Tragedy and Solution
The night of 29 April 1881 was starry and the sky was clear when the SS Tararua left Port Chalmers in Dunedin bound for Bluff carrying a crew of 40, 111 passengers, and a cargo. The ship passed the lighthouse at Nugget Point, south of Dunedin, just before 1:30 am. It was a dark night, and the coast could not be seen. The captain turned the ship west at 4 am believing they had cleared Slope Point.
Just after 5:00 am the sound of breakers was heard, indicating that the ship was too close to shore. The captain tried to turn the Tararua out to sea, but as it was coming around it struck the rocks of the Otara Reef about 1 km from the shore at Waipapa Point, breaking the propeller and disabling the rudder.
During the ensuing confusion the first lifeboat holed on launching. The second lifeboat was launched at 6:00 am, carrying a passenger who made it ashore and raised the alarm at a nearby farmhouse. A farm hand then carried the news of the disaster inland by horseback, but because the message was not marked urgent when it reached Dunedin just after midday, no immediate action was taken.
Meanwhile the wind had risen and the sea grew larger. Because they believed the ship was the safest place to be, passengers stayed on board. Attempts to reach the ship from the shore failed. Eventually the Tararua began to break up, and as the stern sank the desperate passengers moved forward and up into the rigging. Only one man managed to swim ashore. Others made the attempt, but were sucked out to sea or lost their lives just metres from the shore.
At about 2.30 on the second night the masts broke and the ship rolled over. By dawn it had sunk. Of the 151 passengers and crew on board, only the 20 who had made it to shore survived. Most of the victims who were found were buried at the nearby “Taraua Acre”, surrounded today by lush farmland.
In 1884 New Zealand’s last wooden lighthouse was built at Waipapa Point at the eastern end of Foveaux Strait to warn shipping of the dangers of the Otara Reef. It still operates today with an automatic light which flashes once every 10 seconds.
On the day of our visit it was cold and windy, but sunny.
As deceptive as it may seem, Slope Point on the Catlins Coast in Southland is the southern-most point in New Zealand – not Bluff, or even Stewart Island as most people think.
The big tourist attraction at Bluff is a signpost with signs pointing to major cities at all points of the compass for people to photograph themselves by. To get there is easy, just follow State Highway south until you reach the end!
To get to Slope Point requires more effort. One must take a detour onto secondary roads to the east of the main road through the Catlins, followed by a walk through farmland beside the clifftop tussock grass to reach the coastal navigation beacon and sign at the end. There you are informed that the distance to the equator is 5,140 km and to the South Pole is 4,803 km.
It doesn’t look much like a point; no sharp promontory, more a bump in the coastline. Sheep graze right up to the clifftop. It’s a pretty wild and rugged place though. Cold winds whistle in from Antarctica which cause the tussock to roll like waves. A reef protrudes into the sea at the base of the cliffs and shows itself through the surf. Just as well for woolly hats and windproof jackets.
A Startling Experience
Surat Bay on the Catlins coast in Southland has one of the most beautiful unspoiled beaches in New Zealand. It is also one of the favourite resting areas for seal lions that come here from their breeding grounds in the Auckland Islands south of New Zealand. Visitors to the area are warned to keep their distance from the animals when visiting the beach.
The track to the beach is through grass-covered sand dunes. Flattened grass along the track is evidence that sea lions have recently visited.
We reached the beach without encountering any animals. I was trying to photograph the margin where the grass meets the sand when suddenly, and without warning, there was a loud roar behind me and this sea lion reared up in the grass about five metres away. Startled, I quickly backed off to a safe distance and was able to capture this image of the sea lion guarding its territory. Apparently it is mostly sub-adult males that haul themselves onto the beaches along this coast.
Surat Bay is named after a 1,000 ton immigrant sailing ship that became wrecked here in 1874 after striking rocks further south along the coast. No lives were lost.
Curio Bay attracts visitors for both its ruggedness and the 160 million year old fossilized logs that lie on its reef. It was a cold moody autumn day when this image was taken. A southerly wind was blowing in from the South Pole and one needed a good layering of warm and windproof clothing to venture onto the shoreline.
The fossilized logs are thought to be a Jurassic-age type of conifer that were swept from the surrounding hills by volcanic ash and mud flows. Over the years silica replaced the wood cells to produce very hard replicas that can withstand the harsh environment where they now lie. Amongst nearby rocks fossilized leaves can be found, near perfect copies of the original.
At the end of each day Yellow-eyed Penguins come ashore to nest overnight in the grassy banks along the shoreline. Black oystercatchers wade in the rock pools near the pounding surf.
Not Really a Lake
Catlins Lake is not really a lake at all, it’s actually part of the Catlins River estuary and is tidal. However, when the tide is in it looks like a lake.
This image was taken at about 10.00am on our journey from the Pukaraunui Falls to Jacks Bay and the nearby Jacks Blowhole. The tide was just turning and as we passed the narrowest part of the lake where the current formed by the outgoing tide was clearly evident. When we passed the lake again later in the day there were only mud flats to be seen.
A clear morning sky and no wind produced great reflections so that there was a near-perfect mirror image of the distant sheep covered hills. A light breeze just ruffles the water in patches. Wading birds are a common sight along the shore at low tide. Shags patrol the waters when the tide is in.
The Catlins coast is renowned for rugged coastal vistas and waterfalls. Perhaps the most visited place on the coast is Nugget Point with its lighthouse and scattering of small islands off the headland. During the early days of settlement in New Zealand shipwrecks were common along this coast . In 1870 a lighthouse was constructed here from rock quarried nearby. In 1989, along with all other lighthouses around the New Zealand coast, it was automated.
The Nuggets have been formed by New Zealand’s shifting geology which has caused sedimentary rock to break up and tilt sideways over time to create today’s danger to shipping and classic coastal outcrops. During our visit a fishing boat passed by the outer end of the islets and showed how a rather benign looking ocean swell could cause a smallish vessel to rock and roll. One could imaging how fierce the conditions could be in a storm and how sailing ships lost at night could easily fetch up here and get wrecked. The 1870’s lighthouse perched 76 metres above the cliff behind this view must have come as a relief to late nineteenth and early twentieth century mariners.
A wide variety of sea life can be found the rocky shoreline and islets including fur seals, sea lions, sea elephants, yellow-eyed penguins, shags, shearwaters, gannets and royal spoonbills.
An iconic picture of these falls by Nelson photographer Craig Potton has made them one of the best known places to visit in the Catlins, Southland. Craig’s picture has fascinated me for years. When the opportunity came to revisit the falls after a gap of more than 20 years, I was intrigued to know if they would live up to my perceived image.
There was less water flowing over the falls than I had hoped for. This is not surprising considering the long dry summer New Zealand has experienced this year. It was cool when we arrived just before 10.00 am and the sun was trying to break through the early morning mist. It was quite dark in the bush that surrounds the cascades.
This image was taken with the camera mounted on a tripod and set at ISO 200 for 1.3 sec at F11. I wanted to capture some of the sensation portrayed in the famous Craig Potton photograph, and to a degree I think I succeeded. To get this image required a scramble over slippery rocks near the viewing platform.
Pukauranui Falls are just one of several interesting cascades in the area which are worth visiting. Over the next few days we photographed them too.
Misty Dawn – Catlins
Another morning, another dawn. We moved to the Catlins Coast in Southland after riding the Otago Central Rail Trail for a different South Island experience. Our accommodation was at Hilltop Backpackers at Papatowai, a one store settlement between Dunedin and Invercargill near the rugged Catlins coast. Backpackers accommodation is not our usual style, but places to stay are in relatively short supply in that part of the world and Hilltop had good reviews on the web. Being sixty something and not really wanting bunkroom style accommodation, we took the en suite double room which turned out to be a nicely furnished quaint period room in the old house overlooking the valley leading to the sea.
Fellow travellers on that first night were from Hong Kong, Germany and New Zealand. A retired school teacher and hotel concierge from Hong Kong, a PhD student from Germany, an office administrator from Auckland, and us – all fetched up on a hillside in the middle of remote Southland.
We had arrived at twilight. Being concerned that we had turned up at the right place we weren’t fully aware of the surroundings. Sheep were wandering around nearby – one even surprised me in the dark as I unloaded the car by appearing out of the gloom to observe what was going on.
In the morning there was rustling outside our room which turned out to be one of our Hong Kong travellers photographing the mist and the sunrise. It didn’t take much to get me out there as well, and this is the result. What a great welcome to the Catlins Coast.
Dawn Sky – Central Otago
As I wonder what each day will bring when I wake in the morning one of the first indicators I look to is the dawn sky. I love dawn skies for their brilliant colours and how the shades of blue, orange, yellow and mauve change as the sun gets closer to the horizon.
The overcast conditions we experienced on the Otago Central Rail Trail produced this show of colours. It developed slowly from mostly dark blue clouds tinged with red, to this show of orange just before the sun appeared. The morning was cool, but not cold. Even while I set up the tripod the colours changed. I was all fingers and thumbs in the dark as I hurried to get ready. “More haste, less speed”, my mother used to say.
So, what sort of day did the dawn herald? A ride through the sweeping Maniototo Plain with the Rock and Pillar Range ahead and the Kakanui Mountains on the left. The landscape colour is mostly brown and gold. With the overcast sky it was also moody. The Central Otago painter and artist Grahame Sydney accurately captures this moodiness in his many paintings of the area.
In the winter it is cold on the plains below the mountains. At nearby Ophir in the centre of the historic gold rush area New Zealand’s coldest ever temperature of -21.6 degrees celsius was recorded on 3 July 1995. In the summer Alexandra near one end of the Rail Trail often has the country’s highest temperatures. During autumn, when the frosts hit the trees, the countryside is ablaze with yellow and gold. In the winter the surrounding mountains are capped with snow. This set of seasonal changes has its impact on “Central”, which makes it such an alluring place to visit.
I know that not every day can start with a blaze of early morning colour, but I still look forward in the hope that it will be there.
Reflections on the Otago Central Rail Trail
The locals call the sixty something age group that ride the trail “grey nomads”. I guess that is something akin to the “sundowners”in Australia who sell their homes on retirement, purchase a camper van and chase the sunsets all over their country. Doing the Rail Trail is not so drastic, but much more energetic.
It’s true that the baby boomer generation is generally more healthy and fit than in previous generations and is being encouraged to stay active – “use it or lose it” they say. Certainly that’s true amongst our friends. We go on regular hikes together and enjoy ourselves with other entertainments as well. Riding the trail is on lists of most people we talk to these days, but it is also popular with family groups and cyclists of all ages and degrees of fitness.
And so it was that in the week before Easter my wife Valerie and I joined a group of 12 others of a similar age whom we did not know to cycle the 150 km trail in three and a half days. Because we had experienced a pretty hectic year of ups and downs with family and friends we chose to take a fully organised package – no worries about organising bikes, accommodation, meals or side trips as they were all included. Just turn up on the day and follow instructions.
Trail Journeys in Clyde is the largest operator of Rail Trail excursions and were a delight to deal with. Their website is comprehensive and everything was easily organised by email through Fay at the Clyde office. Upon arrival in Clyde we were greeted by Allen who fitted everyone with bikes and helmets and delivered them to their first night’s accommodation. Allen is a retired Southland farmer who works part-time for Trail Journeys as a trail guide, bag mover, morning/afternoon tea provider and general minder and good guy. Like a good shepherd he counted everyone in at the end of each leg and rounded up stragglers – a very patient fellow!
Central Otago consists of wide vallies and plains surrounded by ranges of mountains, and in summer is bone dry and brown. To meet the needs of the gold fields during the gold rush of the 1880s a railway was built from Dunedin – then the largest city in New Zealand and the centre of commerce – to Cromwell. Although the distance between the two ends in a straight line is only 130 km, in order to avoid steep mountain grades and minimise construction costs the final chosen rail route covered a nearly twice that distance and passes through landscapes providing grand vistas of mountains and plains. As steam locomotives could handle inclines no steeper than 1:50, the two steepest hills on the trail have grades no more than this.
And so it was that our intrepid group of greying nomads ambled their way from pub to town to muffin break to stopover, ending each day with an excursion to a nearby gold mining settlement and a hearty meal and a glass or two of wine. Along the way we absorbed the history and vistas under lightly overcast skies, ending on our last morning in sunshine as we peddled into Middlemarch.
Did we enjoy it – you bet! The head winds and side winds stayed away for all but an hour on the second day, and so did the rain and cold. And some people took quite a lot of photographs!
Recommendation – Do it. There are options available for all needs and budgets, and plenty of useful information on the internet.
Central Otago Gold Mining – Modern Style
I don’t know what your thoughts are about large open cast mines but no matter what, their size and scale is impressive. A side trip at the end of our third day on the Otago Central Rail Trail was to visit the site of Oceana Gold’s Macraes mine. I have heard a bit about this operation over the years but had no clear idea about where the mine was or how it operated.
As you approach the mine area and the historic Macraes Flat village the first thing you see above town is large hills of mine tailings that have been groomed, grassed and grazed with sheep. It is only when you arrive at the viewing area for the modern mine that any sense of overall scale is observable. The gigantic Fraser’s open cast pit opens up before you, with giant mining machinery dwarfed by the sheer size.
The Macraes Gold Mine is some 80km north of Dunedin and the area has been known for its gold producing capacity since the 1860s gold rush. When the last of the small-scale miners left the area 100 years later Macraes Flat began a downward spiral – like a lot of rural New Zealand – until the new ‘rush’! The remaining gold is firmly locked inside solid rock, requiring considerable money, ingenuity and technology to prise it free.
The new mining operation by Oceana Gold works 24/7 and approximately 100 kg of gold is produced each week. The first gold of the modern mining operation was poured in 1990. As well as the large open cast pit, the company is developing an underground mine which we were told follows a gold seam some 26 km below the earth’s surface. It is expected that the life of the mine will be 25 – 30 years.
Near the open cast mine and within site of the modern smelter are the ruins of the historic Golden Point Mine where you can see old mining machinery, the manager’s house and three sod cottages used by miners.
St Bathans – Central Otago
It’s hard to believe that in 1887 Saint Bathans was a bustling town with around 2,000 miners living in the immediate vicinity. Today all that remains is a big hole in the ground, a historic pub and a cluster of other buildings to remind us of the town’s heyday in the 1880’s gold rush.
The mud-brick Vulcan Hotel (reputedly complete with resident ghost) was built in 1882 and is a magnet still for visitors to Central Otago. Our visit before Easter was part of the Otago Central Rail Trail package.
Near the town is the Blue Lake which was created by mining activity, commencing in 1864. What started as the 120 metre quartz rock Kildare Hill was chipped and sluiced away by miners until by 1933 the hill become a 168 metre deep pit. Hydraulic lift technology was used to suck water and gravel out of the pit to where it could be worked for gold.
The hole expanded as work progressed over the years until in 1934 it was judged to be getting too close to the town. It is now filled with water and forms today’s scenic and recreational lake. The minerals in the surrounding white quartz rocks give the water its blue colour. From what we saw though, clear blue skies are needed to show the lake at its best – overcast grey rendered the water a similar hue.
Central Otago Rail Trail
In the week before Easter my wife and I travelled to the South Island to ride the Otago Central Rail Trail. Trail Journeys in Clyde organised the four day trip which included bikes, accommodation and meals, as well as end of day excursions to nearby places of interest associated with the history of the old Central Otago Railway.
The Otago Central Rail Trail has become number sixteen on the top 100 things New Zealanders most want to do in their own country. It took sixteen hash winters and sixteen scorching summers from 1891 to 1907 to build the rail line from Middlemarch to Clyde in Central Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. Following the completion of the Clyde hydro-electric dam in 1990 the line was closed as deregulation of road transport made it no longer viable as a rail link. The line was originally built to service the gold fields of Central Otago but, like other similar rail lines throughout the world, it was completed just as the gold rush was ending. It continued to service the rural and farming communities until the mid 1980s. The Clyde Dam project extended its life a little longer to allow building materials to be delivered to the site from Dunedin. The only remaining part of the original Dunedin to Cromwell line still in use is the Taieri Gorge Railway that brings day trippers and cyclists from Dunedin to Middlemarch on tourist excursions.
The following extract from the official Otago Central Rail Trail website explains how the modern rail trail came about:
“Rather than seeing the remaining railway corridor from Middlemarch to Clyde become incorporated into farms, the Department of Conservation in Otago, with the backing of business and community figures who formed the Otago Central Railway Trust, proposed it become a cycling and walking trail. Supported by the success of Rail Trails overseas, and despite some negative comment from locals, the concept met with central government approval.
In 1993 the rail corridor was purchased as recreational reserve by the Department of Conservation. This was done on the condition it did not divert funds from other priority conservation work. It fell on the Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust to seek funding support. Between 1994 and 2000 the Otago Central Railway was transformed into the Otago Central Rail Trail. All 68 bridges were re-decked and equipped with handrails and the surface made more suitable for cyclists and walkers.
Although the trail officially opened in February 2000, development and enhancement of the experience has not stopped. In 2006 the Trust secured significant funding for major re-surfacing of large sections of the trail. In the same year the Trust launched the Otago Central Rail Trail Passport as a self-stamping souvenir of achievement. A total of 10 new gangers’ sheds to provide shelter from the elements were constructed and positioned along the trail early in 2007. In the new sheds, and two of the originals, are colourful information panels describing what can be seen from each shed, what to expect to see up and down the line, how far to destinations and photos and information about such off-trail attractions as Macraes Flat, Patearoa, Naseby, St Bathans, Ophir and more.
The impact of the Otago Central Rail Trail on the economy of the region has been enormous. Townships once dying are alive with vitality.”