THE FOREST OF STONE

The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools,
but the gentle touches of air and water
working at their leisure
with a liberal allowance of time.
                                                            – Henry David Thoreau

On a hot, humid morning, one hundred and eighty million years ago, a volcano standing on the edge of a primeval forest of primitive conifers on the eastern coast of the supercontinent of Gondwana, erupted with shattering violence. The blast wave from the eruption spread out from the volcano’s conical slopes. Traveling at the speed of sound across the surrounding country, it flattened everything in its path. Trees were snapped off at ground level and flung down into haphazard rows. The heat of the blast instantly incinerated the foliage, their ashes blown into dust. The blackened plain was stripped to bare soil. Chunks of pumice and  incandescent blobs of lava rained down on the devastated landscape. The sun was blotted out by a roiling plume of pulverized rock, dust and poisonous gas, lit by jagged bolts of lightning, which reached the stratosphere and was torn away by the jet stream to encircle the Earth.

Worse was to come. Mudslides raced down the volcano’s sides, engulfing everything that remained in a cloying, anaerobic blanket. These lahars, as geologists call them, completed the work begun by the volcano’s blast. The flattened trees, the tree stumps, even the very soil of the plain, was buried under a thick layer of mud. The volcano continued to erupt. Lava flows covered the landscape. Rivers rose and fell, spreading sediment and gravel across the plain. Gales blew for thousands of years, carrying dust and grit from distant mountains to accumulate in deep beds of loess.

Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.

But as the millennia ticked slowly by, the radioactive core of the planet began to cool. The volcanoes ceased to erupt. Their magma pipes solidified into plugs of solid rock that would one day form otherworldly clusters of symmetrical, vaguely conical mountains. Things settled down a bit. The Earth continued on along the elliptical path of its orbit around the sun. And time began seriously to pass.  

One hundred and eighty million years later, I awoke on the edge of a primeval shore of blackened reefs, pounding surf and a thin mist rolling off the sea onto a landscape frosted with ice. The air glowed pale pink above the coves of Curio Bay, fading up to a

IMG_4982
Primeval.

rich blue as light from the rising sun filtered into the sky. Inside my truck, a rime of frozen condensation decorated the windscreen. The temperature felt well and truly subzero.  

I started the engine and lay with my sleeping bag pulled up tight around my neck while the heater thawed out the interior. Below the isthmus where I was parked, the sea sloshed back and forth into a narrow slot in the reef. The water spilled out over the surrounding rock like an over-flowing bath. I could see penguins hopping into the water and swimming briskly out through the waving forests of kelp to their fishing grounds. The ocean steamed like a young man’s dreams.

Later, after a reborative latte, hot and hot, full of sugar, and served up with a plate of toast, butter and jam, I set of along the cliff top though groves of rustling flax to the southern end of the bay. I descended a steel staircase to the reef, exposed by the receding tide, and walked out into the forest that had stood there so long ago.

The trees lay in the haphazard rows where they had fallen. Their stumps protruded from the soil beside them. It was as if I was standing there alone in a sylvan glade, with the sunlight filtering down and the sound of birds echoing around. The only difference was that this was a horizontal forest. Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.

On that distant day when the forest had been overwhelmed by the lahars, the fallen trees, the tree stumps, and even the soil was buried in a layer of volcanic ooze devoid of oxygen. As oxygen is required in order to make organic material decompose, the buried forest had simply lain there, inert, encased in its sterile cocoon of mud. As time passed and the volcanic conniptions above had quieted then ceased, a process began which would completely replace the stem tissue of the trees with minerals. This process. known as permineralization, retains the original cell structure of the parent tissue, but replaces it with silicates such as quartz.

The permineralization, or petrification, process can only occur underground and takes millions of years to complete. The rivers which flowed across that ancient landscape were rich in the minerals required to petrify the tissue of the buried forest. As the mineral-laden water permiated through the layers of mud, the minerals began replacing the lignin and cellulose in the plant tissue, forming a kind of stone mould which retained the shape of the cells down to a microscopic level. Elements such as chromium, manganese, carbon, iron and copper created different hues in the petrified tree trunks.

The tree stumps

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Petrified Trees at Curio Bay.

underwent an identical process, which preserved and petrified them in the ground where the trees had stood. Even the soil, which is, of course, organic material, became petrified. But while this unhurried, gentle transformation was taking place at a cellular level, another bigger, more ambitious transformation was going on around it. The rocks where the trees lay, the volcanoes and, indeed, a big chunk of Gondwana itself, was on the move.

The the lump of continental crust that would one day be known as Zealandia lay on the eastern side of Gondwana. For millions of years this massive supercontinent, itself a remnant of another former supercontinent, Pangea, had wandered the globe: a gigantic raft of rock floating on a subterraneann ocean of magma. Eighty million years had passed since that summer day when the volcano had erupted and buried the trees. As the eons ticked by, ranges of mountains were eroded by wind and frost, ice and water. Their sediments were washed into shallow depressions in the continent’s surface, accumulating layer upon heavy layer and pressing down on the crust beneath. As the weight increased, the crust began to stretch and become thinner. Continual faulting and rifting created a basin into which the sea flooded. Elsewhere on Gondwana, the continental blocks that would one day become Australia and Antarctica were also in the process of separating from their mother continent. But out on the eastern coast, as the inland sea grew wider and wider, New Zealand and Australia would now forever be separated by an ocean.

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Petrified Tree Stump.

Around seventy-five million years ago, Zealandia was completely separated from the remains of Gondwana. The seafloor between the two continental blocks continued to spread apart, pushed by upwellings of new rock on the fault line between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. On this slow-moving porridge-pot of rock, constantly subsiding and cracking and bubbling, the tiny chunk containing the petrified trees rode. By forty million years ago it was roughly in the position it occupies now, albeit still buried deep in the floating crust. As New Zealand came to a halt, a new tectonic fault grabbed it like a slewing truck, sliding half of it northwards to form the North Island. As the Pacific plate shoved against this new fault, the rocks surrounding the ancient, lithified trees were thrust upwards to the surface. The scene was set for the trees to re-emerge for me to stand on, one-hundred and eighty million years after they had been buried.

…with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film.

There was one final stage of the process. The surrounding rocks needed to be stripped away from the petrified trees, stumps and soil. For that to occur, some decent erosion was required. And for that, you need some big, energy-laden waves. Luckily, plate tectonics had sorted that out as well. The Gonwandan remnant that made up Australia and Antarctica had been split apart by tectonic action separate from that which had been working on Zealandia in general and New Zealand in particular. As Antarctica wandered off from Australia like a runaway child, oceanic currents began to circulate around it. These currents, known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, effectively isolated Antarctica, upon whose shores tropical forests had once flourished, from the warmth of Australia and South America. The continent froze.

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Erosion.

Frigid storms wracked the cold waters around Antarctic, generating huge seas whose waves, propagating outwards, smashed into the southern coast of the South Island. The energy contained in the waves began eroding the rocks surrounding the petrified trees, exposing them to daylight once more. They chipped and gnawed at the coastline, creating Curio Bay and nearby Porpoise Bay, and carving out the fretwork of cracks and fissures in the rocky platform where the trees lay.

I stood there now, watching the waves surging up onto the rocks. A flock of seagulls, looking like the black and white keyboard on an eighties synthesizer, fluttered and fussed just out of reach of the waves. Pools of water, left by the receding tide, lay around the trees. The sun glittered on their trunks and branches. The woodgrain stood out as clearly as a piece of new timber on a wood-turner’s lathe. The stumps were also plainly visible, their outer skin of bark and sapwood distinctly different in texture from the heartwood within. The surrounding soil, lithified just like the trees, formed carpets of raised grey nodules between the stumps.

I lingered there among the old trees for ages. Well, that is to say I lingered for an hour orZQ6vg4cbTN2JPclpGPCZhA so at least: The term “ages” being a highly relative term when I considered just how long the trees had lain there and the stupendous journey that they had been on. I couldn’t escape from the image they conjured in my mind of a quiet stand of forest, with a warm mesh of dappled sunlight filtering down, with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film. I imagined the camera panning around me as I looked up into the towering canopy, with a flare of light coming into the wide-angle lens.

But then, alas, I was jolted back into reality by the wash of a wave coming over the rock platform and the arrival of a the first tour group of the day. I toyed with the idea of zapping them with my imaginary phaser but decided against it. So with my tricorder in my hand, I climbed the steel steps back up to the present day and set off north to find some trees that were still living.

Moonlight Encounter

The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle…

I was jumped on by a possum at Curio Bay. Now that’s not a sentence you’ll read very often. It was just after ten o’clock at night and I was standing on a headland overlooking the bay, with surf booming on the reefs below and a big, silver full moon lying on the horizon. The evening was, as yet, still warm, but the shimmering of the stars pointed to a hard frost to come, as the latent heat remaining from the day radiated out into space through the clear, empty air.

I’d left Slope Point as the sun sank below the western skyline and had driven east through a pink gloaming. It was as if the Earth was lit from within by some understated IMG_4974source of translucent light. Every rock and hillside seemed to glow. The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle, lay gleaming under the pastel curtain of the sky. The trees, flaxes and reeds growing along the roadsides and dotting the hills, stood motionless in the twilight. It was as if I was driving through a different world, or another world altogether, suspended halfway between day and night.

Evening lasts a long time in these high southern latitudes so it was still light when I reached Curio Bay. The visitor center at the Curio Bay Camping Ground was still open so I went in to ask about the cost of a campsite for the night. With only ApplePay on my cellphone (I don’t have a bank account, let alone a bankcard) I was restricted by my merge supply of cash as to where I could stay and dine. Travelling around Southland I had found that the concept of contact-less payment was yet to gain widespread favour and I’d been forced to part with valuable cash on several occasions that would have merely been a matter of tap and go in a more technologically-advanced part of the country.

I had forty-two dollars in notes and a handful of change left to my name so the campsite needed to be cheap if I was going to eat dinner as well.

“Mate for forty-two bucks you can get a campsite and a great dinner here in the restaurant,” Tom Robinson, the camp’s manager and tour guide told me when I explained the parlous state of my finances.

“And,” he continued, “you’ll have enough left over for breakfast in the morning too.”

With my truck parked on a grassy isthmus between the flax groves of the main campsite and the pyramidal bulk of Grayling Head, I’d walked up to the restaurant in the dark and eaten an expansive dinner of lasagna, chips and salad. Afterwards, feeling somewhat bloated, I had walked up to the top of the headland to shake things down and find some cellphone coverage. And it was here, while updating my social media that I encountered Percy Possum.

The possum, bless him, must have been shuffling around up there for the same reason as me: just chilin’ in the moonlight and taking in the view. Possums are the marsupial equivalent of stoner humans. They just, like, do their own thing, man, y’know, clambering around in the trees eating billions of tonnes of foliage, staring down on-coming headlights, getting it on with the ladies, and pretty much just living the possumy equivalent Sc1M26vpQv6ph1MfV8j60Qof The Good Life.

And, of course, they just love weed. Anyone who has grown the green gold out in the bush will know that if the crop isn’t protected by wire netting, possums will eat the fuckin’ lot. They’re the Cheech and Chong of the animal kingdom. And even though they are filthy, disease-ridden little vermin cunts, responsible for spreading bovine tuberculosis, scoffing the eggs of native birds, and the annihilation of thousands of hectares of native forest every year, its hard not to like them, with their cute button noses, big goggly eyes and shambling gait.

I had sometimes heard people say that if a possum gets panicked it will run up the tallest thing in its vicinity. If the tallest thing happens to be a nearby human, well, up it will go, scratching the fuck out of you with is claws in the process. But I had never encountered a panicked possum.

Mostly, you encounter them at one remove, as they go under the wheels of your vehicle with a wet thud, knocking the alignment out of kilter as they do so. The roads of New Zealand are decorated with the gory remains of dead possums, in various stages of decomposition ranging from sad piles of fresh fur amid a reddish splatter of blood and entrails, to vague, black, desiccated outlines, melted into oblivion by the sun and mashed wafer-thin into the tarmac by dozens of passing cars.

However, as I wasn’t currently doing anything to send a possum into a state of panic, or, indeed, even expecting to encounter a marsupial of any kind on that high, moonlit promontory, the sight of a possum sitting on the ground beside me came as something of a surprise. Obviously, it came as something of a surprise to the possum as well because it promptly leapt onto my chest, its vicious little claws grasping the material of my puffer jacket for purchase.

At close range, a possum’s features quickly lose their cuteness. The creature’s little button nose housed the sort of wicked-looking teeth you would see on a church gargoyle. Its goggly eyes looked positively rabid. For a moment it peered up at me with a sort of dazed recognition, like a mountaineer spotting the route up a particularly difficult section of a crag.

But before it could begin its final ascent of my north face I slapped the little bastard hard across the mush and said “fuck off, Percy.” It fell to the ground with an indistinct thud and shuffled off down the seaward slope of the headland. For my part I just stood there blinking, like a possum in the headlights, I suppose, wondering what the hell had just happened.

It hadn’t been scary; just somewhat incongruous. As I walked back down the track to my truck I thought: “well that’ll make a great opening line for a chapter.”

extracted from The Greenstone Water

Coasting the Catlins

Turn your face to the sun
and the shadows fall behind you.
– Maori Proverb

I meet the coast at Fortrose. The road makes an abrupt turn eastward and follows the edge of a tussock-fringed lagoon. A brisk sea-breeze ruffles the water and whips around huddled masses of white-baiters, crouched expectantly over their nets in the muddy shallows. Offshore, a container ship floats on the horizon like a cubic city. The tide races into the estuary between heads of black stone.

Tautuku Bay.

I am here on the Catlins Coast quite by chance. Having attended to a small business matter in Gore earlier in the day I had decided on a whim to drive further south instead of heading home to South Canterbury. I have a few basic provisions and a sleeping bag stashed in the back of my 4WD. The Gore i-Site has provided me with a map of New Zealand’s south-eastern corner. Work can do without me for another day. All I have to do is disappear.

The Catlins Mountains rumple the landscape of Eastern Southland like a carpet rucked up against a wall. The steep, bush-clad hills step down towards the ocean in a series of green undulations, ending abruptly in tall headlands and shelving bays where the incessant waves grind the bones of the ranges to sand. Sleek rivers twist from the interior and fall asleep in lagoons framed by endless dunes and wild, lonely beaches.

At Waipapa Point, the wind is a living thing.

Maori populated the rough coastline and brooding ranges with legends of colourful heroes and dreadful monsters. Whalers plied their brutal trade along the Catlins Coast from the earliest days of European settlement. Timber cutters hacked at the seemingly endless forests. Farming replaced these boom-and-bust industries and today it is the continual stream of camper vans and tourists which has re-invigorated the economy of the Catlins.

East of Fortrose I turn off the Southern Scenic Route at Otara and follow a gravel road out to Waipapa Point. The paddocks are dotted with ewes and lambs: a sight now so uncommon in dairy-converted Canterbury that I find myself staring in wonder at the woolley hordes. I stop while a shepherd shifts some late-lambers across the road. His team of huntaways gleefully micturate on the wheels of my townie truck while his business-like heading dogs control the mob.

At Waipapa Point, the wind is a living thing. Its invisible fingers have sculpted the trees into grotesque topiaries which lean away from the sea as if in fear of further torment. A slender, white-painted lighthouse stands on the point overlooking the Otara Reef, the place where my mother’s great uncle, Thomas Gillingham, died in New Zealand’s worst civilian maritime disaster.  

On the morning of April 29th 1881, the screw steamer SS Tararua struck the Otara Reef off Waipapa Point. The vessel had put to sea from Port Chalmers, Dunedin’s deep-water port, twelve hours earlier, en route to Melbourne via Bluff and Hobart. On board were 151 passengers and crew. Among them was forty-three year old farmer Thomas Gillingham, who was returning to England to claim his inheritance.

Thomas Gillingham had emigrated to New Zealand from Hampshire, England, in 1874, one of several members of the Gillingham family to do so. He had taken up land near Fairlie, in South Canterbury, and had become a very successful and wealthy farmer. He had married the daughter of another prosperous landowner had had set about building his own little empire in rural New Zealand. 

Thomas’ father, Norbert Gillingham, had died in March 1881 and Thomas, as his oldest son, was set to inherit the lion’s share of his estate. As was the custom, Thomas was required to present himself at the offices of his father’s solicitors, Hansen, Dalgleish & Co of Chancery Lane, London, in order to hear the Will read and to formalize the hand-over of the cash and property coming to him. With this in mind, he had taken a First Class berth on the SS Tararua from Lyttelton to Melbourne where he would connect with the SS Cardrona for the voyage back to England.

At 563 tons displacement, the SS Tararua was large by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century. She had been built in 1864 by the Gourlay Brothers of Dundee, Scotland, for the Union Steamship Company, the New Zealand shipping company founded by James Mills in Dunedin in 1875. The Union Steamship Company would go on to become the largest shipping company in the Southern Hemisphere and would continue operating until the end of the twentieth century.     

That April night was dark and clear, with no moon and a vague haze of fog hanging over the land. Captain F.G. Garrard, steering by the stars, had instructed the helmsman to set a westerly course of 268° at 04:00, believing the ship to be clear of Slope Point, the southernmost extremity of the South Island. At 04:25 a lookout stationed in the fo’c’sle hailed the bridge that he could hear breaking waves. Captain Garrard, still believing that the vessel was clear of the land, ordered a course change to 185°, half a point south of south-west. They ran on this bearing for several minutes before returning to their original westerly course. At 05:00, the Tararua slammed head-on into the Otara Reef.

Running thirteen kilometres seaward from Waipapa Point, the Otara Reef is just one of several reefs jutting from the fingered coastline of Eastern Southland. Beyond them, the vast Southern Ocean is empty apart from a few battered specks of land jutting from the seascape like broken stumps of bone in an endless blue and grey plain. The reefs are composed of the same ancient sedimentary rocks which make up much of Southland: folded and faulted and inclined at various angles. Weathered and eroded by the sea into black fangs and jagged fissures, the reefs lie just beneath the surface: immobile, implacable and deadly. The soft steel plates of the Tararua’s hull, riveted to her iron ribs, were no match for these monolithic outcrops. Her bottom ruptured and the sea poured into her.    

In the violence and confusion of the impact, the captain and the helmsman threw the wheel hard to starboard. Reacting to a barked command from Garrard, the First Officer wrenched the handles of the Engine Order Telegraph forward and back three times, then set them to Full Astern. Below decks, in the stifling, dimly-lit engine-room, the EOT’s bell emitted three strident rings: the emergency signal known as the Cavitate Bell. The stokers and donkey-men worked feverishly to bring the engines to a stop and then reverse them.  But it was too late. Lifted by a surging wave, the Tararua’s stern swung to port and smashed onto the reef. The rudder was unshipped from its iron pintles; the brass propeller, spinning at full revolution on its shaft, tore itself apart on the black, unyielding rocks. On the bridge, the wheel spun uselessly under the captain’s hands. The polished timber deck canted as the ship heeled over. Her compartments filled with water, and she began to break apart.

The passengers, flung from their beds by the impact, emerged from their cabins in their night-clothes and raced confusedly up the companionways, emerging into a darkened world of noise and motion. Heavy rollers, their force had been amassed over thousands of kilometres of ocean, smashed into the aftermost section of the ship. The captain ordered the passengers forward to meage shelter offered by the forepeak, the elevated portion of the ship’s bow. One of the ship’s lifeboats was launched but was immediately carried away and smashed by the surf. 

At 06:30, with the light of dawn greying the sky, Captain Garrard called for volunteers to swim ashore and raise the alarm. Four people came forward but the captain, on reflection, decided that only one, a young man named George Lawrence, should attempt the swim. Lawrence was carried closer to the shore in a lifeboat and dived in. Although a strong swimmer he was rapidly overcome by the force of the waves and the powerful backwash as the receding water slipped over the smooth, kelp-clad rocks. Eventually, however, he struggled ashore, cut, bruised and bleeding. 

Beyond the narrow strip of sandy beach, rubbly sandstone cliffs rose almost vertically to the headland above. Lawrence managed to scramble up to the clifftop and ran to a nearby farm outbuilding where some farm labourers were having their breakfast. A rider was despatched to the Post Office at Fortrose with news of the wreck. A telegram was sent by the Postmaster, George Attwood, to the Union Steamship Company office in Dunedin which read: S.S. TARARUA ON OTARA REEF. ASSISTANCE WANTED. GEO. ATTWOOD. Incredibly, given the situation, the telegram wasn’t marked URGENT so no action was taken to dispatch a rescue craft until later in the day. By then, it was too late.

Of the one hundred and fifty-one passengers and crew aboard the SS Tararua, only twenty survived. Unable to launch its lifeboats in the pounding surf, and with only a handful of lifebelts on board, the ship’s occupants were forced to choose between swimming for the shore or remaining on the vessel in the vain hope of being rescued. Few of those who attempted to swim made it. Most of those who tried were pummelled lifeless on the rocks or were drowned as they succumbed to exhaustion and cold.

Although the weather through that April day remained calm, the ferocious waves and surging swell meant there was little that the watchers gathered on shore could do to help. As night fell, the cries of those still aboard the wreck could be heard in the darkness, pleading for salvation. At 22:00, a voice was heard to cry out “A boat. For God’s sake send a boat.” There were heart-rending shrieks in the darkness, then silence.

I wandered now among the scattered headstones of the Tararua Acre, where fifty-five of the seventy-five bodies recovered from the wreck are buried. The afternoon sun was warm, and sheep grazed contentedly beyond the fence which separated the burial ground from the surrounding farmland. Offshore, beyond the lighthouse, the ocean rolled gently over the Otara Reef with barely a ripple. It is often the case that places where horrific events occurred look benign and unthreatening in a different light. The last resting-place of the Tararua’s victims, and the reef that had caused their deaths, looked positively bucolic now.

Thomas Gillingham’s body was returned to Fairlie, his adopted hometown, and buried in the cemetery there. Our family history doesn’t record who got hold of his father’s fortune. The fact that I’m not a millionaire English aristocrat points towards the fact that the cash didn’t come out to the colonies. Oh well. Easy come, easy go.

Two other small, coincidental and, admittedly, highly tenuous threads connect me with the SS Tararua. The Gourlay Brothers’ shipyard in Dundee continued to turn out ships of various kinds until 1908 when the company was wound up. On March 26th, 1899, another screw steamer slid down the yard’s slipway into the River Tay, its bow wet with champagne. On the same day, in far-off New Zealand, my father, Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston was born. The new ship’s name was the SS Zealandia

Further north, at Waikawa, a flock of perendale hoggets are paddling in the sea. The withdrawing tide has left a narrow littoral of mud at the base of their steep, scrubby paddock and the young sheep (I count 269 of them) have taken the opportunity to wade into the water for a look around. Beyond them, a cluster of moored yachts and fishing boats float on the calm water of the inlet. Nearby, on a gentle hillside smudged with the yellow flowers of gorse, the headstones of the Waikawa Cemetery gaze out over the waters of Porpoise Bay.

Waikawa Cemetary

The road now climbs away from the coast and into the cool fragrant hills of the Chaslands Forest. I drive with the window down and over the hum of the tyres on the tarmac I hear the limpid voices of tui and the chatter of grey warblers. The forest grows right to the edge of the road; the air is heavy with the earthy fragrance of damp earth and forest flowers.

In the manuka-smothered valleys between the ridges, shaggy ponies with Rastafarian manes gaze at me over post and wire fences. A pair of brick chimneys stand watch over the collapsed ruins of an old cottage backed by ancient, gnarled macrocarpas. Nearby, an abandoned timber and tin cottage, its empty door-frame agape, seems to be sinking under the weight of its memories. Its sightless eyes stare out across a sea of daffodils; its roof is rusted to the colour of dried blood. I realize that here in the Catlins the landscape seems to embody the cycles of birth and decay which more bucolic countryside is able to conceal.

catlins

The road meets the ocean again at Tautuku Bay. Oceanic swells, born off the coast of Antarctica, wrap around the headland and roll in long sweeping arcs into the arms of the bay. A haze of spray detaches itself from the waves and drifts across the brooding forest which overlooks the sand. Three walkers, Lilliputian on the vast expanse of the beach, make their way along the shore.

Not much is happening in Owaka. The town’s main street is empty of cars even though it is only mid-afternoon. I buy a can of fizz from the supermarket then drive out to Surat Bay where a collection of ramshackle beach houses nestle amid a sea of lupins. Nearby, an indistinct track leads through a wilderness of sand dunes to the beach. A silvery river slides across the sand and loses itself in the leaping waves. A weathered timber sign points seaward to the place where the three-masted immigrant ship Surat, foundered without loss of life in 1874.

I spend the night in the back of my truck beside a rocky cove near Kaka Point. The reassuring beacon of the Nugget Point Lighthouse, flashing every twelve seconds, shines across the water as I sleep. In the darkness before dawn I drive up the road leading to the lighthouse. From the car park, a shingle track leads around the steep slope of the point. A cold wind shivers the tussocks clinging to the hillside.

There are few things more beautiful than a lighthouse at dawn. As colour seeps into the eastern sky I stand on a timber platform beneath the winking light of the Nugget Point Lighthouse. Swells surge between jagged fangs of rock protruding from the sea below. Colonies of seabirds keep up a screeching din over the roar of the waves.

“it’s OK…I’m here.”

Built in 1869, the Nugget Point Lighthouse stands on the last part of the land. A triangular precipice of white stone rears behind it; the ground collapses into the ocean in front. The original revolving electric lantern, behind its faceted dome of polished glass, was replaced by an efficient but un-romantic LED lamp attached to the front of the tower in 1989. It flashes silently above me as I watch the sun clear the horizon beneath a gathering ceiling of cloud.

Nugget Point Lighthouse

To me, lighthouses epitomize both the loneliness and romance of coastlines. By definition, they occupy spectacular locations. And there is something heroic in the way these solitary sentinels stand alone against the elements. To mariners lost in the darkness of night or engulfed in the violence of storms, the beacon of a lighthouse reaches out as if to say “it’s OK…I’m here.”

Offshore, a coastal freighter bounces southwards on the swell. Its captain will have taken a bearing on the Nugget Point light and set his course a safe distance off the Catlins Coast. Here on shore, there are still hidden coves to discover and twisting back roads for me to explore. The shadow of work can wait. I turn my face to the sun and set my course for another day of coasting in the Catlins.

River Song

Smooth is the water,
where the brook runs deep.

                    – Old English Proverb

Every surface, every tree, every stone, every blade of grass seems to absorb the sun’s light, bend it into gentle new spectrums, then radiate it back into the air. 

The Taieri River rises amid the stone and gold landscape of the Lammerlaw Range, on the southern edge of the Maniototo Plain high in Central Otago.  From its small beginnings in tussocky snowfields, the fledgeling river gathers the waters of rocky creeks and icy springs as it descends from the hills and flows eastward across the Maniototo.

Cattle graze its willow-lined banks as the river meanders through swampy paddocks, and fishermen cast their lines into deep pools where some of Otago’s best trout live.  An eel trap set in any of the rivers sluggish backwaters will always yield a rich harvest of the slithery creatures which early Maori gathered on their expeditions across the great plain.  The name they bestowed on the river means “River of Light.”  

Headwaters. The Kyeburn is one of many tributaries of the Taieri River. This tiled strata juts from the hillside above the river in Dansey’s Pass.

The sky is big up here. Light falls from the sky like powdered gold and the landscape seems to glow as if lit from within.  Every surface, every tree, every stone, every blade of grass seems to absorb the sun’s light, bend it into gentle new spectrums, then radiate it back into the air.  Long straight roads lead the eye towards the surrounding ranges from which fortunes in gold were extracted during the region’s gold rush days.  These days, though, the real treasure lies in the Taieri’s burnished gleam as it reflects the sun setting on another day in this land of stone and gold.      

The Taieri turns slowly around the north end of Rock and Pillar Range, past the hamlets of Waipiata, Kokonga and Hyde.  The railway brought wealth to these isolated places, which alternately freeze in winter then bake through the long summers.  But the railways are gone and with it the prosperity of wool and beef.  Abandoned farmhouses stare sightlessly out across the hills and pencil-thin Lombardy poplars claw the sky.  But the longevity of family life up here is evident in the names on farm mailboxes which match those of the roads and those on graveyard headstones dating back to the earliest settlers. 

…in the endless cycle of wind and water.

Cemetery, Pateoroa, Maniototo District.

At Middlemarch the river enters the Taieri Gorge.  This barrier to trade was bridged during the gold rush by the construction of the Taieri Gorge Railway.  The chugging steam engines of those days have been replaced by diesel locomotives which pull carriage-loads of tourists through the gorge where the track spans vertiginous creeks on box girder bridges and the yellow smudge of gorse hugs the hillsides. 

Freed from the confines of the ranges, the river flows south across the rich dairy country of the Strath-Taieri district to enter the sea on the east coast of Otago, thirty kilometres south of Dunedin.  The riverbanks are faced with golden sands ground from the hills and its final wander to the sea is through a wilderness of flax, swamps and Manuka forest.

Where the river falls idly into the ocean, ramshackle holiday bachs line the shore.  Seabirds patrol the river’s margins in search of titbits and fishing boats ride the swells offshore.  The river which began its journey as a trickle of silver amid the stone and gold heights of the Lammerlaw has run its course.  The river’s song is sung and down the line

Where fresh and salt combine.

where fresh and salt combine all its history is released.  But nothing is ever truly finished in the endless cycle of wind and water.  Soon of the river’s water, evaporated from the ocean and blown inland in the clouds of southerly storms, will fall on the hills of the Maniototo, gather together and begin the journey again.   

Sgt. Dan the Creamota Man

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. 

When I was a kid, back in the seventies, our wintertime breakfast of choice was Creamota, a sort of sweet, creamy, rolled oat porridge made at the Flemings mill in Gore. The Creamoata mascot was Sergeant Dan, a plucky amalgam of a boy scout and an ANZAC soldier. There was the Stirring Times Creamota Recipe Book, in which Sergeant Dan showed you how to cook all manner of yummy things using, of course, Creamoata as a base ingredient. You could get Sergeant Dan recipe cards, so mum could make such things as Sergeant Dan’s Sweetheart of Wheat Custard, and join a club called Sergeant Dan’s Creamota Corps. It was a simpler time back then, a time when you actually cooked your porridge on the stove, in an aluminium pot guaranteed to give you Alzheimer’s in later years. There was none of your thirty-seconds-in-the-microwave nonsense.

The old Flemings Mill, Gore.

The Flemings Mill still dominates the skyline of Gore. I could see it as I drove into town on State Highway One, past the giant statue of a leaping trout and the billboard advertising the Gold Guitar Awards. The wide main street had angle parking and the kind of deeply-verandahed shops typical of colonial towns, where the sun and the rain beats down and perambulating shoppers need shelter from the elements.

I parked in front of a solid, two-storey Victorian edifice with the legend H&J Smiths Progressive Stores emblazoned in plaster above its pedimented windows, and set off to find some lunch. Along the street there was the usual assortment of corporate frontages and local retailers, as well as a few empty shop, like missing teeth in a worn smile. Changes in retail patterns wrought by the likes of malls and online shopping have been hard on rural towns all over the South Island. But still, Gore’s main street had a cheerful, if somewhat tattered confidence, and in the bright, cold southern light it felt friendly and prosperous.  

And then I thought, “Well fuck this”…

I took a window table in Café Ambience and sat doodling over my notes as I watched the people passing by outside. The café was warm and crowded. The windows were a little steamed up, which added to the feeling of coziness, like a farmhouse on a winter’s day. My quiche and salad were superb and, in typical farming fashion, was a big enough meal to sustain a shearer through to afternoon smoko. The café had wifi, of course, so I checked out what was happening on Facebook and did a Google search for information about Sergeant Dan.

Back out on the Gore-Mataura Highway, the town’s unimaginatively-named main street, I walked up to the Railway Station, a solid two-storey Edwardian building of brick and limestone. A white-painted statue of a Romney ram stood on a plinth beside the station. The statue pays homage to the role played by the Romney sheep breed in the economy of Southland.

Originally bred in the Romney Marsh region of Kent, in South-east England, the first recorded shipment of Romneys to New Zealand was in 1853, when nineteen ewes and a ram were sent aboard the SS Cornwall to a stud in Wellington. A dual meat and wool breed, Romneys were soon recognised as a breed perfectly suited for New Zealand’s relatively cold and wet climate. Southland, with its boggy soils, cold winds and steep hills, was ideal Romney country and the breed became the  Southland

Stubborn, thick-willed and stupid, even by sheep standards, Romney’s are often referred to as “boof-heads” because of their woolley faces and obdurate attitude. As shepherds, working with the noble Merinoes, we looked down our noses at Romneys, considering them, and all other sheep breeds for that matter, as inferior. As my old boss Peter Kerr used to say, “There are only two kinds of sheep, Merinoes and others.”   

But regardless of whether or not we smug shepherds approved of them, by the nineteen eighties, Romneys made up fifty-five percent on the country’s flock.

Across the railway tracks from the Romney statue stood the imposing bulk of the Flemings Mill, a mural of Sergeant Dan adorning the front wall. With his wide-brimmed slouch hat, shouldered rifle and shining boots, Sergeant Dan stood to attention, peering out over the town. Originally created in 1915 by Charlotte Lawlor, who worked for the advertising agency that handled the Flemings account, it seemed to me now, with the cynicism of age, that Sergeant Dan’s protruding belly, large buttocks and rouged cheeks were a little at odds with the rugged, tractor-driving, can-do, soldierly farm boy persona we attributed to him as kids.

Sgt. Dan.

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. As it happens, the Flemings mill, Creamota, and Sergeant Dan are all things from that foreign country known as the past. Flemings was taken over by the Australian food giant Goodman Fielder in 2006. Creamoata, along with several other Flemings products familiar to all Kiwis, Thistle Rolled Oats, and Sweet Heart-o Wheat, were absorbed into the Uncle Toby’s brand and disappeared. The Gore mill itself closed in 2008.

But, I was happy to see, the name of Sergeant Dan lives on in Sgt. Dan Stockfeeds. It was emblazoned on the side of a truck that was loading bulk pig food, or something, from an auger protruding from the front of the building.The mill that once produced the breakfasts of countless Kiwi kids now grinds up Primo Calf Meal, Porki Pig Complete Mash, Velvet Plus Deer Nuts (childish snigger) and something called Goat Pellets. There was some sort of neat symmetry in all of this.

Standing there beside the railway tracks, in the bright, cold Southland sunshine, I felt a brief pang of nostalgia. I thought of those long-ago winter days of hot breakfasts cooked by mum on the stove while she made our school lunches and we listened to 3ZC on the wireless. And then I thought, “Well fuck this”, walked back to my truck and headed west towards the uttermost end of the earth.

Extracted from The Greenstone Water, by fajB.