Discovering rich past of Whareatea

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 13:22 07/01/2014
Whareatea Bay
TRACY NEAL/FAIRFAX NZ

SPECTACULAR: Sunrise over Cook Strait, looking east from our anchorage in Whareatea Bay.

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In the first of a series about hidden natural gems in our region, TRACY NEAL writes about Whareatea Bay on the eastern flank of d'Urville Island.

White caps have formed at 7am. The sea is churned by a warm February wind curling over the parched, brown paper bag hills above Port Ligar in the outer Pelorus Sound.

Our yacht bucks at the mooring. The gusts increase, so we leave, but are suddenly flattened by a blast from a different direction. The yacht quickly rights itself and we glide around the corner.

All is quiet. Green sea and blue sea are mixed by deep swirling currents and we creep around the next corner. French Pass is our target, but we are swept into a spume-riven sea, stacked up by a strong southwest wind. The forecast 25 knots is suddenly 40 knots. Rhythm eludes us as the yacht bucks across a discordant Admiralty Bay. The wind screams through the rigging and the wind alarm sounds its frequent warning. We clip ourselves to the yacht and change course for the refuge of Whareatea Bay in the distance. The eastern flank of d'Urville Island looks like a haven beyond the heavy sea spray.

Seabirds wheel and dive, happy. I am not. The waves get bigger as the current and wind squeeze through French Pass and splurge into the seaway. One wave bigger than the rest looms, growls at us for being foolish to venture out, then slaps us on the head. Drowned, and on its side, our yacht rights itself again, shakes off the sea and picks up speed again. I am drenched and shaking with adrenaline and cold, but glad to see my husband is still on board.

Whareatea Bay grows closer. The green sea within its cove looks calm, but there's a field of williwaws stretching off the cliffs at each end of the small harbour entrance.

Inside, the sea is calm, but the banshee wind makes anchoring in the shallows close to shore impossible. We circle a mooring, time the lull between gusts, and grab the security of the heavy rope before the yacht is on its side again.

The wind begins to ease. The dense native bush on the slopes above Whareatea Bay slackens its spirited dance.

We boil the kettle for a cup of tea and watch as the sea turns glistening blue. The sun glints off a plaque on a rock in the crook of Whareatea Bay, marking the spot where Captain James Cook also sought refuge in 1770.

The bay was the departure point from New Zealand on the first of his three voyages.

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust notes that before Cook returned to England, he ordered his crew to drop anchor in Whareatea Bay, where he refitted it with timber cut from the bush and took on 30 tonnes of fresh water. The plaque was put there by the Historic Places Trust to commemorate the event.

A walk on the stony beach reveals remnants of the cove's mineral-rich past. Dark argillite got quarried off hill-tops and traded all around Aotearoa by early coastal tribes.

We fossick and dig, and I hope for a curio to reveal itself as a sign that distant ancestors welcome me to this slightly spooky cove, from where you can see the sun rise from the ocean, but from where it sets early beyond steep, craggy hilltops.

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A ramshackle hut nestled amid trees near the shore turns out not to be the residence of a wayward hermit, but the former home of John and Wetekia (Ruruku) Elkington. She bore 13 children (four of whom died young), and fostered 20 more, which made her the unofficial midwife of d'Urville Island.

Wetekia died in 1957. The New Zealand Geographic Board gave the island's highest point, Attempt Hill (729m), the alternative name of Maunga Wetekia (Mt Wetekia) in her honour.

A subdivision and its associated pathways on the hills above Whareatea Bay allows us a long walk in the hills before we contemplate our next stop on d'Urville Island's coast. The 27 kilometre by 9.6km island has many nooks and crannies, but the inner harbours of Greville and Hardy on its western edge offer the safest refuge.

The island got its name from French admiral Jules Cesar Dumont d'Urville whose decision to sail his corvette Astrolabe through the swirling French Pass on the morning of January 29, 1827, nearly cost him his life and that of his crew.

Thanks to the courage of early navigators and the modern technology, we take the easy route through French Pass, en route instead for another gem in the Abel Tasman National Park, Onetahuti Beach. But that's another story.

- Nelson

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