How apt that the tip of the South Island, is shaped like the beak of a Kiwi. Remote and wind-blasted Farewell Spit is a sweeping 30km-long sliver of sand that arcs east between the Tasman Sea and Golden Bay. I’m on my maiden visit to this singular environment, hopping onboard the Farewell Spit Eco Tour’s hardy RL Bedford, for a 6 hour journey of discovery, where the worldly driver-guide, John Stevens casts about facts, figures and anecdotes like cherished confetti.
Within minutes of departing home base in cutesy Collingwood, we’re immersed in the fetching landscape and the romance of the place names. We pass by a rustic old shack in a paddock, which used to be the home of Barry Crump, and we see the mud brick houses built by the Millennium Man, a super-rich American eccentric who thought all major cities would be paralysed by the Y2K bug, and shifted his entire family out here as a survival measure.
Intersecting with the spit, the shallow waters of Golden Bay are insidious death trap for whales. At low tide, the spit is aproned by vast gleaming mud flats, a halfway hotel for droves of shore birds and migratory waders from as far as the Arctic Circle, like the bar-tailed godwit. You’ll see colonies of gannet, heron, dainty oystercatchers, playful little blue penguins and the plethora of languid seals, snoozing in the sun.
Fossil Point is a breath-taking stopover, where old fossils are embedded in the multi-hued sedimentary rock face, a totem to the Jurassic age, when dinosaurs roamed these parts. A 30 km romp along the sugar-white sand brings us to Farewell Spit lighthouse. The historic structure, New Zealand’s only steel latticework lighthouse, was built in 1897 to replace the earlier wooden structure which was rapidly decaying as a result of nature’s hostile forces. A highlight on the return run down the beach, flanked by the crashing breakers of the Tasman, was the chance to scale one of the towering sand dunes, that are piled as high as 30 metres.
As we departed Collingwood, John had gently cautioned us that the wind could be gusting 30-35 knots on the spit. He wasn’t wrong. Trying to scale the dunes was a formidable task, as our group were involuntarily subjected to a full-body sand-blasting exfoliation. One final highlight on the approach back to Collingwood is to take a short diversion through hilly Puponga farmland, to reach the northernmost tip of the South Island, majestic Cape Farewell.
Crowned with a delightful ocean arch, I never realised the South Island also had such a stupendous hole in the rock. High on the cliff tops, this supremely unmolested stretch of ocean front real estate abounds with fur seals and pups basking on the wave-battered rocks below. Farewell Spit Eco Tour is a blockbuster excursion from Collingwood. Contact Paddy Gillooly (what a cracking Irish name) and the team at www.farewellspit.com.
After an indelible day exploring Farewell Spit, head over Takaka Hill and veer left along the Midas-touched shoreline of Golden Bay, to the charming retreat of Pohara Beach. An enchanting diversion is the Grove Scenic Reserve, a fairytale forest with paths that guide you through gnarly limestone rocks and ancient rata trees. The climax is the lookout point, high above Golden bay from a narrow cleft in the limestone rocks.
The 30 minute loop walk is a mystical little track and an ideal recharge, before settling into the languid loveliness of sleepy Pohara Beach.
Right across from the beautiful waters is the impeccably inviting Ratanui Lodge. Irrepressibly boutique and intimate, the lodge features 10 elegantly appointed guest rooms, all en-suite and individually furnished, with quality toiletries, Sky TV, free in-house Wi-FI, complimentary tea and coffee making facilities and complimentary continental breakfast. You’ll love the beautifully landscaped grounds, the bountiful rose bushes and enjoy a soak in the salt water swimming pool. The welcome by lodge proprietors, Steve and Pete, is as warm and embracing as the Golden Bay sunshine, who delight in going above and beyond in the hospitality stakes. www.ratanuilodge.com
Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am