By Janet Wainscott
It’s seven o’clock on an autumn morning, low-tide and barely light, when the two-engine plane swoops over an expanse of sand dunes and lands half-way along the 16-kilometre stretch of ocean beach at Mason Bay on the isolated west coast of Stewart Island. We jump down onto the wet sand and stand trying to discern where sand and cloud and water begin and end. The wind whips up the sand and grey clouds billow over the pounding waves of the vast Southern Pacific Ocean, an ocean for whales and shipwrecks.
A few minutes later the plane, which can land on the beach only at low tide, takes off for the 10-minute return flight to Halfmoon Bay. We have six hours to walk from here, across the swampy centre of the Island to the landing at Freshwater Creek where we will be picked up at high-tide by a water taxi and returned to Halfmoon Bay. We’re told we should be able to cover the distance easily in four hours.
Our fellow passengers, two English tourists, don’t dwell; they set off briskly, wielding shiny walking poles. They tell us that they hope to see kiwi, and maybe they will. It’s rare to see kiwi in the wild and rarer still to see this normally-nocturnal bird in daylight, but Mason Bay is one of the best places to see kiwi, and the Stewart Island Brown kiwi is unusual in that it can sometimes be seen feeding in daylight hours.
I’m drawn to Stewart Island and Mason Bay by a chain of family connections that go back to my great-grandfather who arrived here, almost by accident, at the end of the nineteenth century. His comfortable upbringing in England was cut short by his father’s bankruptcy and he came or was sent to New Zealand, alone, as a sixteen-year old boy. A few years later he met two cousins by chance in a pub in Invercargill and they persuaded him to come to Stewart Island and work for them on their farm at Mason Bay. He remained on the island for most of his life, working in sawmills.
Unlike his father, my grandfather was born to an island life. He left to work on the mainland when he finished school, but all his life he called the Island ‘home’. It was home, too, for an assortment of my mother’s aunts and cousins, and the place where my mother sometimes spent school holidays in the early 1940s. On some of these holidays my mother stayed with her Aunt Dolly and Uncle Stan, who farmed sheep at Mason Bay.
The wind shimmies through the marram grass on the massive dunes that stretch the length of the beach and extend up to 3 kilometres inland. The marram grass, an introduced plant, is controversial. It was planted from the 1930s onwards in an effort to stablise the dunes and stop the incursion of sand, but the marram interferes with the natural dynamic of the moving sand and crowds out the smaller native sand-binding pikao, which is adapted to the rolling sands of an active dune system. There’s a programme to spray the marram grass to encourage the pikao to stage a comeback.
Aunt Dolly took an amateur interest in botany. She may not have anticipated the ecological consequences of marram grass, but she knew about the rare, endemic Gunnera hamiltonii, which creeps along sand dunes and forms a mat of rosettes of tiny purple-bronze serrated leaves. Aunt Dolly knew where the gunnera grew and guided visiting botanists through the dunes to see it.
On the inland side of the dunes, Aunt Dolly and Uncle Stan had their three-room wooden ‘homestead’. Further south along the beach, they built a one-room cottage out of flotsam—bits of wood and even a cabin door from shipwrecks.
I’m not sure why they built the beach cottage, or why they thought they could farm here. It was folly to farm in such a hostile climate where it rains two days out of three and sand dunes give way to swamp. Folly to try to stop the sand from shifting. Folly to build a flimsy cottage from flotsam. I don’t know whether the cottage was washed away or fell down or was pulled down. I like to think the ocean reclaimed it, broke it apart and washed the pieces up somewhere else.
More remarkable than Aunt Dolly’s knowledge and protection of the rarest of plants or her cottage on shifting sands, was her water lily pond. Water lilies need calm water, and Mason Bay is far from calm, but in a pond in the lee of the dunes, behind the flotsam folly, Aunt Dolly planted water lilies. Decades later, they still flourish, largely unseen.
There’s no time to walk to the water lilies; we have to reach the landing at Freshwater Creek in time for the water-taxi, so we follow a creek upstream. Walking on sand and clambering along the stream bank makes me think that our companions on the plane might have had the right idea to equip themselves with walking poles. We are soon on a broad path through a forest of manuka, contorted by gales and I pick up a branch of wind-blown manuka to use as my own walking stick.
We come to an open, grassy area where Uncle Stan and Aunt Dolly’s old Island Hill homestead still stands, but now it is a Department of Conservation depot.
As we head inland, old fences in various stages of being absorbed back into the landscape appear and disappear. Sand could bury a fence one year and then undercut it the next, leaving it suspended mid-air. Near the wool shed, we pass a solitary wooden fencepost silvered by lichen and eroded the by rain and salt-laden gales blowing off the ocean. A single wire curves towards the sky, a reminder of nature’s ongoing reclamation project.
Farming continued here after Uncle Stan and Aunt Dolly left, and finally finished in the 1980s. We stop at the old wool shed, one of the few remaining physical signs of farming. The wooden walls of the pens are worn smooth where the sheep used to rub against the rails while they waited to be shorn. Shafts of light seep through gaps in the walls, and the shed still holds the heavy, greasy smells of lanolin and sweat, familiar to me from my childhood on a farm in a part of New Zealand more hospitable to sheep, and people, than here.
When we re-join the track, an expanse of tussock and flax, dotted with isolated trees and patches of manuka, stretches out in front of us. The colours are extraordinary: silver and sage, tawny fawns and tan, all shot through with the faintest hint of orange. The track gives way to stretches of mud and to narrow board walks across swamp and waist-high water and I make good use of my manuka walking pole.
There’s been no rain for a couple of days, unusual for Stewart Island, so the mud is only shin-deep. After the swamp the track is firmer and drier and we find a spot by a small stream to rest for a few minutes. When we catch up with the walkers who shared our plane ride we find them at the edge of the track, bent over in frozen poses and peering into the undergrowth. ‘Kiwi,’ they whisper.
After a few moments we make out the shape of a Stewart Island Brown Kiwi and hear it snuffling through the undergrowth, probing the soil for insects with its long beak. It casts a wary glance at us and carries on feeding. We watch for several minutes, careful not to disturb it, and then silently continue our walk.
We arrive at the Freshwater Inlet hut with an hour to spare before the water-taxi leaves. We move slowly out of Freshwater Inlet and into the brooding expanse of Paterson Inlet. There are no sweeping sandy beaches here; instead dense native bush grows down steep hills to the rugged shoreline. Nature has obliterated most signs of human activity. Little visible evidence remains of the timber milling industry, or of the Norwegian whaling station that was once based here. Some say that nowadays whales occasionally venture into Paterson Inlet.
As the water-taxi picks up speed, I hear silence above the engine noise. I came looking for traces of human history, which I found, but it’s the wild, remote beach at Mason Bay and the snuffling kiwi along the track that stay with me. Perhaps that’s how it should be.
Janet Wainscott lives near Christchurch, New Zealand. She writes poetry and essays, and her work has been published in various local literary magazines and anthologies.
Photographs copyright John Yarrall.