displays housed in the town’s tiny museum.
After booking a place aboard Paddy Gillooly’s famous Original Farewell Spit Safari for the following morning, we pay a visit to Rosy Glow Chocolates. Here we find a delicious array of handcrafted confectionery and after choosing a (rather large) selection we drive inland to Rockville’s Te Anaroa Caves, munching on chocolates as we go. At the caves we join a half hour guided tour to see its highlights, including beautiful bacon drapes, straws and columns, as well as fossilised scallop shells, gypsum flowers and penguin bones. Bob even spots a signature by WD Lash dating back to 1884.
When we emerge the light is beginning to fade and so we return to the Courthouse Café in Collingwood where we have a dinner of fresh pan fried groper with a roasted red pepper and basil sauce, before turning in.
The morning dawns bright and clear for our guided expedition up Farewell Spit and we board a unique 4wd bus, which has tiered seating to guarantee everyone a good view.
En route our guide for the morning, Kersten Franke, provides a brief history of the local region from coal mining in Puponga to the Aorere goldrush of 1857, then tells us that Farewell Spit began life 6,500 years ago and lengthens by six and a half metres every year. “It’s a fragile ecosystem, so no public vehicle access is permitted,” he says, “and only four kilometres of its 35 km length may be seen on foot.”
While the Tasman Sea pounds Farewell Spit’s northern coast, its sheltered southern shores provide a safe haven for shellfish and waders. On this inner beach we spot many natives: white herons, South Island pied oyster catchers, banded dotterels and Caspian terns. As we cross the dunes to the Tasman Sea the migratory birds come out to play. There’s the Turnstone, an inquisitive bird busily examining stranded debris, who will soon be off to the Northern Hemisphere to breed on the Arctic Coast, and throngs of Eastern Bar-tailed Godwits preparing for their journey to North-eastern Siberia. “How on earth do they find the spit when they return here every year,” Bob wonders aloud.
It’s 27 km to the lighthouse along a route that the Original Farewell Spit Safari team knows well as in 1946 they began a mail run to the lighthouse, transporting supplies to the keepers and their families. “Visitors came along for the ride and so the tours began,” Kersten tells us as we disembark to look at crescent-shaped dunes rising high above blackened salt pans, before journeying on to the semiarid surrounds of the lighthouse.
The first lighthouse was built in 1870 from Jarrah, an Australian hardwood, but it was blasted to pieces by the sand so a new steel tower was built in 1897. Inside, over morning tea, we peruse the historical photos plastered all over its walls. “Look here,” says Bob, pointing at a map from 1945 which depicts how fast the spit is growing, “The gannets’ nests didn’t exist back then.”
We climb aboard the bus and continue up the beach, past scattered driftwood and basking seals to the gannets’ nesting site. “Amazing,” says Bob, zooming in with his camera to watch as their smoky-grey young flap their wings in preparation for their inaugural flight.
Later we return by bus to Collingwood to collect the car, then enjoy a late lunch at the Old School Café and Bar in the sleepy seaside village of Pakawau. Earlier in the morning Bob noted the site of another lighthouse, Pillar Point, set high on the rocky outcrops of the Old Man Range. He’s keen to take a look because he says there will be fabulous views of the spit.
We pass through Puponga where the poles from the old jetty begin to protrude as the tide goes out, and shortly afterwards the road ends at Puponga Farm Park, a strip of land created by the government to form a protection belt around Farewell Spit.
An information centre provides details on local hikes including the 20- minute walk to Wharariki Beach with its spectacular jumble of caves, islets, rock pools and sand dunes; Cape Farewell, where Captain Cook said goodbye when he left NZ in 1770; and the Old Man Range and Pillar Point Lighthouse, dubbed ‘blinking billy’ by the locals, which is also the site of New Zealand’s first radar station, used during WW2.
Feeling too lazy to hike we decide instead to ride up with Gail McKnight of Cape Farewell Horse Treks. She assures us that it’s a good easy ride for beginners. “Wharariki Beach is great for advanced riders, they can open up out there,” she says, as I board Bungle, a sprightly cod-liver chestnut with a dark mane and tail. Bob’s riding a beautiful dark horse whom he insists on calling Black Beauty all the way to the top of the range where we’re greeted by absolutely stunning views, a full 360 degree sweep from Farewell Spit through to Abel Tasman National Park. It’s such a clear day that even the silhouette of Mt Taranaki can be seen vaguely on the horizon. “It’s an awesome backyard,” says Gail looking around at us and smiling. “I never grow tired of coming up here.”
Bob snaps merrily away with his camera as the sun begins to drop on the horizon casting a golden glow on the wet sand flats below. Suddenly he jerks up from his camera and waves me over to his side. “Look,” he says incredulously, pointing to Farewell Spit which curves in a glorious golden band below, “It’s just like a kiwi’s beak – that’s how the migratory birds know they’ve arrived home!”