Sunday, 8 March 2015

Tideland - Part One: Coming In

Heaven is an expanse of tide-sculpted sand, a forever ebbing and flowing estuary, and a primordially-jagged range of hills.

Good moon rising

I was about to pull the curtains in my tiny cabin when I glanced up to see that a perfect full moon has just cleared the tree tops, directly in my line of sight.  I snatching up the camera I trotted down to the beach to see it hanging in a salmon and turquoise evening sky, casting a glow on the still waters of Golden Bay beneath.  This place never loses it's ability to surprise me with its abundance of natural beauty.

Last time I stayed in Collingwood on my own coincided with the arrival of Comet McNaught, in late January 2007, the only comet in my lifetime which not only failed to disappoint, but actually exceeded expectations.  So much so that its refection, and even those of the surrounding stars, were also visible on the mirror smooth waters of  Collingwood's estuary.

The Aorere Estuary, with 'primordial' Mount Burnett on the far right

Collingwood is a very special place - rich with history which still permeates the  Western movie-backlot main street, apart from the fact that it has been rebuilt five times over its many years due to fire. The first distant glimpse of the town as you reach the estuary and turn seaward is a view straight into the past, with wooden wharves and the towns surprisingly grand Post Office building framing the tidal channel. In unkinder moments I feel it would be the ideal location for an adaptation of H P Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth - but Collingwood certainly has none of the sense of decay and menace, no shadow, of that titular coastal village.

The Tasman Sea makes its way into Whanganui Inlet
It is the last substantial settlement before access from the east, and the main routes spanning the rest of the South Island, runs out - Cape Farewell at the North and the Whanganui Inlet to the west are the end of the line.  Collingwood is a frontier town -  not a mere passing through point, and so has a unique, unchanging character.

In early 1976 my parents took us on a family holiday to the end of the Earth - or the South island at least.  For me, it was the beginning of a love affair with the coast, and particularly  Collingwood where I'm once again overjoyed to be staying.

Shack away from home: our first-ever accommodation
 in Collingwood Motorcamp

I know my memories of that holiday are somewhat romanticised, because it rained one entire week out of the two we were here, but I only remember the perfect sunny days.
The motorcamp is right at the end of a blunt apostrophe of land surrounded by the sea on three sides, and the sound  of the waves is ever-present. When I was first here a huge piece of driftwood had been somehow stood up on one end, out beyond the tidal flats where the breakers crashed. The older boys from the family we holidayed with told me it was 'King Neptune'; and indeed it required no effort at all to anthropomorphise this massive, ever-swaying visitor from the depths. A seaweed beard and something resembling a trident were surely unmistakable, and the distant waves were his roaring as he guarded the outmost perimeter of land and sea. Perhaps Neptune eventually made it to the shore, and I pass the long-fallen colossus every day on my many walks up and down the beach.

This is why I like to walk along the beach at first light

I also read Jaws on this holiday.  I was too young, and this nasty novel tempered my love of the sea forever more. We caught cockabullies and built little walls of sand to try and hold back the tide.  "You'll never stop the sea", my Mother told me kindly, "It will always win." One of her many simple pieces of wisdom which has always remained with me.

We travelled inland and explored historic goldfields, this area was one of the very first boom towns. And we turned North, visiting Wharariki Beach for the first time.  This vast natural amphitheatre made an instant and lasting impact on me. Paradoxically it is a vast stretch of shoreline open to sea and sky, but to me has always had the sense of an enormous cathedral. It is a renowned place of natural beauty, perenially popular with photographers and tourists but I sensed it was much more than that, even before we were literally chased out by a violent squall which appeared from nowhere - not once but on both of our first visits.

The Archway Rocks, Wharariki Beach

Wharariki Beach seems to have made it's peace with me since then.  I spent all of yesterday afternoon there, pacing its golden expanse and gazing reverently up at the stunning rock structures and many caves. On an earlier visit, not long after first light before the tourists had arrived, I had a sense that this was a place of spiritual significance. I recalled the Maori belief that spirits of the dead travel the length of Aotearoa, departing from the Northern-most tip for the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.  Could this be the southern equivalent, I wondered, perhaps the terminal of a supernatural crossing between the two islands? Unsurprisingly to me , some reading I've done since seems to imply this is true.

I hope life eventually brings me back here for good.  I can think of nothing better than sharing poor 'King Neptune's  possible fate, and becoming another beached relic washed up on these endless golden sands.

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