New Zealand’s tourist board has a rather easy job really, doesn’t it? Never mind the grandiose landscapes that sell themselves so well, an overabundant collection of wildlife rarely seen elsewhere and the vast array of action packed activities on offer, its place names alone are enough to pull tourists in. A map of New Zealand is a map of intrigue you see. Jam packed with enticingly named locations, the imagination goes into overdrive as you scour over a whole host of spots that just demand to be visited. What exactly has the Bay of Plenty got plenty of? Just how long is 90 Mile Beach? Would it be deemed inappropriate to take the mother-in-law to Cape Kidnappers or Murderers Bay? Above all of these however is a place so simple and alluring in its title, that the only question you’ll be asking is whether it’ll shape up to be as enchanting as it sounds. Welcome to Golden Bay.
It’s a different world up here. Sitting atop of New Zealand’s south island and with only one road in and out via the mighty Takaka Hill, Golden Bay can be an effort to reach, but an even bigger effort to leave. Stretching from Totaranui in the south up to Wharariki Beach at its tip; it boasts two national parks, the most sunshine hours in the country and a rather oversized collection of ways to while away the days. It’s just a case of managing to fit them all in.
The southern end of Golden Bay offers more gentle living. Small seaside towns cluster along the shoreline here, regretfully deserted for much of the year due to their make-up of bachs (holiday homes), but beautifully located nonetheless. Broad beaches at Pohara, Liger Bay and Tata Beach have calm waters for paddling and no doubt piddling; while kayakers, horse riders and a multitude of other large and swiftly moving objects will keep you on your toes both in and out of the water. The northern end of the Abel Tasman coastal track reaches Wainui, offering short walks and sea life aplenty. If you’re still stuck for something to do, well, you could go rock climbing, rope swing into rivers, visit waterfalls, explore peculiar rock formations, go mountain biking or simply take a few minutes to put your feet up, relax, and enjoy an iced coffee on the deck of Jacques Cousteau’s old boat. Like I said, there’s one or two things to pass the time here.
The main town in these parts is Takaka, where a unique smell of cow muck and marijuana mingles in the air and little goes on without everybody knowing about it. Hard skinned farmer folk live side by side with dreadlocked hippies; along with a transient population of seasonal workers who come and go, all the while trying to work out what the hell is going on. It’s an odd but fascinating mixture which borders on the eccentric at times, proof being in the fact there’s even a town Wizard – although the initial mystical delight at his robe, staff and general Gandolf-esque demeanour is somewhat lost upon finding out he’s an ex-copper from Christchurch called Tony. Now there’s a character profile that I’ll bet J.R.R Tolkien wishes he’d thought up. While Takaka is underpinned by strong farming, mining and construction roots, it’s perhaps better known as an alternative lifestyle haven. This is a place where conventional society is forgotten and a care-free attitude takes hold; the days move more slowly and upon seeing crude roadside signs offering ‘Fruit, Vegetables and other stuff’, you can take a decent guess at what that may be. It’s massively refreshing however, and a huge population of ex-pat Europeans now settled in and around Takaka proves that there’s still an awful lot to be said for letting (all) your hair grow long and not owning any shoes.
Up past Takaka lay the Te Waikoropupu (Pupu) Springs, reportedly the clearest fresh water springs in the world (only narrowly beating the Walthamstow stretch of the River Lea I suspect) and a sacred historical Maori site. As such, drinking or swimming in the water is likely to see a thousand curses cast upon your soul or something similar, either that or a vicious nip from one of the resident eels that call it home. Heading further north the bay changes. Beaches give way to enormous estuaries while the landscape becomes increasingly less sheltered before eventually reaching the roads end, and the natural oddity that is Farewell Spit. Stretching a protective arm over the bay, Farewell Spit is a quite extraordinary sight. Flanked on its protected southern edge by woodland and then by vast sand dunes to the exposed north, seabirds flock here in their thousands along with an unhealthy amount of whales. ‘Why unhealthy?’ I hear you ask. Well, mostly on account that they’re dead whales. The shallow bay waters and the trap like effect of the Spit itself leads to hundreds of whales a year beaching here, and if they don’t snuff it naturally then DOC will often decide to euthanise the remainder. If that doesn’t have you blubbering, nothing will.
Just around the corner from Farewell Spit is a breezy old spot called Wharariki Beach, where land meets ocean and creates one of those dramatic natural backdrops that you can only feel insignificant against. Vast wind whipped dunes tower above the beach and sea, where rocky islets take an eternal battering just offshore. As we slowly struggled forwards with backs bent into the wind, seagulls whizzed backwards overhead and the aforementioned beaches of serenity further south seemed a world away. It was a theme continued as we made our way down to the Tai Tapu coast soon after. A less travelled road westward took us out into the Kahurangi national park, away from the crowds and past the sort of isolated rural communities I can only imagine are populated by people in witness protection programmes. The road leads to Westhaven Inlet and then further on to the all too familiar ferocity of the West Coast. Desolate and deserted but spectacularly impressive, the coastline here offers a hugely alternative option to the more tranquil charms found elsewhere in the Bay. Just don’t make plans for a peaceful picnic, eh?
Altogether it’s an area like no other we’ve seen so far in New Zealand, and for the next couple of months we’re fortunate enough to say it’ll be home. A break from the road and a chance to save some money was needed, and where better to do that than in a place named Golden Bay? As you might have realised from the gushing tourist brochure type text above, we’re quite fond of it here; and whether it’s the beaches, the weather or even the mightily welcoming locals, it’s a place that’s Golden by name, and very definitely Golden by nature.