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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Into the Borderlands

SOUTH COAST, Wellington — Hot as all hell. A 4WD roars by and the plume of dust stings in the light wind. We’ve been dropped just short of the Devil’s Gate, a kilometre or so from the Red Rocks carpark, and our packs are lined up at the base of the cliffs that were quarried to build the airport. Despite the Council’s attempt to restore the area in the early 2000s, the scars remain; impressive, giant steps — material traces of the city it supports. Before us is the sea, listless and blue.

Packs on and up and over Devil’s Gate. On the decline we’re passed by a black 4WD handled by a mulleted guy wearing speed dealers with an open bottle of Export Gold in the hand, not a drop spilled as his truck rocks its way over the rocks. He hoons off kicking up sand. A layer of grime has settled on my forearms and the sweat on the back of my neck.

Trudging. The sun is high and the mountains of the South Island poke through the haze. Trudging. Sand bogs and slows the feet and the mind. It’s inside the boots and the mouth.


Sea go dark, dark with wind,

Feet go heavy, heavy with sand.

— Allen Curnow, “Wild Iron”


East is the harbour, south is the sea, and north is where I am from. But to the west? It’s a question that in Wellington, a city nestled against the hills that surround Tara’s harbour, generates little more than a half-registered “Karori?” or “Makara?” When low down in the CBD it can be hard to gain perspective. The dark green of the Town Belt forms an enclosing border wall and turns the focus inward. The city is contained by the curve of the harbour and the way out is clear north up the motorway, or south via ferry, or to the hub that is the airport.

Yet another way presents itself: to keep walking from Red Rocks.

There’s no set trail. No handy DOC signs telling you how far to go. There’s just that band of sand and stone and rock that separates the Cook Strait from the hills that jut up abruptly — the legacy of Wellington’s active fault lines. Occasionally there’s a little rough grass and compacted earth. The rest is a slow and endless trudge through the borderlands.

4WDs cruise past, free wheeling. Flicking up sand and blasting music. They gather in small groups around an opportune rock — the occupants sizzle, some in black wet water gear, others lounge and drink beer. The Rock FM plays. We walk by, I grin a cracked smile.

Two quadbikes pull up. Ministry of Primary Industries Police. The south sands sheriffs with black riot helmets and polarised wrap rounds. Fuck me, blonde moustaches too.

“Where you boys headed?”


“That’s a long walk. You doing it in a day?”

“We’re camping.”

“Got all the gear?”


“On your way.”

And off into the haze ride the boys of the law. Chasing down errant SUV riders, catching poachers, shining through the lawless sands. Later, the sand cops are clearly elsewhere, we trudge past dirt-bikers doing turns. They head up a big sand slope, and come back down the big sand slope. And up and down. Seeing us they turn and hoon off up the beach, pulling wheelies.

We’re not more than two kilometres from the Gate yet this area is distinct from the city. It’s wilder. The geography is rugged. Spiny rocks stick out of the deceptively calm sea; the jetsam indicates the height of the storm surges. Inland, to the north, rise impassable hills. Yellow in the sun, forlorn, with small dots indicating sheep.

The sheep belong to Terawhiti Station, whose southern border we walk along. The station  was acquired by Pākehā with “a subsequent alteration of the western boundary,” as the 2003 Waitangi Tribunal Report describes it, of the Port Nicholson Block in 1844. The Block, with the expansion, covered 209,247 acres including Cape Terawhiti and consolidated the settlement in Wellington. The land was acquired for the New Zealand Company by William Wakefield who arrived on the Tory in 1839 and, according to Ranginui Walker, bought the land “before the establishment of an official administration that would regulate and control the price.” 120 muskets and accompanying munitions, various utensils, and numerous items of clothing exchanged hands.

Despite Ranginui Walker suggesting that “the idea was to replicate in the new land the vertical profile of the English class structure,” Terawhiti Station was slowly acquired by a young herder James McMenamen from 1853 onwards. He had driven cattle to the southwest under previous owners and came to call the land his own. Today it remains in his family.

Oteranga Bay and Terawhiti Hill. 2017.

Terawhiti Hill looms in the distance. After passing around a headland, Oteranga Bay curves inward, offering an opening to the hills. The bay is the last before Cape Terawhiti, which is the westernmost point of the lower North Island, and carves the line of the head of Te Ikaroa-a-Māui. A high-tech ship is moored in the harbour. Here the power cable that crosses the Cook Strait and connects Te Ikaroa-a-Māui to Te Waka-o-Māui dips its way underwater. According to Vivienne Morrell, the “location was important to Māori for viewing the sea conditions prior to crossing Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait) and helping to control access to the northern end.” A concrete cube surrounded by razor wire marks the spot. Pylons loop up the hill and hum, and we find a broken slab with DANGER ELECTRICITY imprinted upon it that was washed away in a storm.

From here we head up the Oteranga stream valley. You can carry on around the coast, and travel the furthest west line, but rumour has it you have to swim. Up the Oteranga valley there is a paved road, built and maintained by Meridian Energy for their West Wind Farm which was completed in 2009. The turbines were shipped to a temporary wharf at the bay and trucked up the road. Terawhiti Station Manager Guy Parkinson in 2014 said “without the wind farm it would not have been possible to have turned the farm around.” The station, which covers 52 kilometres squared, has sheep and cattle and was running at a loss before the wind farm, which gives an undisclosed sum to the landowners.

On the top, looking toward Ohau Bay. 2017.

The land itself is harsh and windswept. We trudge up the wind farm road. After kilometres of sand each footfall jolts — the relief of firm ground not apparent. Goats hop around on the river bed and a scraggy bush covers the hills. In the valleys of side-streams the dark gloss of karaka, growing in groves, glimmers faintly.

The sun is low and scraping the ridge, it will be dark soon. In the valley it is cool and the light blue; we enter the accurately named Black Gully. We pass the remains of the Albion Gold Mining Company Battery which at the time we think is a tractor long forgotten. The rusted boiler and wheels were once a machine that crushed gold carrying quartz from Terawhiti Hill in the 1880s. The equipment, like the wind turbines, were shipped to Oteranga Bay and carted up the road. The first crushing was mid 1883 by the Golden Crown mine; it was then used by the Albion Company from August 1883 to January 1884 when company management ceased operations due to being in £600 in debt.

The building that housed the battery burnt down in the 1900s, and only the rusted machinery remains. Half-sunk into the earth. A legacy of the gold-fever that captured Wellington during the economic depression of the 1880s. In the land lie remains of what past. And up the same road we trudge, now have traveled the windmills.

We reach the top and rest, looking down to Ohau Bay where we plan to spend the night. It is sunny at the top and quiet. A few cows glare, and along the hilltops the windmills churn, bright in the sun.

The way down is on a ridge of hard beige earth. We pass a copse of pine trees and a lonely hut is nestled in them, smoke coming from the chimney. We’re almost past. A yell comes from within.

“Oi, do you know you’re trespassing!”

A man with a ruffled gaze, not helped by slightly askew glasses, stomps over in gumboots. Before going on this trip we’d consulted a blog last updated in 2008 that said you’re probably okay to cut up inland to get to Ohau bay, though the comments section had suggested it was sketchy. He was not thrilled to find us ready to camp, but thought it worthless to call the cops given they wouldn’t arrive until late in the night. “Keep out of the way of the boss and leave early and you should be fine.”

By himself in this remote valley, we find out he culls possums for DOC and does odd jobs for the elusive “boss.” It makes no sense. There are goats running all the way through the scraggly bush, presumably eating any regenerating forest. He ruminates somewhat on the economics of the land — “a good billy will get you $100 easy mate!” — before letting us go.

“I’m out shootin’ tonight so if you boys get up to use the bathroom, take a torch, or I might put a bullet bloody through ya.”

We camp down by the beach, out of site of the top of the pass where we’d rested in the quiet sunshine. Light a fire and relax.

Ohau Bay looking South. 2017.

Tomorrow we will ascend up out of the bay on a farm track, will hear the roar of an approaching quad, the whistle of a farmer for his dogs. We’ll see the “boss” leaping over the hill, our path to the shelter of the mānuka forest cut off, hear him yell, “you’re trespassing!” And later, after explaining that you’re only allowed to walk on the “Queen’s chain” — the strip of land on the sea shore — see the anger in his eyes as he yells again, “if I see you on my land again I’ll shoot ya.” Tomorrow we will quickly descend through the forest, onto the shore, and struggle further round as the wind whips and the sea rises; but tonight, on the beach of Ohau Bay, we lie beside a fire.

Can of beer no longer cold. The ridge clear in the evening, and the sky deepening from blue to black, stars glittering above the line. We lie against the sand, cool now, watching satellites weave their way overhead.


Clear and bright like running water

It glitters above the rim of the range,

You in Wellington,

I at Jerusalem

— James K Baxter, “He Waiata Mo Te Kare”


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