NORTH BY NORTH-WEST

“When vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…”
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

North of Westport, State Highway 67 followed the coast on a narrow, scrubby littoral. The outer edge of the Denniston Plateau, where vast amounts of coal were hewn from the earthquake-rumpled landscape during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dropped almost vertically to the road, clad with wind-raked trees combed flat against the scalp of the land. The farmland was thin, hungry and tired-looking. Dilapidated houses, surrounded by scrapped machines and broken-down cars stared vacantly out at the sea. Abandoned sway-backed sheds, their skeletons of timber bones protruding from beneath warped and sun-faded weatherboards, stood beneath windbreak clumps of gaunt, twisted macrocarpas.  Skinny cattle peered at me from behind bent and rusty farm gates tied closed with bits of plastic string. 

At Mokihinui, the road turned inland, crossed a big river via a rattling bridge of silver-painted steel girders, then climbed in a series of zig-zags and switchbacks across the forested seaward slopes of the Paparoa Range. The heavy rainforest crowded the road. Gigantic matai trees, each one an ark of epiphytes, moss and dangling supplejack vines, towered overhead. I drove with the windows down and over the sound of the wheels on the road and the dulcet tones of the narrator of the audiobook I was listening to (Winston Churchill’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough) I could hear a chorus of birdsong: tui, grey warblers and bellbirds. The warm, sweet smell of the forest filled the air.

Below the road, the lower slopes of the hills, stripped, denuded, burned, slashed and scoured by generations of miners and woodcutters, were clad in an insubstantial skin of regrowth manuka and gorse. On the higher slopes, inaccessible to the axe and the steamshovel, the forest grew in a heavy, natural abundance. But in the white, skeletal branches of dead trees scattered liberally through the living vegetation, I could see the effects of another man-made scourge: possums. 

Introduced into New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to establish a fur industry, the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) has run amok in the tasty larder of New Zealand’s rainforests. Apart from the damage they do to bird species by eating their eggs, the nocturnal and highly mobile possums munch through an estimated 21,000 tonnes of native foliage every night. They are especially fond of the flowers of pōhutakawa and rātā trees: iconic species of New Zealand flora. Hunting and trapping only goes part of the way towards controlling these cute but rapacious critters, so the Department of Conservation (DoC) has gone hard out against them with a poison called sodium fluoroacetate.

1080, the brand name given to the synthetic form of sodium fluoroacetate (FCH₂CO₂Na occurs naturally in at least forty plants native to Australia, Brazil and Africa), is widely used by DoC to control introduced pests such as rats, stoats, ferrets and, our voracious possum friends. In the almost inaccessible ranges of the Kahurangi National Park, the poison is spread in pellet form using helicopters with spinning applicators slung beneath them. The applicators’ predictable ballistics allow for precise control of the application rate and a very strict code of practice is used by the pest control authorities to monitor and control the application of 1080. The pellets themselves are composed mostly of fat mixed with cinnamon and very small doses of sodium fluoroacetate. The poison breaks down easily after rain, does not remain viable in the soil and does not pollute or poison waterways. Admittedly, it is, for some, reason, highly toxic to dogs but to humans it is relatively benign unless a large quantity is consumed.

But despite the very well researched benefits and safety of 1080, a sizable fringe of idiots, egged on by spurious data shared on social media by various organisations opposed to its use, are in constant revolt against 1080. Hunters, who consider New Zealand’s forests and mountains to be their private domain, think that possums, deer, rabbits and himalayan thar are best controlled by shooting. However, the impossibility of overcoming the immense difficulties posed by terrain and population numbers makes this a difficult argument to justify. Conspiracy theories abound about “government-controlled” 1080 factories and moves to eliminate the local fur-gathering industries supposedly propping up the economies of small, impoverished towns. 

Mostly, though, the opposition to 1080 is composed of the usual mix of well-meaning but mis-informed people whipped up into a frenzy by agitators with a motive of some kind. Regardless of this, however, as I descended through the forests cloaking the serrated hills I passed several vehicles towing the stainless steel applicator drums used to apply 1080 from the air.      

The road descended onto the Karamea Plains, an altogether different landscape to the hard-scrabble farmland I had passed through on the southern side of the Karamea Hills. It was almost as though, having traversed the blocking shoulder of the Karamea Bluff, which separates the northern tip of Westland from the rest of the coast, I had entered a new country: Paradise beyond the Rubicon.

The wide littoral, backed by fluted and scalloped ranges beneath a blue infinity of sky daubed with brush-strokes of pure white cirrus, was fertile, neat and fecund. The sunlight shimmered in lush paddocks of ryegrass. Sleek herds of Jersey and Freisian dairy cows lolled contentedly in the fields. In massive glasshouses beside the road, incongruous in such an isolated place, the entire New Zealand supply of tomatoes used by the McDonald’s hamburger chain, are grown. In the warm, sub-tropical climate of Karamea, the cost of heating the glasshouses is so low that it offsets the cost of transporting the tomatoes out to Westport and beyond.

Karamea was almost empty. A tourist town as well as a farming town, the COVID-19 epidemic had shut off the town’s supply of tour buses, campers, cyclists and backpackers. All that remained were the local farmers and as it was mid-afternoon, milking time, even the farmers were busy elsewhere. I drove up Karamea’s short main street and continued north along a narrow road where the farm fences edged the tarmac and viridian grass waved in the wind. Small rivers of tea-coloured water ran down from the distant hills between banks heavy with flax. Dunes of pure white sand glistened along the edges of the seaward pastures. 

I turned off onto a narrow gravel road leading up into the hills bordering the hidden Oparara Basin. The road twisted and wound up through the forest and I drove slowly in low range, mindful of risk posed by oncoming traffic on the blind and corrugated corners. After half an hour or so, the road opened into a car park fringed by rimu trees. There were new toilets and some interpretation panels beneath a roof of coloured iron. A couple of hopeful wekas prowled the periphery in search of tourist tidbits. A tui sang mellifluously in the treetops. 

The road continued over a low bridge, twined through some low scrub and emerged at another carpark. A plasterer was working on another, smaller set of toilets: his old Ford Falcon station wagon laden with trowels, paint and buckets of Tradefix 40 plaster, a somewhat dissonant sight so far out in the bush. There were more wekas patrolling the perimeter of the car park. With their stocky bodies, brown plumage, long triangular beaks and powerful clawed feet they resembled a gang of thuggish chickens. Two of them sauntered over and fixed me with bright, red eyes, daring me to throw them something to eat. I declined the invitation so one of them pecked my foot as I turned to walk up to the Box Canyon Cave.

The Oparara Basin sits on a bed of 350 million year old granite overlain with a thin skin of limestone laid down around 35 million years ago. The limestone varies in thickness from 15 to 60 meters and is in turn covered with a rind of blue-grey mudstone. Saturated by an annual rainfall of up to six metres, the limestone of the Oparara area has been extensively eroded into a number of features – pinnacles, caves, arch and sinkholes – typically found in Karst landscapes such as that around Guilin in southern China. Extensive tectonic activity, along with changes in sea level, have isolated the basin whose paleozoology offers a unique record of many now-extinct species that once roamed the surrounding valleys and hills. The first intact skeleton of a Haast’s Eagle (Hieraaetus moorei), the largest eagle known to have existed, along with the skeletons of Lyall’s wren (Traversia lyalli), a tiny, flightless wren, and several species of Moa (Dinornis) have all been found in the caverns of the Oparara.

Leaving the wekas to sulk, I followed a short gravel path to the foot of a flight of wooden stairs which ascended the punga-clad remains of an ancient rockfall to the mouth of a cave slotted into a cliff of mossy limestone. Another set of steps led down into the crepuscular depths of the cave. My headlamp illuminated a high, vaulted ceiling carved with waves and ripples. The floor of the cave was covered with desiccated dirt and the air was cold and dry. It was silent. No sound of dripping water. No echoing rush of an unseen Styx. No keening of wind around the fluted and scalloped walls. Just silence.

As I walked deeper into the cave the evanescent gleam from the entrance faded until the only light came from my little Petzel headlamp. But in that vast hollow space, the headlamp’s 100 lumen beam scarcely penetrated the gloom. I stopped and turned the lamp off and was instantly enveloped by complete, almost tactile darkness. I stood there alone in that cocoon of utter blackness.    

It’s an odd feeling to be by oneself, underground, in complete silence and complete darkness: not exactly terrifying but undoubtedly very, very disconcerting. I imagined the millions of tonnes of rock overhead and the absolute certainty that if it collapsed I would instantly be as extinct as a Haast eagle. I blustered my way through a Snapchat post, pretending that I wasn’t somewhat uneasy there in that potential tomb, but I was glad when, at the twist of a knob, I had light again. 

The Box Canyon Cave had once been filled with flowing water. Over eons of time the water had carved passages and tunnels which led off from the main cavern. I explored some of them now, running my hand over the smooth limestone pillars and filigrees as I crouched low and squeezed through shoulder-wide crevices into tiny chambers. At some time in the distant past a landslide or earthquake had blocked off the river which had once flowed through the cave, leaving it to dry out and become a habitat for several unique species of arachnids including the Nelson Cave Spider (Spelungula cavernicola) with its 150mm leg span, cave wetas and the New Zealand short-tailed bat. None of these critters presented their credentials, however, but as I made my way back out into the daylight (after the cold dryness of the cave, the outside air felt humid and oppressive) I was certain that myriad tiny eyes were watching my exit.

Later, I followed a narrow, muddy path slung, in places, across the face of precipitous limestone bluffs, to the Oparara Arch. Here, the tannin-stained water of the Oparara River has carved a tunnel through a ridge of solid rock. Passing tourists had built cairns of water-rounded stones in a sun-dappled glade beside the river which emerged from the cavern in a series of slow, languid curves. Lurid signs warned of the dangers of entering the cavern but, undeterred (Danger, No Entry signs always say to me: “come and find out”) I waded into the river and walked upstream in the cool, knee-deep water. 

The interior of the cave was choked with rockfalls and the jammed trunks of dead trees. The river entered the cave through a jagged slit, beyond which an iridescent profusion of forest trees shone in the sun. The noise of the water as it flowed over the stones and curled around the base of the rockfalls filled the cavern with reverberating sound. Alone in that wild, improbable space, I babbled a few lines into my Snapchat story then waded downstream and back out into the light. 

An hour later, at the intersection of Kohaihai Road I faced a dilemma. It was getting late in the day and I still had to return to Westport, more than an hour’s drive away, before I could head on up to Blenheim where I was planning to spend a few days with my brother and his family. The sensible option would be to turn left and start back towards Westport. But, on the other hand, here I was, close to the top end of the West Coast. Five kilometres more and I would be at the end of the road: as far north as it was possible to drive on this side of the South Island. It wasn’t a difficult choice. I turned right and ten minutes later I was standing on the edge of the world. 

Jack’s Beach lay bathed in a dazzling shimmer of silver light. Beyond a screen of pure white dunes the Tasman Sea crashed onto the steeply-dipping shore. The Kohaihai River curled out from a forest of nikau palms and fell gently into the ocean beside a bluff of black rock encrusted with ferns and flax. The breaking waves pushed ripples of salt water upstream to combine with the tannin-dark fresh of the stream. My bare feet sank into the soft, yielding sand along the edge of the lagoon behind the dunes. The trunk of a massive rainforest tree, bereft of branches and shiny-black beneath the water, lay submerged in the shallows. A lone pied cormorant sat drying its outstretched feathers on a snag of twisted sticks and stones on the farther shore.

I followed the Heaphy Track upstream for half a kilometre to a bouncy swing bridge slung across the river into a forest of nikau palms. The nikau (Rhopalostylus sapida) is New Zealand’s only endemic palm tree and grows abundantly in the warm, sunny climate of northern Westland. The forest floor was composed of soft white sand and was carpeted with fallen fronds. The crowns of the palms formed a coruscated canopy overhead. Their trunks tapped and creaked in the gentle breeze blowing in from the ocean. I thought of Joseph Conrad’s evocative description of the Congo River in his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness: “ Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”

It was the sort of place where I could have lingered for hours, exploring the curve of the river and listening to the living silence of the palm forest. Darkness was still far off; the afternoon had life in it still. The sun was incandescent in the blue dome of the sky as I wandered back to my truck. The roar of the waves resounded from the bluffs overlooking the river. I turned the ignition key and turned south  towards evening. 

SHADOWS ON THE HILL

The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.

Morning in the High Country. On a hillside far above the Phantom River, a musterer gives his sheepdogs a command: “Speak up!” His four black and tan huntaways immediately set up a cacophony of loud barking. The musterer joins in with his own voice, shouting out “hey, hey, hey” into the still morning air. Even his heading dogs, Queen and Chucky, normally silent and observant, add a few high-pitched yaps into the mix.

High above, on top of the High Claytons range, another musterer’s dogs answer the bark-up. From below, the dogs of the three other men, who are spaced at intervals down the hillside, complete the chorus. The noise echoes back back from the gullies and ravines on the opposite side of the valley, which lies in deep, hazy shadow. The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.

The barking alarms the merino wethers who have been grazing alone and in pairs on the tussock-clad hillside. It is early April and the fine-wooled wethers have spent the summer months roaming the hills of the station’s 35,000 acres. The sheep form themselves into long lines and move off ahead of the dogs’ noise. The musterers begin moving too, following the sheep south-west across the hillside towards the distant ramparts of the Two Thumb Range.

The Phantom River.

It is the third day of  the autumn muster: an annual event which brings the sheep down off the high tops before the winter snows arrive. At 4am, the musterers had gathered for breakfast around the big kitchen table in the station’s homestead. Fortified with bacon, eggs, sausages and toast, washed down with copious quantities of tea, each of the five musterers had made a pile of sandwiches for lunch while the runholder explained each man’s beat (the route they would follow across the hillsides) for the day.

The High Claytons.

An hour later, as the rising sun cleared the triangular bulk of Mount Peel, the musterers were atop the High Claytons. In earlier times they would have spent three hours climbing out on foot. But these days, 4WDs are used to carry musterers and their dogs to the hilltops. Although the air has an early morning chill, the day promises to be sunny and hot.

The hills shimmer as alpine breezes ripple through the vast fields of snow tussock, which can grow to a height of a metre or more. As the musterers walk their beats through the steep, rocky faces they encounter not only wild deer and chamois, but dozens of Himalayan tahr. Introduced into the Southern Alps in 1904 these agile mountain goats can climb the most perpendicular rock faces with speed and grace.

On the Hill

For the shepherds and musterers who work on the High Country stations down the length of the South Island, work is slowly disappearing. Years of low wool prices have meant the farming of sheep has become less economically viable in the High Country. Vast tracts of land have been closed up or taken over by the conservation estate, and as the usage of the high country has changed, so the demand for high country mustering skills has diminished.

Mustering gangs once camped out for weeks at a time in backcountry huts where traditions and hierarchies were observed and maintained. Now, musters are completed in days using helicopters and 4WDs. Hobnailed boots, billy tea and camp ovens have been replaced by GPS locators, energy drinks and Vibram rubber soles.

But change is an integral part of the High Country. The grey slopes of scree and shingle, the beetling bluffs of black rock and the endless ridges and summits – which generations of musterers, in typical understatement have simply called “The Hill” –  are in a constant state of change as the elements shape and reshape the landscape.

By 2PM,  the musterers are nearing the end of the block. The long lines of wethers, which have moved ahead of the musterers and their dogs all day, descend a steep ridge towards Spurs Flat.  The huntaways keep the sheep moving while heading dogs cast left and right to bring individual sheep into the main mob which is gathering on the edge of the flat.

Each musterer controls his dogs with unique whistled commands. The older, experienced dogs instinctively watch the sheep, turning runaways back into the mob and keeping the animals moving. The younger dogs run boisterously alongside, learning the skills from their teammates and from the occasional profanity-laden command from their human masters.

The infant Orari River marks the end of the day’s muster. Beyond the river, which here is merely a trickle of crystal water bled from the snowfields of the Two Thumb Range, Horse Spur rises in a rounded fold of russet and gold tussock. The mob will be left on the spur to be gathered up tomorrow: the final day of the muster.

But the wethers, creatures of habit and suspicion, are reluctant to cross even this small creek bubbling across grey shingle between grassy banks smudged with matagouri. The dogs move the mob to the water’s edge. An older wether leaps across and soon the mob is following. The sheep string out across the hillside beyond.

Crossing the Orari River.

The musterers sit in the tussocks discussing the day’s work. Each has a story of good runs by their dogs and difficult sheep which had to be carefully extricated from a gully or ridge using cunning and skill.  The runholder arrives in a 4WD with flasks of tea and a fruit cake. The dogs sprawl around in the sun, mark their territory with squirts of piss, occasionally snarling at errant youngsters.

The wethers have dispersed across the face of Horse Spur. The afternoon sun glitters on the waters of the Orari River as it begins its journey down through the muscular hills. The musterers load their dogs onto the 4WD for the long journey back to the homestead.

At dawn tomorrow, the musterers and their dogs will once again be out here among the tussocks and rocks, mustering the Merino wethers ahead of them as they move across the flanks of the High Claytons like shadows on the hill.

The High Road to Central

There is gold in these here hills…

West of Duntroon, beyond the limestone caves with their Maori rock art, beyond the fertile river flats where sleek cattle graze and sheep stare stonily from boggy paddocks, the Danseys Pass Road enters the gorge of the Marawhenua River. The hillsides, cloaked in scrub and pine trees, close in until there is only enough room for the river and the road.  The Danseys Pass Holiday Park stands on a sunny bend where the river flows through a deep rocky pool, then the road steps across the river on a Bailey bridge and begins its climb up the flanks of the Kakanui Mountains.

Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass.

There is gold in these here hills.  Side creeks, descending in steep gullies, show signs of sluicing from olden days when gold rushes were a regular occurrence in these parts.  Prospectors still fossick in the riverbed, looking for traces of colour in their gold pans and clues to the ever-elusive Mother Lode.

The road, surfaced with the fine pink quartzite gravel of North Otago, undulates along a ridgeline past woolsheds and farm buildings. There are rows of baled silage, wrapped in long plastic sausages, and muddy tractors parked in fenced enclosures.  Snow posts mark the edges of the road and big, bushy snow tussocks wave in the constant breeze blowing down from the tops.

The Danseys Pass road began life as a stock route for sheep and cattle being driven over into Central Otago from the stations of the Waitaki Valley. Gold miners followed, their pots and pans clanking on the sides of their bullocks as they crossed the ranges en route to the goldfields of the Maniototo. Today, a steady stream of tourists travel the road which is well-maintained and perfectly safe for 2WD vehicles. 

Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies… 

The road crosses a dozen small streams – some bridged, others with concrete fords – and rattles over a similar number of cattle grids set into fence-lines which traverse the road and climb the hills on either side.  Gateways open onto steep 4WD tracks which zig-zag up the mountain-sides, providing access for shepherds to the high tops. The hillsides – “as steep as a hen’s face” is how shepherds describe precipitous country – fall right to the river.  Sheep scuttle off the road at the sound of your approach, leaving piles of poop where they have been sitting. A battalion of power pylons marches across the landscape.

High Country shepherds and their dogs in the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
High Country Shepherds and Their Dogs.

Finally, the road climbs across a vast tussock-clad face towards the pass, winding in and out of narrow gullies and sidling around the muscular flanks of the hillside.  Encased in your cocoon of twenty-first-century technology, it’s easy to forget how harsh this environment is. You need to be tough to live up here. Late snows, baking summer heat, floods, landslides, fire: farming in the High Country is a constant struggle with the elements.  

…and light takes on a life of its own.

Dansey’s Pass itself occupies a wide saddle slung between shingly peaks.  Bare slabs of stone lie scattered amongst the tussocks and traces of winter snow cling to the hollows of the mountaintops all year round. Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies.  

From the pass, the road dips steeply into the catchment of the Kyeburn River.  Fangs of black rock protruding from the hillsides, giving the landscape a slightly menacing aspect.  It’s the sort of place you would expect a troll or an elf to live. Water seeps from the gravel surface of the road which is hewn through slabs of solid rock in places.  The sky up here is dazzling, and on summer days, streaks of tinsel nor’ west cloud stretch out from the distant Southern Alps.  

Fangs of rock protrude from the tussocky hillsides of the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.

The Kyeburn, another river full of gold, twists out from the hills, beginning its long journey to the coast where the water of the snowfields will be swallowed by the sea. Hereford cows peer at you over rusty fences of flat standards and barbed wire as you pass by. In this landscape of stone and gold, every view is back-dropped by the snowy spines of mountains and light takes on a life of its own.    

The Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, deep in the valley, offers superb food and coffee, and overnight lodgings in unique gold rush-era rooms. Travel is always a vanishing act. From the Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, you could get into your vehicle and drive back to the top of the pass, with the world spread out at your feet, and watch the sun set over the hills. Perhaps you could take some other long straight back road and see where it leads, like a prospector following a new reef of gold. Or, you could simply order another cappuccino instead.