To get to my sister’s home town in Golden Bay, you have to climb over Takaka Hill. And when you reach there, people routinely talk about “going over the hill” in the same way others would talk about going overseas, as in “oh, I don’t think I’ll be going over the hill this week/month/any time before Easter”! To be fair, although it only takes just under an hour in good weather, the journey between Motueka and Takaka in Golden Bay is pretty spectacular, not unlike the hairpin-heavy mountain passes leading to Alpine ski resorts, and features as one of the world’s most exciting and dangerous roads to drive.
But the journey is totally worth it, the scenery all around is spectacular, the weather its own Mediterranean microclimate and the atmosphere is as laid back as a Greek olive grove in the late afternoon sun. Takaka itself is like entering into a hippy time warp, where shopkeepers are open to bartering, swapping and “lay-by” purchase-in-instalment arrangements, hand-painted signs and murals everywhere you look (even the corrugated iron walls of the Freshchoice supermarket sport a mural) whilst barefoot travellers laze around, playing music and making art and jewellery.
This is also the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, arguably one of the world’s, not just New Zealand’s, most beautiful spots. So named as it was Golden Bay where Dutch seafarer Abel Janszoon Tasman first anchored his ships back in December 1642, only to have them rammed by waka of local chief Ngati Tumatakokiri, killing four of the Dutch crew, and giving it its original name of Murderers’ Bay. Over a century later, it was also visited by UK explorer Captain James Cook in 1770, but it was only when gold was discovered in nearby Aorere in the late 1850s that it earned its current name. Tiny flakes of alluvial gold are still found in the river, and used alongside silver, pounamu (jade), blue pearls found in paua (abalone), opalwood and locally sourced gems in a flourishing local artisanal trade such as Pamela Nelson’s Kuketa Designs in Takaka or the Onekaka Arts collective.
Golden Bay also occasionally hits the news for sad reasons. On the day I arrived, a large pod of pilot whales had stranded at the northern end of the bay at Puponga, close to Farewell Spit. Over 600 whales were involved overall in the February 2017 strandings, in two different locations at the Spit, making it the third largest in NZ history (the largest apparently was back in 1918 when over 1000 whales stranded on the Chatham Islands), and over 270 had already died before rescuers could get there. Over the following 48 hours, hundreds of volunteers led by the awesome Project Jonah organisation, toiled to keep the remaining live whales hydrated and cool in the hot sun, waiting for the tides to rise again, and coaxing them back out to sea.
Whale strandings are pretty much an annual occurrence here – Golden Bay is vast, extremely shallow and the tides move extremely fast. For UK readers, think Morecambe Bay, but way way bigger, and a LOT more golden and pretty! Why whale strandings happen in the first place is not exactly clear, although there are plenty of hypotheses – prior to this year’s occurrence there had been seismic testing in the area as well as heavy storms, both of which could have disturbed their normal echosound navigation. Pilot whales are also sociable creatures, and it’s thought when one or two get sick or injured, the healthy whales do not like to abandon them, and this is one of the challenges in getting the whales back out to sea – the cries of those left on the beach draws them back ashore again. This time, although around 300 whales died at Farewell Spit, the Herculean efforts of Project Jonah, the Department of Conservation and their tenacious volunteers saved another 300 . At the time of writing, the remaining pod is thought to have left Golden Bay and there have been no sightings since 14 February.
In the meantime, Golden Bay abounds with a vast array of other wildlife, from the birds on the beaches and in the forests to the constant backing soundtrack of the wetas, crickets and cicadas that accompanied me along the Abel Tasman coastal track from Totaranui to Wainui the other day. But more about that in a future blog….