On a windy day at Farewell Spit – which is most days – the white sand blows sideways in a desert storm. Relentless westerlies pick it up and send it streaming across the beach to be piled high on the sand dunes running down the spine of the rugged spit. Down at the waters edge solitary pairs of oystercatchers walk along the surf line, patrolling their territories to all-comers.
Theirs is a lonely life.
Farewell Spit – Onetahua - is New Zealand’s longest sandspit, running out 30 kilometres from the top of the South Island’s West Coast into the northern reaches of Cook Strait. Built by the sturdy West Coast current which drags sand along the coast from flooded river mouths further south, it is a hostile environment of high dunes, sparse tussock, wind-bent trees and salty lagoons. Inside its protective curve lies a vast expanse of sheltered tidal sandflats that create a world renowned sanctuary for over 90 species of birds, many of which fly in from the northern hemisphere winter.
The calls of tens of thousands of godwits, knots and curlews fill the air as they feed on the fertile flats. Unfortunately Farewell Spit is closed to general traffic so it is necessary to take a tour with one of the local concession- holding tour operators. Several operators run tours along the spit, combining a nature experience that introduces the wild, windswept landscape, the dramatic geology of the coastal hills and the rich diversity of the bird life.
They also feature a stop at the Farewell Spit lighthouse, just a few kilometres from the seaward end of the spit. Built over 100 years ago, the lighthouse has guided ships away from these hostile shores for a long time now, and the three, now unused, keepers’ houses are still maintained by the Department of Conservation. Rugged four wheel drive vehicles make light work of the harsh conditions as they pass by the little black oystercatchers standing in their lonely patch of thundering surf. These will be the only humans to pass through there all day.
Unless conditions are right for windsurfing.
Despite the lighthouse, the shipping lanes that are the western approach to Cook Strait are a grave for 27 wrecks. The most unusual and would have to be one of the later victims, the SS Port Kembla, which sunk to the bottom here in barely believable circumstances in 1917. The part that is hard to believe is the involvement of the German Raider, the Wolf, which remained invisible while littering the Pacific with mines during the latter part of WWI. It was likely that popular runaway Prisoner of War Felix von Luckner was trying to connect with the Wolf when he did the runner from Motuihe in December 1917. Her incredible and destructive journey involved hijacking many a merchant ship at sea, raiding the coal to keep under motor, and continuing on to drop mines. She made her way all the way to South Africa, and to India, some of her deeds aided by a floatplane called Littlewolf, stowed upon the deck.
Eleven miles off Farewell Spit, the SS Port Kembla hit a Wolf-dropped mine while loaded with goods for transport to Sydney. She sunk to the bottom, other ships in the area rescuing the survivors. Divers managed to reach the wreck at a depth of 90 metres in 2007 and made a video.
Too late for the Kembla, a prisoner-of-war aboard the Wolf managed to drop a message in a bottle about the mine laying activities which washed ashore in Indonesia in December 1917. The writer happened to be Captain Meadows, the New Zealand born captain of a ship called Turritella the Wolf had previously pirated. Despite the intelligence, there were three further victims of the Wolf sunk in New Zealand waters, including the passenger and freight steamer Wimmera, off Cape Maria Van Diemen in June 1918. Further information is at the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum.
Image Credits:2000 Jshook Wiikimedia Commons, and NASA