Sheila Natusch: Rising to the challenge

Sheila Natusch on her Owhiro Bay clifftop, with Stewart Island
far over the horizon, but ever-present in the imagination.
Sheila Natusch on her Owhiro Bay clifftop, with Stewart Island far over the horizon, but ever-present in the imagination.

Garden entrances don't come much grander than at Sheila Natusch's wildest Wellington coast garden.

That's not to say there's imposing gates and posts with rampant lions atop to impress callers, but refers to the manner in which Natusch can make her entrance, gliding silently down the cliff to greet visitors.

On the day these photos were taken, the theatricality of that entrance was enhanced by it being one of those rare and precious, beautifully calm days in New Zealand's windiest city.

Finding Natusch involved a bus trip through the densely built south Wellington suburbs to the sea at Island Bay. Then a walk along the coast with its view across Cook Strait and the snowclad Kaikoura peaks hanging like a mirage in the blue haze further set the scene.

Natusch was keeping watch in her crows nest perch atop the cliffside vegetation sheltering her home high above Owhiro Bay.

She signalled her welcome, then descended out of the sun, surrounded by a halo of silvery gold. The crow's nest slid silently down a rail bolted to the cliff, her own personal cable car.

The peaceful sparkle of the day lent its magic to the vegetation too, which could, for those who didn't know better, give an entirely misleading impression of the challenges of living here.

For Owhiro Bay looks out over that part of Cook Strait well known to all who have had a white-knuckled low-level approach to Wellington Airport at Rongotai from the south in the more usual weather conditions.

The Natusch bungalow is tucked too far in for the South Island view, but looks dead south into the eye of the southerlies streaming up from Antarctica.

Perhaps not a surprising choice for a Stewart Islander, who, although resident in Wellington most of her adult life, has retained her southern connections through frequent visits, and, more importantly, through her life's work as an artist and writer on historical and scientific topics. (A search of the National Library index on her name brings up 77 titles: Books for adults and children she has written, compiled or illustrated for others.)

The house Natusch and her late husband Gilbert built themselves on an elevated ledge is even reminiscent of the island, hunkered down in sheltering vegetation, and with the uncompromising character of owners with many and varied interests. Too busy for ornamental gardening, making it irrelevant that this would have to be one of the most unpromising of garden sites - steep, wind and salt-lashed, with minimal soil.

But gardens don't have to be all roses in terms of creating a liveable habitat.

A little surprisingly for one so steeped in New Zealand natural history, Natusch reported most of the hardy plants on the cliff are exotic, apart from super-hardy taupata and a coprosma, and Cape Ivy forms a defensive wall in front of the house.

Natusch is equally defensive about this, as Cape Ivy is classified unwelcome by most regional councils and the Department of Conservation because of its overwhelming habits.

But it provides such solid shelter she is able to grow some small fruits such as blackberry and guava - not prolific but enough for a snack handful - and tender herbs.

She described having tried to introduce some familiar Stewart Island plants: A coprosma, the forget-me-not, shore gentian, but they all gave up the ghost, she said. "Plants like to be in their own place."

The cable car has meant Natusch has been able to stay in her own place, where at age 86 she is still heading down to the beach for a swim when it's a "decent" day. It was installed some 25 years ago when her husband started stumbling on the steps up the cliff - Natusch isn't sure of the height of her home above the beach, but she knows it's 60 steps to get up there. The cable car was an affordable alternative to moving away.

As she says, they're very useful for the Wellington topography, especially for carrying loads.

There isn't much scope for a cable car to become a fixture in Invercargill gardens, but Wellingtonians have colonised such extreme building sites, they are increasingly common.

According to the video shown in the Kelburn Cable Car museum, there are more than 400 private cars in the city.

They come in single or dual track, with simple open bucket-type cars, or larger enclosed bubbles or flash gondolas, big enough to accommodate people, pets, groceries and grandchildren.

Even, in extreme sites with no other access, everything it takes to build a house and garden.

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The Southland Times