Cape Cod. Cape Town. Cape Canaveral. There are many of these famous headlands around the world, surrounded by water on three sides, but none have attracted more of my attention than Cape Farewell at the very top left corner of the South Island. Reluctant as we were to leave our unexpected haven at the Innlet, Elise and I knew it was time to continue even further than Collingwood to as far as the road would take us. It was time to venture to the very north of the south.
Something I quickly learned about New Zealand is the deception of distance. On paper, two locations may appear to be only a few kilometers apart – Kaiteriteri and Split Apple Rock, for instance, which I just visited. But what the maps will leave out – or fail to fully convey – is the nature of the roads themselves and the never-ending way in which they twist and turn. I’ve never seen roads wind quite like in New Zealand. Elise herself, as any true German might, bemoaned the Kiwi highways and longed for days gone by back home, speeding along the Autobahn at 180 km/hour.
Similarly, when Elise and I pulled into the I-Site at Cape Farewell, we were shocked to discover the amount of time it would take us to walk around the very base of the Cape, right where Farewell Spit begins to extend into the sea. Inside the I-Site, a vacuum was running, one of the kinds with straps to wear like a backpack. I was surprised to see the woman wearing the bulky contraption, with her dreadlocks tied up in a bunch and chunky high heels. She looked more like someone you’d find in a fair-trade coffeeshop, not an information center in a far-flung location. I’d more or less come to expect retirees in such places, the white-haired men and women whose lives have undoubtedly slowed down considerably, freeing their schedules up for such pursuits.
She pulled out a large map of the Golden Bay area and drew a circle, no bigger than a pin-head perhaps, near the start of Farewell Spit. “This will take you about an hour and a half to walk around,” she said, setting her pencil down. You sure couldn’t tell just by looking at the map. Immediately I started to mentally reshuffle my schedule for the day. Although we’d read public access allows you to walk four kilometers out onto the spit, clearly we’d be there all day if we tried to cover all the ground we could.
Farewell Spit, reaching out thirty or kilometers or so in a hook, the Tasman Sea on one side, Golden Bay to the other, is New Zealand’s longest sand spit, expected to grow two kilometers more in the next five years alone. The Department of Conservation has licensed some companies to lead nature “eco-tours” on the spit, shuttling their customers around in Bedford RL lorry trucks to visit the spit’s lighthouse and the gannet colony even further out, but we had neither the time nor money for such a trip. Instead, we started out on the right side of the spit, following along the northern shores of Golden Bay.
Many of the beaches we’d seen so far on our journey north had been of considerable width. Not so much the ones in the Abel Tasman National Park or Kaiteriteri, but most definitely at Tahuna Beach Reserve and places like Rabbit Island. A wide expanse of silvery, tan sand, the beach we walked on in Nelson stretched further from sand to shore than the streets of Invercargill. Not so along Farewell Spit, however. And the narrowness of the beach was only highlighted by the incoming tide, which pushed us closer and closer to the thickly vegetated shores of the bay. The sand was covered in seaweed, driftwood, plants of all sorts, and Canadian geese floated by the flock-load not far from the shoreline.
We walked for a while along the western side of the spit, picking our way through the vegetation, when we came to a path on our left. From what we could see up ahead, it didn’t seem like the landscape would be changing dramatically enough to warrant additional investigating, so we decided to take the path and see where it spit us out. What lay at the other end was a completely different world. The farther we followed the track, the more we could hear the sound of the ocean growing, the waves of the Tasman Sea flowing into each other on the shore. When at last the cover of trees gave way to waves of sea grass and sand dunes, we found ourselves standing on a veritable sandscape, where the wind had shaped the sand into the kind of patterns and designs you so often see captured in photography collections or calendars. And it was immediately clear just where the Maori name for the spit, Onetahua, had been derived from: “heaped up sand.”
While the side bordering the bay had failed to leave much of an impression, with its narrow beach, cluttered vegetation, and gentle, lapping waters, the eastern shores of the spit were immensely, beautifully desolate. To the right, the sand stretched far into the distance, the lighthouse not in sight; to the left, the dunes rose and fell into cliffs that seemed ages away, impossibly out of reach. For a while, the only footprints on the beach belonged to Elise and myself until a family of four, two young children and their parents, appeared on the horizon. Although at first we’d not intended to complete the entire circular track, we asked the family how much further back to the start. “A while,” they said, and we answered the same when they asked how far to the path towards the bay. We finally turned off the beach and started the walk back, much of it plowing straight through farmland. We said hello to cows and sheep, nervous to be taken for trespassers, and paused to admire wild day lilies in the forest sunlight. To pass from field to field, there was a series of stairs, not so much turnstiles, but wooden steps leading up and over fences. As we approached the final field, literally – and I repeat, literally – filled with sheep, I began to think, “Surely not…” But oh, yes, we walked straight through, the sheep clearing out of our way like the Red Sea for the Israelites.
Having fulfilled our self-imposed walking quota for the day, we decided to skip out on the hour-long hike to Cape Farewell and drive there ourselves. Although a piece of stunning scenery in its own right, the real purpose behind the whole excursion was the cape’s status as the northernmost point of the South Island. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of any major signage – certainly none with the charm of the yellow signs I’d seen at Slope Point – the point instead being marked by your conventional Department of Conservation-sponsored, yellow-lettering-on-dark-green-background sign. However, as I would soon be boarding a ferry in Picton, crossing Cook Strait, and trading my southern life for one on the North Island, it was much more of a fitting moment than the sign, or lack thereof, gave onto. To have been from Slope Point to Cape Farewell, from the very south to the very north, had a kind of symmetry about it, as if I’d come full circle and was truly ready to leave the South Island behind. Although there are places that remain to be seen – Mount Cook and Westport being two I most wish I’d been able to visit – one should always have something to come back to, right?
There was one place we knew couldn’t leave without visiting – Wharariki Beach. Dalia, manager of the Innlet, told us we couldn’t miss it: the magic of low tide, the way in which the water pulled back, uncovering caves and rocks to explore, and the tide pools that were created where young seal pups would play. All of which, of course, we did miss due to timing and the tides. The low tide of the day fell late in the afternoon, when we would unfortunately need to be back on the road towards the Abel Tasman. The beach was about a twenty-minute walk from the carpark, a path that once again wove across hilly green farmland, cows and sheep only just out of reach. In the words of AA, New Zealand’s version of AAA (makes sense, I suppose), Wharariki Beach “isn’t your traditional beach visit…it is a discoverer’s dream.” Just like on the spit, the beach was a succession of sand dunes, but what was most striking was the wind and the way it whipped the sand against you. The tide was only beginning to recede when we arrived, but it didn’t keep us from traversing the dunes, taking in the extraordinary view – steep cliffs, rock islands, and a coastline that extended in either direction far beyond what the eye could see.
Wind-battered and sand-stung, we drove away from Farewell Spit filled with that small sense of accomplishment of having gone the extra mile, of again having gone as far as the road would lead. As we passed through Collingwood a second time, I managed to drag Elise into the Collingwood Museum, a sign on the door welcoming us to “our tiny museum,” and trust me – they weren’t kidding. The museum was comprised of a single hall, perhaps twenty feet long, with windowed display cases on either side. A simple browse up one side and down the other took just minutes. Behind the windows lay an entire township’s Show-and-Tell, a collection of items and knick-knacks, many from the early 1900s and wartime eras. They’d been grouped together to represent areas such as technology and education, with a fair share of household objects and even a first-aid book for “horses, dogs, birds and cattle.” The display cards had almost all been written by hand, giving you the image of a devoted group of volunteers working on them with painstaking care.
Next door was the Aorere Centre, a cultural learning center only slightly larger in size but one that I found to be an excellent complement to the museum. While the museum had been a collection of objects, the center seemed to focus on ideas and broader themes – just the kind of balance I find crucial to learning about a place. You need to both show and tell, right? Apparently Nelson wasn’t the only city in New Zealand whose namesake was a well-known fighting Brit. As an exhibit read, “Collingwood’s name is symbolic of the sea’s importance to early European settlers and their descendents. Admiral Lord Collingwood was second-in-command at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). After Admiral Lord Nelson was killed, Collingwood completed the British victory over Napoleon’s French/Spanish fleet. When gold fueled the growth of the little settlement of Gibbstown in the 1850s, and grandiose plans for a town were drawn up in London, the proposed town was to be named after Cuthbert Collingwood and the streets for ships, admirals, or nautical terms.” And so it seems that in New Zealand town-planning as in real-life battles, “Collingwood in Golden Bay was to stand alongside Nelson in Tasman Bay.”
With our tour d’ force of the museum and cultural center complete, there was only one spot left to see in Collingwood: the Rosy Glow Chocolate Shop. This landmark location had first been brought to our attention by Dalia as well, who drew an arrow on a map to it as if it was as prominent a feature as the Farewell Spit lighthouse. “And here we have Rosy Glow’s…” Because of the absurdity of her pointing it out to us, I was naturally drawn to visit. I was intrigued as to why such a well-known shop was on a back street, rather than the main “drag” of Collingwood. But Elise and I decided not to drive, as the weather was perfect and we’d been told it was only a five-minute walk. Five turned into ten, though, until it finally came into sight.
In true form, the house was pink, framed by a white picket fence and the to-be-expected large number of rose bushes. The shop, however, was surprisingly small, located on the side of the house, as if they’d run out of ideas for what to do with a spare bedroom. Office? No. Craft room? No. Chocolate shop/tourist trap? Yes. I like it, let’s do it. There wasn’t much to the shop, only two glass cases displaying its wares on lace doilies and a bell to “kindly ring for service.” I’d pictured a white-haired, aproned old woman perhaps wearing wire-rimmed glasses to appear – but the one who did was young, perhaps mid-30s and decidedly not nearly as sugary-sweet as her chocolate. I suppose I would have appreciated a bit more appreciation on her part, having made the effort to visit her shop. As we began the long walk back to town, eating our rapidly-melting goods – me a chocolate caramel bar, Elise a lime sour – a woman passes us and says, “Good chocolate, eh?” and I wonder just how many have been duped into paying for overpriced chocolate they didn’t really want in the first place.
With Collingwood behind, all that lay before us was the trip to Marahau, where we’d be departing from the next day for our kayak trip. On the way there, though, we pulled off the road to see Te Waikoropupu Springs, affectionately known as Pupu Springs. We weren’t the only ones there for Australiasa’s largest spring, sharing the carpark with several campervans. Although sixty other larger springs exist elsewhere, Pupu Springs is the world’s clearest freshwater spring – only the water under the subantarctic shelf is clearer. I’d never seen any kind of springs, though, so I was quite enthralled with watching the bubbles on the surface on the surface. But just when all you really want to do is don a mask and snorkel and go for a swim, signs pop up all along the path prohibiting anyone from entering the water. They always have to spoil your fun, don’t they?
To replenish our collection of mostly non-perishable food items with something a little more palatable for dinner, we stopped off in Takaka, population 1,200, en route to Marahau. It didn’t take long to realize there wasn’t much going on in the town. “There’s more shops than inhabitants,” Elise says in a having-landed-on-Mars kind of awe. I’d read in my guidebook about a café with a community notice board that is often helpful for finding seasonal vineyard or fruitpicking work, something Elise and I were both keen to do for a week or two after touring around. We’d figured the work would be easy to come by, but found just the opposite as soon as we arrived. Many of the hostels in Blenheim which claim to help in finding work had nothing to give us. The seasonal work offices we called greeted us with pre-recorded messages saying, “There is no available work,” or something similarly cheery. Throughout the saga, I thought of a guy named Ryan I’d met in Queenstown back in September who’d mentioned that he was moving up north to work on a friend’s vineyard. He gave me his details and told me to call once I was headed that way myself and he’d help me out with a job. I lost the details, of course, and the harder it became to find work, the more I lamented my mistake.
In Takaka, we passed the Telegraph Hotel, a name that I thought sounded familiar from the guide book, so we popped in to check. Just as I walked into the café/bar area, I turned around only to see Ryan walking in behind me and felt the world – or New Zealand, at least – shrink a few more meters. “Ryan?” I say, not believing the coincidence. “Heeey,” he says slowly, and for a second I’m not sure he remembers. I was his bartender, after all, so who knows how well he would recognize me sober. “Queenstown, right?” After a few minutes of catching up, he tells me he “never did go work on that vineyard after all.” Well, that’s that, it seems. Vineyard connection or not, I’m still amazed at the size of this country and the infinite number of random, “it’s-a-small-world” moments that seem possible here.
And then we were back on the road for the last time of the day. Elise settled into driving, me into my role of DJ/navigator. On a particularly curvy section of the road, drawing close to our day’s destination and just a few minutes outside Marahau, we rounded a bend only to see a girl in her 20s running towards us on the road, waving her arms frantically, yelling, “Stop! Stop! There’s been an accident.” In an instant, my mind was transported from the idyllic end of a Disney family movie to the seat of a horror film. The look of pure terror on her face jolted my stomach – I expected a multiple car collision up ahead; I expected blood; I expected us suddenly transporting people to the hospital; I don’t even know exactly what I expected, but it was definitely the worst. We stopped the car and I grabbed my cell phone, not knowing what else to do. She walked towards a ledge and peered down at the forest below – a flipped car perhaps? Someone thrown from the window? A black helmet appeared – at least driver can move, I told myself. But then he’s standing there, assuring us he’s fine and okay, but that’d he’d like to know where his motorcycle is. It was the most anticlimactic of moments, my heart still racing with no outlet for the adrenaline. Grateful, of course, that I was for the lack of a real tragedy, the scene shook me out of the stupor of our day’s travels.
That night in the kitchen of our hostel, we talked with a Frenchman named Cedric, who shared that he’s traveling with two of his friends after a year’s working holiday in Australia. I’d seen them earlier, a couple, walking out of the bathrooms, the woman rubbing her stomach. I hadn’t been sure if she was pregnant or not, but when we asked about their plans for the next day, Cedric said, “We go to Nelson tomorrow, my friend thinks she’s lost her baby.” Maybe it was the accent, maybe it was like in a TV show when everything all of a sudden makes sense and the character replays flashback after flashback, wondering how they’d missed it before. Of course the couple wasn’t hanging out in the hostel’s common area, of course there was a look of something’s-not-right about the woman as her hand had passed over her stomach. It was one of those moments where the right words to say just don’t come.
These moments of tragic reality are what keep you grounded – an almost encounter with a horrific accident, the potential loss of a child – these are the things that keep your perspective in check. Missed timing with tides, annoyances with shop clerks – it all seems so trivial, so frivolous. The only thing that becomes vital is your heartbeat itself. The fact that you are where you are at all. There is the potential in travel to become increasingly disconnected from reality, especially on an extended trip where every minute of internet usage costs money and is thus avoided, or when time spent in remote places eliminates the ability to keep up with the outside world. I am the first to extol the many wonderful qualities of a traveling life, but I know equally well the danger of becoming increasingly self-centered, solipsistic, with no real finger on the pulse of the world around you. As grateful as I was for the chance to complete my circuit of the South Island, to have circled around the very north of the south, I went to bed that night a little heavy of heart.