New Zealand: Golden Bay

The morning after walking the Abel Tasman Coast Track I wake up late and confused. Beneath me is a soft mattress. I had enjoyed the enhanced comfort of a night back in the van. I took a shower, ate some eggs, I drank not one but two mugs of coffee. No rush today. Nowhere to be. My lack of impetus leads me to throwing my gear in the back of the van in order to leave Old Macdonald’s Farm by check out time. I cruise into the car park at the start of the track and finish re-packing in a manner resembling organisation. On the way back to Motueka I stopped at Split Apple Rock, an icon of the Abel Tasman National Park. The two halves of rock are smaller than I had imagined. The sky sits heavy, the ocean is green verging on grey. I wonder if I might regret leaving the van without my waterproof. Fat drops break over my shoulders for a short time. Nothing more than a warning. I continue on, passing through Kaiteriteri and then Motueka. I pick up supplies in order to survive the next week. After 5 days of dry food I’m gagging for apples and oranges, tomatoes and onions. I move further North, heading towards Takaka where I’ll need to be a few days from now to catch a shuttle out to the Heaphy Track trailhead.

Before crossing Takaka Hill I pull into the Riwaka Resurgence. A hole in the ground where the Rikawa river emerges from the marble-topped mountains. I’d wandered up the short trail with a cup of tea in hand. A nod to the shift from surviving to thriving. At the blue, bubbling source of the river I decide the water is probably safe to drink. I descend on to the rocks and scoop up a whole mug of river water. Enjoying the first taste of the cleanest, freshest water I think I’ve drunk so far on this trip I decide to grab another scoop for the walk back. The junction joining the main road into Golden Bay is the sharpest of left turns. I need two attempts to get on to the correct side of the road. Fortunately there’s a huge stretch of road works so nothing moves in either direction. The traffic lights are accompanied by another set of lights counting down the time until the change to green. 14 minutes, then 5. As the first set of lights drops to one, ignitions crank. I wind the van up the road and over Takaka Hill. Forest coats the tops, farmland spreads in the lowland valleys. Hills reach snow dusted mountain heights which roll out into the Kahurangi National Park. The safe places to stop aren’t marked. Naturally, I miss all of them. 

I pass through the township of Takaka, heading towards Te Waikoropupu Springs. The water here is sacred, to be neither touched nor consumed. 14,000 litres of water burst out of the ground into the Waikoropuru River. The colour of the water is the most unbelievable I’ve ever seen. Even under a blanket of cloud, the shimmering, rippling springs shift from deep navy to the lightest of blues. According to the fact boards I’m looking at some of the purest water in the world. The only known source of more perfect hydration is below the frozen crust of Antarctica. The information board also suggest there’s a tap in the picnic area where this sapphire liquid can be sampled. Maybe there was one once before, as far as I could see the drinkable source was no longer available. I leave the forbidden waters and head back towards town. I stop at Waitapu Bridge. A huge freedom camping area with only one toilet. With the gradual approach of night more and more cars and vans pull in. Gangs of freedom campers playing music loud enough for all to hear. A pyramid of empty cans piled by the corner of a Nissan something or other. The warm earthy aroma of cannabis. Still just about in the off-season, in the time of corona, I can’t believe the size of the crowd. A timely reminder hell is other people. I long for the quiet of the trail. 4 nights away from the crowds, or so I hope. Rain starts to fall. The noise at least disperses. I load up my own toilet with last of my chemicals. No point going outside to join a queue in the wet if I don’t have to. 

In the morning I go back to the springs to see how they look in the morning light under clear skies. The blue is more powerful, more obvious. A truly magical place. This time I continue up the valley road to the Pupu Hyrdro Walkway. I’m now looking for places to walk, ways to keep building distance. To maintain some kind of minimum. I’m surprised at how quickly the trail climbs, how easy going up is without the additional weight of self-sufficient days away. Signs warn parents to carry their young children, to keep a close eye on others because of a narrow boardwalk alongside a water race. Until today I didn’t know what a water race was. It’s basically a canal. Over 100 years ago, 8 men carved the 3km long channel into the steep hillside to channel water for gold-mining purposes. Today the water race is still used by the hydropower station in the head of the valley. Water spills in from the heights, aqueducts cross ravines, outflows flood onto the path and drop over the ravine-like edge. I find myself genuinely impressed with this slice of human engineering that has blended in with the surrounding nature rather than destroying it. I reach the pump house, the more obvious blot of human activity on the hillside. The water enters a pipe and drops several hundred meters on to a turbine in the power station below. I join up with the river where the water race begins, the trail now more like a gravel road that winds back down to the car park. 

I look for a scenic reserve on my way towards Cape Farewell. My sat-nav fails me, insisting I drive past in order to complete a U-turn a further 6km along the road. I pull off sooner, drive back and realise there’s nowhere to park. The track starts at the roadside. Uncomfortable with leaving the van on the road I give this one a miss. Instead I stop briefly at Milnthorpe Park; a tangled mess of eucalyptus and now regenerating native bush. The locals wanted to regenerate the area but the barren earth wouldn’t support the native plants. In the end, eucalyptus and acacia were planted which, with some kind of magic, enriched the soil, provided shelter and allowed native plants to finally flourish beneath the imported canopy. Another surprise, a human stab at forest management resulting in a successful attempt to not fuck up the planet entirely at the first opportunity. I think about driving on to the next camp but it’s far too early. I keep driving to Wharariki Beach, which despite sounding a little like Faliraki is nothing like the Greek seaside resort. Beyond the sheep pasture, huge grey sand dunes sweep down to the sea. Beyond the breaking waves the simply massive Archway Islands rise out of the cerulean ocean. The beach is another, almost otherworldly environment. Marbled sands stretch from the dunes into a huge flat beach. In the relentless waves the giants of stone are slowly washed away. The landscape implores me to stay a while, to see how it looks under different light. I’m coming back for sunrise tomorrow. I don’t have anywhere else to be.

Something is making a strange noise. Under my pillow. What is happening? The alarm. I stop the ringing. 6 months have passed without one. I look at the time. So early. Not moving would be too easy. I pull on some clothes, fasten down the few items still on the worktops. The van chugs into life. I wince at the scream of the reversing beeps. The van ahead of me will have to be thankful for the fact I waited until I wasn’t pointing directly into their windows before I turn on my lights. I throw the heat on to the windscreen with no idea where the heat will come from. Along the empty road the bright eyes of a rabbit disappear across the verge. I pull into the car park beneath a purple sky. There is nobody else here. I cross the fields of sheep, bleating their dismay at being disturbed so early. The sand on the beach is cold. The pastel rainbow begins to rise over the incoming tide. The sky is so big and expansive. There is still no one here, I remain completely alone. The sun bursts over the hills. The sand flares up in silver and gold. The Archway Islands ignite. The sky fades to blue. The morning has broken. Such a strange phrase. With the show over, I return home. Two geese hopefully nudge my feet in an attempt to get me to share my late breakfast. Nobody has bothered to tell them you’re not supposed to feed the birds. 

I’ve got another whole day ahead of me and there’s a risk I’ve already enjoyed the best bit. I walk out of the car park down the gravel road. A few cars pass by. You’re too late, I think to myself. I visit Pillar Point Lighthouse. Nothing more than a white box with a light on top. The slow march of the automation revolution has crushed the romance. I climb vertical fields of sheepshit, the spring lambs so cute I can almost forgive them for being a plague on the ecosystem. I arrive at Cape Farewell. The most northernly point of the South Island. I again find myself alone at what would normally be filled with tourists. I wonder what happened to the crowds of other freedom campers from a few nights ago. Why aren’t they ruining the serenity here? Streaks of white cliffs separate the emerald green of empty pasture where the coast meets the sea. My route leads me down to a river with no bridge. I’m becoming more used to this sort of thing. I take off my boots and wade thigh deep through the refreshing water. I’m back on Wharariki Beach again. A family sand-board down the steep edge of one of the dunes. There are pockets of people wandering across the beach. I take one final look at the Archway Islands before I continue my journey to Farewell Spit. 

I walk out along the inner beach heading towards the furthest point of permitted pedestrian access. The endless length of sand rises into dunes on my right, mudflats extend into the bay on my left. The relentlessly uniform landscape plays on my mind. What if I’ve missed the turning across the sand to the ocean beach? I keep walking, sure there will be a sign eventually.  At last it appears, the big orange triangle pointing over the dunes. The yellow on green text, no entry beyond this point. I cut off the beach, over the first dune and into the desert. My concerns about awe-exhaustion have evaporated. The 25km long sand spit is wide enough to easily become lost within. The dunes block the view of the horizon. Vegetation grows around shallow ponds. Footprints of earlier visitors are rapidly buried by the incoming winds and endlessly shifting sands. I have a hard time finding my way across, the orange markers seem to far apart. Sometimes there seems to be no way between them. The crossing is only supposed to take 15 minutes. I didn’t time it but I’m pretty sure the crossing took longer than the wait for the traffic lights on Takaka Hill. The ocean beach has no end. The wind whipped sand creates a haze over the end of the spit. Back towards lands a dark shadow emerges from the dust. Even the sea seems to be a long way off. I follow tyre tracks through the firm sand. I’m tired after a long day on my feet, exposed to the wind, to the sun. The infinite landscape doesn’t seem to change. The dark shadow grows bigger, details emerge. I finally arrive back at the carpark. I’m pleased to have had another big day of it. Tomorrow is my final day off (they’re all days off) before I begin the Heaphy Track. Much as I’d like to get out again and explore more of Golden Bay I know I’m going to have to put the time towards washing, packing, and preparing for another 5 days on the trail.

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