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The Wild South: Who would have thought that a beach facing Antarctica could be so beautiful?

Published
September 17, 2021
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THIS JULY, just as the last week of winter began, I visited another wild southern shore of the South Island. No, not the Catlins this time, but the coast west of Invercargill around Colac Bay, also known as Ōraka.

Colac Bay/Ōraka lies between Riverton/Aparima and Tūātapere on State Highway 99 (the Southern Scenic Route), northwest of Invercargill.

Here’s an aerial view of the district, showing some of its attractions and the places I talk about.

Colac Bay/Ōraka and environs. Imagery ©2021 Maxar Technologies, Google, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, TerraMetrics. Map data ©2021 Google. Names in italics and the approximate sites of Martin’s and Turnbull’s Huts and the Old Gold Workings (white diamonds) have been added for this post. North is at top.

If you start out from Invercargill and head north west on State Highway 99, you can take heart from the observation published in an 1878 issue of the local newspaper The Southland Times, that:

"There are few pleasanter drives in the colony than that from Invercargill to Riverton by the beach, and in fine weather it is simply charming."

Along with the pleasant drive there are, indeed, lots of great beaches to explore once you arrive. Though, they tend to be of the bracing sort.

At Riverton, also known known by its traditional Māori name of Ararimu, the first place to stop off at, apart from some local café, is at Te Hikoi Southern Journey Museum and Information Centre, at Riverton/Aparima.

While you are there, you can pick up a brochure on the Riverton/Aparima South Coast Heritage Trail, which gives a really comprehensive list of local points of interest in this region, including some that I don’t mention.

Without going into all the details of the heritage trail, the next place to go after Riverton/Aparima, heading west, is More’s Scenic Reserve. This has some lookouts, and a coastal hiking trail to Colac Bay starts from there as well.

Colac and Ōraka both mean the same thing. Ōraka means ‘of Raka’. Raka was a leader of local Māori in days past. Settlers who heard the Māori name in the grammatical form ko-Ōraka wrote it down as Colac and gave that name to the locality.

There is a good webpage on Colac Bay, here. The bay is popular with surfers, and you can even have your photo taken next to a statue of a surfer!

Colac Bay / Ōraka. The town is small!

As you can see from the picture just above, I found that the area was at its best at the ends of the day. Clouds formed near the coast but didn’t extend all the way out to the horizon, so that at dawn and at the end of the day, the sun would do battle with the clouds. I took heaps of dawn and sunset photographs, not all of them at Colac Bay. Here is another one, of a local sunset.

A little further northwest, at Round Hill, there are the remains of a Chinese gold mining settlement known as Canton. Here is a detail from an information sign, which also alludes to the once much more prosperous condition of the nearly township of Orepuki. There are lots of information signs in the area.

From Round Hill, you can also hike the length of the Longwood Forest Conservation Area.

The main track goes past a couple of old historical huts, of which the most famous is Martin’s Hut, built in 1905 to house one of the staff employed by another gold mining enterprise of the day.

Martin’s Hut. photograph by Sandro Koster, CC BY 2.0 via the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

There are lots of other remnants of the mining life along the Longwood tracks, as there also are in other parts of the region. It was mostly gold that was mined in the region, though for a time oil was extracted from oil shale as well.

Alternatively, you can turn left at Round Hill and head back down south to Kawakaputa Bay, due west of Colac Bay but not accessible other than through Round Hill.

According to the page that I’ve linked to, Kawakaputa Bay has a really nice beach called Wakatapu Beach, and “stunning views of Centre Island and Stewart Island (Rakiura).”

You might be able to see Codfish Island / Whenua Hou as well.

From Kawakaputa Bay, you take the local road to Pahia, and from there along Mullet Road to Cosy Nook. Known locally as the ‘old ’, this was seen as a defensible location in earlier times, and was the site of the main Māori settlement in the area. In those days it was known as Pahi, after a local chief. The term Cosy Nook actually refers to the small bay by the settlement.

House at Cosy Nook

Most of the local population has since moved inland, as Cosy Nook is somewhat exposed to the weather and not really all that cosy.

Southeast of Cosy Nook, across a somewhat larger craggy bay, there is a world-famous surfing break called Porridge, which can only be accessed by permission from local farmers. This close to Antarctica, of course, the surfies wear insulated rubber wetsuits all year round.

Looking across the larger bay from Cosy Nook, toward ‘Porridge’

This whole area reminds me a bit of the Scottish islands, and in fact the name Cosy Nook was bestowed by a Scotsman.

Just north of Cosy Nook is the Pahia Hill Scenic Reserve. The name Pahia probably refers to the flattened top of the hill, rather than to Pahi. You have to cross farmers’ land (with permission) to get to it and it is used by hunters, so it is probably best to admire from afar.

Heading back to SH 99 via the barely-inhabited locality of Pahia, and then carrying on westward along SH 99, you come to the beachside settlement of Orepuki.

As the sign above indicates, Orepuki is a bit of a ghost town. Once inhabited by three thousand gold miners and merchants who relieved the miners of their gold, the town only has sixty permanent residents today. Even so, it has an award-winning café, something we have a lot of in New Zealand. There is also a notable beach walk, described on this section of signboard, which also mentions other localities in the area.

Just off the shore at one end of Orepuki is the island known as Monkey Island in English, so called (apparently) because it once had a monkey-winch, a sort of ratchet thing for pulling boats ashore. The island is joined to the coast at low tide, and is a good place to visit provided you make it back in time. The Maori name for the island is Te Puka o Takitimu, the anchor of Takitimu, the waka (canoe) by which early Maori came to the region around the year 1400 of the Western calendar.

Monkey Island / Te Puka o Takitimu at dawn and low tide

The author in front of Monkey Island / Te Puka o Takitimu, with Fiordland mountains behind

It’s also for the birds!

At the other end of town there is Gemstone Beach, or Te Tai Tānui, which gets its English name from the fact that it was once strewn with semi-precious stones. Indeed, it still is to some degree.

As one of the signboards above states, the stones (and sand) of this beach are taonga tapu or sacred treasure to local Māori, which may I think be read as a ban on fossicking.

In earlier times, Te Tai Tānui was vital to the Māori as a source of garnet: an abrasive substance usually found mixed into sand in a form resembling little red jewels that stand out from the other grains. Many cultures, including the Māori, have collected garnet grains and used them to sharpen their tools since time immemorial, or sometimes just for decoration.

Further up the coast, just before SH 99 turns inland to Tūātapere, there is McCracken’s Rest, a lookout atop coastal cliffs above Te Waewae Bay, from which you can see Hump Ridge and the mountains of southern Fiordland (also visible from Orepuki), which are spectacularly snow-capped in winter.

An old signpost at McCracken’s Rest, and a view over the beach at this beauty spot

Here is a video of scenes I’ve made at some of these beaches.

I call the mountains that you can see in these images the Takitimu mountains, after the Takitimu waka (canoe). That is what one of the information panels suggests, though officially the Takitimu range is a bit further north.

From Tūātapere, which you have to detour toward because of the impossibility of getting across the mouth of the Waiau River, you can head back to the beach, known as Bluecliffs Beach (sometimes spelt Blue Cliffs) or Rarakau in Māori, west of the Waiau. And, also, to the beginning of the Tūātapere Hump Ridge Track, which I have written about elsewhere.

By the way, there is a whole lot more to see in the South Island of new Zealand, of which this is just one tiny corner. Check out my new book, for sale on this website, a-maverick.com.

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