Backpacking Pensioners travel blog

Looking back at Cape Farewell

Ground nesting Gannet Colony

A chick doing airobics

More of the Gannet Colony

The lighthouse oasis

One of the keepers cottage

Returning to the wild side

Farewell Spit Lighthouse

Pouwhenua: the Maori Carving

Our guide Kersten

Sylvia’s Comments.

We were being collected at 9.45 am for our six and a half hour trip along Farewell Spit to the Gannet Colony. Mindful of the times we have sat in tour buses waiting for people who are late arriving at the correct time, I was eager to ensure we were not late. Jeff on the other hand did his usual dawdling thing and seemed to take ages, but we were at the front of the camp site on time. Our tour bus was late and we found out that they had waited for a couple who did not turn up.

Our guide today was Kersten, who originally came from Germany, and we had another couple, ex pats and a Swiss gentleman as our companions for the day. The journey took us back up the road to Puponga and out towards the Spit, where before entering the area Kersten had to check the tyres. It was a dry day with nice blue skies and a bit of wind blowing about. Kersten drove us onto the Golden Bay side of the dunes and positioned the bus so we were able to get a view of the birds sitting out in the wetlands. This area is included on the list of Ramsar wetlands of international importance with another 1,651 other wetlands. The name Ramsar comes from the town in Iran, where in 1971 a Convention of Wetlands was signed as an intergovernmental treaty to protect important wetlands around the world. The Spit is also one of a Flyway Reserve networks, where migrating shore birds visit to rest and feed before making their trips to their winter nesting areas, some flying up into the Northern Hemisphere. Our guide put it a little more succinctly calling it an international airport. Today there was a lot of Black Swans, Oyster Catchers, Terns and Ruddy Turnstones out busy feeding.

Having got our fill of the birds we drove along the beach and through the track we had walked along yesterday to reach the ocean side of the dunes. Farewell Spit is a landscape created by wind and water, constantly being built up and worn down. The turbulent rivers flowing from the Southern Alps into the Tasman Sea bring all the grit with them. The suspended sediments are swept northwards by the Western Current, the heavier sediments soon sink leaving the lighter material to be carried to the tip of the South Island. Here it meets the current from the Cook Straight and looses its momentum, being deposited as sand on Farewell Spit. A study in 1947 showed that at least 3,400,000 cubic meters of material is added to the spit each year. I wonder who’s job it is to conduct these surveys and how do they do them? Much of this sand is deposited on the ocean beach and then the wind blows it over to Golden Bay and back again. This creates the large dunes along the spit, known as barchan dunes, which are constantly moving in an easterly direction, due to the prevailing westerly winds. The Spit is constantly lengthening, although its main growth is the widening of the huge sand planes on the Golden Bay shore.

Abel Tasman was the first European to sail by the Spit in 1642, describing it as a “duney land” but it was not until Captain Cook was leaving the area on his first visit to New Zealand in 1770 when he said “Farewell Spit”. Probably better than goodbye spit.

Today as we drove along the beach we saw the elements at work, the waves crashing up onto the beach and the sand being swirled around by the wind. There were a few brave birds on this side of the dune and a number of individual seals hauled up on the sand for a rest. At the end of the public beach we were allowed to get out of the bus for a short walk around on the beach to stretch our legs before continuing on to the light house, where we made a short stop to get the tea urn on the go for our coffee break after visiting the gannet colony.

The Gannet Colony is a further mile along the beach from the light house. We parked the bus and made the twenty minute walk across the windy, flat sandy area to within 120 yards of the birds. We had been told it was often a two way process and we had not been walking long when a number of gannets came across to view us. They flew very close to us in order to check us out and decide if we were a better looking group than yesterday’s tour. We must have been as they continued to fly around us the whole time we were out there.

This Gannet Colony is unique because the gannets are breeding at sea level, unlike most other colonies, which are on high, stable rock formations, well above the sea. The Australasian gannets first bred at the Spit in 1983, and ornithologists did not believe the light housekeepers who told them this was happening. The colony soon grew from 75 nests to 3,060 nests by 2001. The 2006 survey recorded 3,330 pairs and the colony now represents about 4% of the NZ breeding colony of Australasian gannets. It is about this time that the chicks fly off to Australia, where they will spend the next eighteen months before returning to the colony to breed. The parents remain in NZ, some staying in the area others dispersing around to other parts. Is this what is known as a gannet gap year? We spent about 20 minutes watching the birds and were lucky to see some of the chicks still in the colony, although Kirsten told us that the majority of the chicks had gone. It was really great to be so close to such lovely graceful birds that I forgot about the strong winds and blowing sand that was going on all around us, well until we turned to head back to the bus.

Our next stop was at the lighthouse where we had lunch and a hot coffee and a chance to wander around the area. The need for a lighthouse arose because of frequent wrecks on the Spit in early European days. Between 1840 and 1847, ten ships were wrecked and numerous others stranded on the beach. The original lighthouse was erected in 1870, the hardwood timber being drawn along the beach by horse-drawn carts. After nearly 30 years of exposure to the elements it was replaced by the present structure, a 100 foot steel tower, the only one in the country built on the open lattice-work principle. Initially there were three lighthouse keepers and their families stationed here and over the years they managed to get some trees to grow, affording them some shelter from the constant wind and blowing sand. This little oasis enabled them to grow food and raise cattle to be self sufficient. The tour company we had booked with today were the original mail and supply bus that travelled to the lighthouse on a weekly basis commencing over 60 years ago. A few passengers began hitching lifts and soon an established tour began. Farewell Spit Eco Tours are the only tour company that hold a permit to visit the Gannet Colony When the light house became fully automated the tours continued. There was a small museum at our lunch spot with writings and photographs from some of the families who had lived here.

It must have been a hard life for the families here in such an isolated spot but they had managed to create a nice safe haven from the elements. Also in the area was a Pouwhenua (a Maori wood carving) placed by the local Iwi to indicate their connection to the Spit, and nearby a panel explaining some of their legends. Once back in the bus we were once again out in the wildness of the Spit. Our next stop was at they only sand dune you are allowed to climb up which was supposed to give us panoramic views over both Ocean Beach and Golden Bay. I set off to climb up but then regretted wearing shorts today; the sand blowing about was like thousands of needles being stuck into my leg at the same time, a sort of beauty therapy that sandblasted the skin off my legs. I sat down took a photo and ran quickly back to the bus. Jeff stayed up longer and told me that Kersten had suggested he lean back and let the wind hold him up. Whilst doing this Kersten then walked around the back of him cutting off the wind causing him to think he was about to fall.

Once back in the safe haven of the bus we made our last stop at Fossil Point where we got another chance to browse around for a short time before returning back to our campsite. We had had a great day and found Kersten to be a very knowledgeable and friendly tour guide who gave us lots of interesting information and history of the area. This trip, with Farewell Spit Eco Tours, is worth doing for anyone out there reading this.

Anyone wanting further information on Farewell Spit Eco Tours can visit their website at

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