Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Kiwi’s Beak- Farewell Spit : Part 1

It’s fitting to say farewell to Golden Bay with these final posts from the area; the ones I know some have been waiting for, our tour to Farewell Spit. We picked a perfect day for it and luckily we did, as the last few days before we left were mostly cloudy, overcast or raining(finally).

Initially we weren’t sure if in fact we could go on the day I had picked; I’d looked up the forecast and it was going to be the only fine day all week but the tour company have to have a minimum of 4 people on a tour so it was an anxious wait over the weekend, to see if more people had booked for the Monday. When I called Monday morning to check, it was a relief to find out that there were six of us on the tour in the end. The added bonus was the driver (John) had to take the bigger bus not the smaller people mover, to fit us in!

We didn’t have far to walk to catch the tour, the company have their office right in the main street of Collingwood so it was only a matter of walking about 100 metres down the road from the campground. Departure times are dictated by tide times, ours was leaving at 11am and we wouldn’t be back until after 5:30pm, it was going to be a long day. Farewell Spit Eco Tours are the only company with a Department of Conservation permit to enter the Farewell Spit Reserve. Other than the first four kilometres the spit is off limits unless you have a permit.

Our first stop was at Cape Farewell where, as I had thought, I was able to get a much better shot of the Cape, than I had when we visited on our way home from the Archway Islands. The morning sun shining directly onto the cliffs.

Not only did I manage to get some better shots, we also didn’t have to walk up to the lookout like last time.

Far across the water, on the west coast of the North Island and hardly visible through the haze, we were able to just make out the distinctive shape of the snow capped volcano cone of Mt Taranaki. This is a cropped enhanced photo, below it is the actual shot. I wasn't even sure if I had managed to capture it.

I had been looking for Mt Taranaki on the horizon a few times but after seeing how difficult it was to spot, I can see why I had failed to find it.

After the stop at the Cape we drove back through DOC’s Puponga Farm Park to the locked gate and the entrance to the inside of Farewell Spit. The Maori name for Farewell Spit is Onetahua which means “heaped up sand", I wonder if there is a word for "heaped up logs"...

With David as co-pilot we drive along the inside beach of the spit for a short distance, dodging logs and driftwood, dead seals and seaweed before taking a run at a sand track that crosses over to the ocean side and a beautifully smooth huge expanse of beach.

At approximately 35kms long, Farewell Spit is the longest sand spit in New Zealand and the longest natural sandbar in the world, it’s an arc of sand that aptly resembles a kiwi beak.

The Spit shelters tidal mudflats on the inside that are exposed at low tide for up to 6kms, one of the reasons that Farewell Spit is also well known for numerous mass whale strandings. Each spring & summer the mudflats are also home to thousands of migratory wading birds (around 20,000 godwits & 30,000 knots) which why the Spit is a Ramsar Site, one of 1651 internationally important wetland sites around the world. It’s also a Flyway Reserve Network Site, part of a chain of important wetlands around the world where migratory birds visit to rest & feed on their long distance journeys.

We’ll travel along the beach below the tide line so that all traces of our visit are erased by the next incoming tide. Our first stop is a climb to the top of a small sand dune to view the unusual sight of a fresh water lake on the inside of the dunes. And not only the lake but the recent arrival of Canada Geese who have taken up residence. We count 31 geese, the most that John(our driver) has seen there. Hopefully DOC limit the numbers as they can become a major pest, destroying vegetation and fouling waterways.

Along the way we pass resting seals and various sea birds including a pair of Variable Oystercatchers at about every 100 metres or so. These prime ocean front sections will be their patch of beach for the breeding season and they’ll be nesting up in the dunes behind very soon. They are obviously used to the vehicle as they don’t bother to move out of the way even though we swerve around them so as not to disturb them too much.

While we’re stopped looking at something, two DOC vehicles approach and pass, heading out towards the lighthouse. They have quad bikes and dog crates on the back and John tells us that they are “grunter hunters”. That’s right, pig hunters. There are thought to be a few hundred wild pigs on the spit and there are regular hunting parties to cull them and especially just before the bird breeding season when the pigs can cause major damage to nests, eggs and chicks.

Ahead of us the sand stretched smooth & sleek, a mirage shimmered in the distance no matter how far we moved towards it. From a distance this tree trunk was the only dark spot on the horizon. The willow trunk arrived on the inner Golden Bay sand plain in 2010, a casualty of the huge flood down the Aorere Valley in December that year. It then moved out into the bay and around the spit to end up here at it’s final resting place where it will slowly break down and disappear.

Finally I catch sight of the Farewell Spit Lighthouse and the clump of trees that surround the lighthouse compound where there are also three houses that once housed the lighthouse keepers and their families. Planted around the compound, the trees provided shelter for the houses, vegetable gardens and animals (house cows & horses). The stand of trees are what we can occasionally see through the haze from the shoreline back near Collingwood.

The lighthouse is now automated, one of the houses is used by DOC (it’s where the “grunter hunters” have set up camp), one house is closed up and the third house is used by our tour company as a base and where we’ll stop to have a hot drink & lunch with time to explore.

But not before we continue on past the entrance over the sand dunes to the lighthouse and head further around the top of the Spit for another 3 kilometres or so. Even then there’s still about 6kms left to travel to get to the tip of the Spit but this is as far as we’ll go today. We stop to check out the gannet colony which is far across tidal flat on a raised island on the inside of the Spit. The colony is a hive of activity as preparations are underway for the breeding season when there can be up to 6,000 birds in residence.

We get a bit of a fright when the nearby log starts to move; a seal resting in the afternoon sun sits up to check us out.

Then it's back to the track near the lighthouse where John throws the bus into “heavy-duty” 4WD, tells us to hold onto our hats and takes a flying run at the loose sand track through a gap in the dunes. The bus roars into action and we spin and side wind through before we’re literally spat out into a sheltered green oasis.

to be continued.......Part 2

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