PC 169 Shifting Sands and Feathers


Flying back to the UK from Wellington, New Zealand, having participated in the first gathering in Auckland of my great great grandfather Henry Nation’s descendants, I happened to glance out of the aircraft’s starboard window ……….. and saw Farewell Spit, on the northern tip of South Island. It was March 2011 and by then I understood its significance in my life, for it was there in August 1877 that a 17 year old girl, Eva Constance Fosbery who became my great grandmother, was shipwrecked and survived – for without her survival I would not be here!

PC 169 1

In the summer of last year I hatched a plot to go and stand as near as possible to where the ship was stranded and also visit where Eva and two of her sisters came ashore 3 days later. (PCs 152 & 154 refer).

PC 169 2

The Queen Bee

There are few spits of sand that grow as much as Farewell Spit. It is estimated that in the 150 years since a lighthouse was first constructed the Spit has lengthened by 5 kilometres; it’s now 32 long, from Cape Farewell at its western end to its tip. It has also widened considerably; at low water the lateral distance from north to south is over 10 kilometres! Access by the public is limited to the first 4; the Farewell Spit Tour Company runs regulated visits out to the lighthouse at low water, another 23.

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 Notice the little green blob South East of the light. We went beyond that!

The lighthouse’s 1870 wooden structure was built on the sand-blasted end of the Spit, with no vegetation and no shelter. The staff that managed it brought soil from nearby fields, planted trees and bushes ….. and in over one hundred years transformed the site into a little sheltered oasis.

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Farewell Spit Lighthouse today

The steel-lattice tower replaced the wooden structure in 1897. From an oil-burning lamp to large bulb to a small 50w tungsten halogen bulb with magnifying lenses, it’s now completely automatic and stands over four kilometres from the end of the Spit at high tide. Its ‘light characteristics’ are white with red sectors flashing once every 15 seconds. Of course during the stranding of the Queen Bee, one of the passengers was heard to ask the captain if the red light showing on the lighthouse was a warning. “It’s nothing you should worry about, Mrs Gibbs; leave the sailing of the boat to us professionals.” Talk about famous last words: an hour later the Queen Bee grounded!

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Looking east down the spit

Beyond this, nature holds sway …… some two kilometres past the lighthouse is a huge Australasian Gannet colony. Gannets usually nest on rocky cliff faces but here 60 breeding pairs arrived in 1982 and now the colony has some 9000 birds nesting on a shell bank; they stay for about four months.

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Conservation authorities limit the numbers of tourists able to visit this colony so we were lucky ……. as I could imagine …….. back in August 1877 ……… that it was somewhere just here the 726 ton Queen Bee grounded on the sand and juddered to a halt. Despite the efforts of the crew to get her off, she stuck fast and as the tide receded her predicament became far too obvious. Large waves crashed onto the deck, the strain on her timbers showed as water started leaking into her hold and by breakfast time the captain decided to abandon ship. One lifeboat came ashore at Awaroa Bay, on the western coast of Tasman Bay, a cutter beached 70 miles across Tasman Bay on the south coast of D’Urville Island three days later and the Captain’s gig ended up on the northern tip of the same island. The ship was uninsured and at auction the wreck sold for £335 and its 30 tons of cargo for £385. This ‘cargo’ included the passengers’ personal possessions, which they then had to buy back from those who had bought the wreck!!

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This the little green blob on the second photo, with the lighthouse barely visible to the west.

Today there is nothing to see …… but maybe, just maybe, ten feet, twenty feet under the sand where we stood lay the skeletal ribs of that great ship.

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It got a little soggy underfoot and I saw our guide Charles Mersmans, from the Farewell Spit Tour Company, looking at his watch, checking the tide times. Time to go! As when the land is so flat, the tide can rush in at an alarming rate.

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The Gannets don’t care about wrecks and such like, their sole purpose to replicate their species; every year the numbers increase and the Spit is one of those places so important on the global migration routes of seabirds. I am no ornithologist, although I can tell the difference between a white and black swan, the latter abundant here from their native Australia. And of course I know there is no difference between a shag and a cormorant but the first has rather smutty connotations, the latter a rather regal ring, so prefer the second name. But our guide Charles was hugely knowledgeable about our feathered friends. Did you know, for instance, that the red bill of the Oyster Catcher will change shape within weeks depending on what food is available?

PC 169 10

Red-billed Oyster Catchers. Apparently they stand on one leg to conserve energy.

Sand is deposited on the spit from the northerly-going current up the west coast of South Island, mainly from the shrinking Franz Josef glacier ….. so it’s grey, granite sand. And it shifts! We saw the ribs of an old coal trading ship that came ashore in the late 1800s; our guide hadn’t seen it for six months and had a story about its sinking concerning debts and insurance and such like.

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We climbed a sand dune and from the top saw the extent of the spit, as far as our eyes could see; and then we ran down its steep side like children. And we were lucky with the weather; normally the wind blows above 25kph, picking up the fine sand and reducing visibility. On the day of our visit you could see for miles.

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We saw a whale blowing on the north side of the spit, apparently unusual at this time of year. And on the south side of the Spit, in Golden Bay, pilot whales and dolphins are frequently caught by the rapid-changing tides and strand. Last year about 300 died in January and February, despite huge efforts by the local population to keep them hydrated until the tide changed. It’s a hugely upsetting occurrence. We saw seals close up ….. which they found unsettling and generally headed as quick as their flippers and tail could power them across the sand to the sea.

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PC 169 14

Looking East across Golden Bay

When we think of shipwrecks, we probably think of rocks and cliffs and raging pounding seas. In this case the ship grounded on a sandbar. (Note 1) …….. and that gave us an opportunity to connect geographically and emotionally with Eva. We will connect with her again in PC 170. Farewell Spit is a very special place.

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Richard 9th January 2020

Note 1: When sailing in shallow estuarial waters, where the underwater contours shift and change, one has to be careful! I remember many years ago being on a 32 ft yacht when it grounded on the sandy seabed off Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Fortunately there wasn’t a great deal of wind, but we had to wait until the tide started to rise again before we could sail off; God’s way of saying: “Time for tea & toast?”

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