Farewell Spit: sand, seals and sunsets

Collingwood sits on Golden Bay, in the north-west corner of South Island. Its population reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was a base for the gold mining industry. Remarkably it was even briefly in the running to become New Zealand’s capital, but Wellington got the gig instead and with the decline of gold mining Collingwood quickly embraced obscurity. Almost destroyed by fire in 1904, it’s still hanging in there, but only just.

Today Collingwood feels like a one horse town the day after they ate the horse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s inoffensive and not bad looking, like the girl in class who everybody likes but nobody invites to parties.

However we’re not in Collingwood because we think we might fall in love with its quaint architecture, but simply because it’s the pick-up point for our tour of Farewell Spit.

Farewell Spit stretches 34km out into the ocean, making it the longest natural sandspit in New Zealand, and one of the longest in the world. It’s continuing to grow, albeit very slowly, and according to some boffins may possibly one day join up with North Island!!

Inevitably none of us will be around to see if they’re right or wrong. but we can already say with certainty that this part of South Island is further north than the most southerly point of North Island. Confused? Me too, but I’m told that if you check it out on a large scale map it will all make sense. Honest!

Farewell Spit is a wetland of international importance, and has been a bird sanctuary since the 1930’s. Visits to it are strictly controlled too and the tour operators we are travelling with today are the only ones licensed to take groups there. As it happens, today’s group comprises just me, Mrs P and our guide, so a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Before we start driving the length of the spit, there’s just time to admire some of the spectacular rocky coastline at the landward end of the spit.

And then it’s out on to the sand. But we’re not alone. Although this is supposed to be a bird sanctuary the New Zealand Fur Seals haven’t been told, and they are dotted about here and there along the beach, chilling out.

For the most part the seals are unperturbed by our presence and our vehicle is able to approach quite close. Some look us in the eye, as if to say this is my beach, so keep your distance buster.

Amongst the fur seals our guide makes a surprising discovery, a juvenile Leopard Seal. His body shape, and in particular his elongated nose, give him away. Elaine’s been doing this trip for 15 years and reckons it’s just the fifth Leopard Seal she’s seen. He’s way off course, and should be much further south. But you know how it is with teenagers, who always reckon they know best and do their own thing regardless of what the grown-ups tell them. No doubt he’ll learn.

Many of the birds that breed on Farewell Spit have yet to make it back from their wintering grounds, but it’s good to see two species of oystercatcher. The oystercatcher is my favourite bird, and the Pied Oystercatcher- a handsome fellow, dressed in a black suit and wearing a white waistcoat – reminds me of the species we have back in the UK.

The Variable Oystercatcher is more black than white, and in some parts of New Zealand is entirely black. Mrs P’s photo clearly shows his demonic red eye. Like his Pied cousin, the Variable Oystercatcher sports an exceptionally long red bill which he stabs into the sand to hunt for worms and molluscs. Oyster’s aren’t on the menu however, so his name is a bit misleading.

We’re also pleased to see a few Caspian Terns flying over the beach. A couple even land briefly for a photo call, and Mrs P is happy to oblige.

The Australasian Gannets don’t land on the beach, of course – that’s not their style – but a few fly over as they set off on fishing sorties from their nearby gannetry. Visually they look very similar to the Northern Gannet that we are familiar with in the UK, but doubtless they speak with a strange accent and prefer rugby to soccer.

Farewell Spit is, of course, a potential hazard to shipping, and has therefore been home to a lighthouse since 1869. In these days of automation there’s no need for keepers, but the lighthouse still flashes every night, warning passing marine vessels to keep clear or face the consequences. It remains a striking landmark on a sandspit that is otherwise largely flat and featureless except for a few trees planted by the first lighthouse keepers, who had to bring soil from the mainland in order to raise them.

And as we take our leave of Farewell Spit we are treated to a spectacular sunset. Look carefully at Mrs P’s photo and you can just see the lighthouse raising its head above the trees to the right. Any minute now it will get down to business, and flash away happily until the sun rises again tomorrow morning.