Mystery of Westhaven Inlet's human footpritns

The 70-million-year-old dinosaur footprints in sandstone rock at Whanganui Inlet.
GNS Science

The 70-million-year-old dinosaur footprints in sandstone rock at Whanganui Inlet.

Petrified remains of once living things are not that rare in this country.

Most famous is Curio Bay along the southern Catlins which features the fossilised remains of a whole fallen forest some 180 million years old.

Absolutely unique though is the 'Petrified man,' a skeleton found in Cavern Head on Preservation Island by Walter Traill of Stewart Island in 1877.

It was the first of many skeletons found tucked away in burial caves in Fiordland, but what was so amazing about Traill's find was that it had obviously lain there so long it had become petrified.

Wrote Traill; "On first entering the cave we noticed it festooned in stalactites. Close to the head of the cave, we discovered the body of a man cemented into the floor by the action of drops, percolating from the limestone roof. It was a large skeleton lying on its back with the lower limbs stretched out and the arms tucked under the sides."

Traill reported his discovery to government geologist Dr. James Hector, who commissioned him to remove it, but when Traill returned a month later he found the skeleton had been broken up and taken away. 

Another vessel with several Maori crew had been in the vicinity when Traill had entered the cave, and it was likely they had taken the skeleton away to conceal the bones of their ancestor. Fair enough too, the European habit of pillaging Maori burial sites in the name of science was an abysmal practice.

That skeletal find may be explained by it lying under a dripping stalactite for hundreds of years, but being whisked away before it could be scientifically examined means we will never know for sure.

Another similar mystery that has got me going is much closer to home, at Westhaven (Whanganui) Inlet on Golden Bay's western flank.

In 1912, the Otago Daily Times published a remarkable document called Nomenculture of Nelson and the West Coast by William Henry Sherwood Roberts, a well renown Otago pioneering surveyor and literary man who had other extensive histories of Otago and Southland to his credit.

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What exemplified Roberts' work was his incredibly painstaking field research and attention to detail. 

In the chapter 'West Whanganui', he starts with a general introduction. "West Whanganui should be Whanganui (big bay or harbour).

"It is a fine inlet, about seven miles by three when the tide is in, but as most of it is shallow a large extent is dry ground or mud flat when the tide is out. It has a habour entrance between two high promontories, with a bar which has only 6ft of water on it at low spring tides."

He goes on to give the old Maori name of the South Headland as Raraha-taua  (to rumble like a war party), and how in the 1850s, an old pa named Onawa-noa (the time when the tapu would be removed from him) overlooking the entrance on the North Head, which was called Muna-nui-hawata (to mutter his great authority). 

There is some doubt expressed by the author as to the correctness of this last name, referring to Halswell's map which records the North Head pa as Pa-raro-pa (pa on the north head yonder). "Both names may be right," he comments, "the latter being the pa and Onawa-noa some other place on the Headland."

Now comes the most strangest observation from the author's visit to the inlet on 22 March, 1956, when he was wandering along a bed of wave worn sandstone rock left dry at low water, near the northern corner of the inlet where the "Maori Trail" came down from Pakawau Saddle.

"I noticed the perfect impressions of eight naked feet, plainly embedded, like fossils, in the solid sandstone rock, which must have been soft when the humans walked over it.

"They were a short distance from the Maori Track up the Whanganui brook, and a few chains below high water mark. There are six adult footmarks with narrow heels and wide spread toes, and two child's footmarks, all equally perfect."

What! Any footprints set in hard sandstone must surely be age old, not something that could even be achieved in a few thousand years!

My mind boggled when I read this and I have never read or spoken to anyone who has heard of these footprints since.

Could those footprints have been made in softish mud which later dried out and were mistaken for stone bedrock? I doubt that, Roberts showed a unique understanding of geology and rock types in all his works.

Footprints of another kind around Whanganui Inlet would make the headlines in 2009 when GNS geologist Greg Browne confirmed that he had found 70-million year old dinosaur footprints in late Cretaceous sandstone  around the shores of Whanganui Inlet.

It made big news at the time as a "hugely exciting" find that got reported nationally and internationally as well.

They were the very first dinosaur footprints to be recognised in New Zealand, not to mention providing the first ever evidence of dinosaurs in the South Island.

But for me the human ones that Roberts records are far more intriguing. A mystery these footprints might have to remain, but if anyone can help me I would be most grateful.  

 - Stuff


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