Exploring Golden Bay and our hitchhiking debut in New Zealand

Ever since Simon, our friend in Wellington had pointed to the part of the South Island of New Zealand that looked like a kiwi, and said that it was the most beautiful part of New Zealand, we knew we had to make our way to the Golden Bay. That it was one of the little-visited parts of New Zealand only added to the lure of Golden Bay.

Getting to Takaka by public transport and a warm welcome

We had already booked our tickets to Takaka in Nelson itself. From Motueka, where we had stayed for a night, we took the bus to Takaka – the biggest town in the Golden Bay. The road goes over a hill, called the Takaka hill.

There is just this one route that leads to the Golden Bay. To travel to anywhere else in New Zealand, you have to make your way out of the bay, over the hill and head back to Nelson. That’s the reason it doesn’t feature on the New Zealand itinerary for tourists who visit for a short duration. Mos tourists we met here, were, like us visiting New Zealand for 6 weeks at least.

We had made our reservations over the phone at the YHA hostel in Takaka named Annie’s Nirvana Lodge. A guy named Alan had picked up the call. “Good morning, there. It is such a lovely day, isn’t it? How’s it going? I am Alan! What can I do for you?” was what he said instead of a “Hello” we expect to hear in such cases. We actually thought it was an IVR tape playing, and would say press 1 for reserving a room. But this was a real person Alan at the other end. And he wasn’t interested in just booking a room, he wanted to have a real conversation. We told him we were reaching in the evening. He said he would have two beds ready for us. When we told him we were from India, he got super excited. “India, did you say?” Their daughter, Annie was currently living in South India. He felt an instant closeness to us and his voice turned even warmer after that. His wife and he would be waiting to welcome us to Annies, he said.

It was evening by the time we got to Takaka. We had hoped to ask them the direction to our hostel at the i site but it had closed by then. Our bus driver, however, knew exactly where Annies was and did the needful.

Annies Nirvana Lodge in Takaka

The Annies hostel, we realised, was a real house. We had to ring the doorbell to enter. Inside, we were greeted by a Japanese girl named Masami. A bunch of other young people were sitting by the fireplace in the “living room”.

This was a real living room (not the lounge rooms that are the common spaces in other hostels). There were big old couches around a wooden centre table which had delicate carvings. Just beside the living room was the dining space. This too was unlike the huge dining rooms we had got accustomed to seeing in hostels. Here, there was just a wood table. At first sight, it felt like it would’ve seen many family dinners shared together. It had a “happy times, happy stories” feel to it. Next to it was a small kitchen – all with colourful ceramic cutlery. The windows had soft white lace curtains. It was like a scene from one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Fives come to life.

Masami and her friends, from China, Germany, and other European countries were all WWOOFing here in Takaka. During the day, they helped with the farm. In the evenings, they all took turn managing the hostel reception. A quick round of the hostel – and we knew we wanted to stay here for a few days at least.

Alan, who we had spoken to earlier in the day to do our reservations was called Big Alan. That’s because the owners of Annies was also Alan. He and his Japanese wife together ran this hostel. That night as all of us from the hostel gathered by the dinner table Alan welcomed the new guests. It felt like a family reunion with everyone’s favourite uncle playing host. Except that we were all from across the world, each having food prepared to their own liking – explaining to each other what is it that we were having. And until a few minutes before, we were all strangers as we had rung the doorbell, and entered the wondrous world of Annie’s.

Here at Annie’s, they had bicycles you could just use for free to explore Takaka and the Golden Bay. The only rule was that the helmet was compulsory. We thought we could use these, but the cycles were too high for my height. Riding would’ve been uncomfortable if you didn’t find the best-suited cycle. That’s when we decided we would give hitchhiking a try.

Our debut at hitchhiking in New Zealand

We decided to start exploring the Golden Bay with a visit to Te Waikoropupu springs, commonly called Pupu springs. The Pupu springs are supposed to have the clearest water in the southern hemisphere, some say even the world.

The springs were at a distance of 5 km from Takaka. We could’ve walked, but it would’ve taken up too much time. A short walk of fewer than 10 minutes took us to the outskirts of Takaka. Here, we saw a board with a thumb’s up sign – the symbol for hitchhiking. Under this sign, was a bench. It also said, that if you wanted to share the petrol cost, you could indicate that by sitting on the bench. We were now getting excited by all these technicalities of the mode of transport we had never used before – hitchhiking!

Both of us now took our stances. We stood at the edge of the footpath. Every time a car passed by, we would stretch out our thumbs. Some cars belonged to tourists like us. They had a bunch of stuff at the back, so they couldn’t give us a lift. “Make eye contact with the driver, only then they will trust you” was a hitchhiking tip we had received. We were also told that single women were generally less likely to offer you a lift.

The eye contact bit helped. When a local’s car passed by and they were unable to help, they would actually look at us apologetically – either pointing to the stuff their car was filled with, or the passengers (generally their kids) in the back seat. Or if they were going just nearby, or turning in the other direction, they would indicate that with a hand gesture. It’s not like it was a public service they had to provide, hitchhiking was entirely a goodwill gesture. And yet, they had the courtesy to apologise for not taking us in!

After around 10 minutes, a car stopped. We were super excited. We ran to the car – it was a solo female driver! We told her we were headed to the Pupu springs. “Hop in”, she told us! Our first hitchhiking experience was underway! Introductions followed. “India? I have heard a lot about it”. He friends had been there, but she didn’t think she would visit. It sounded like it was too chaotic for her to handle. “I am sure it’s fantastic, but I don’t think I can handle the chaos”. We assured us, that the chaos was indeed phenomenal and even we were worried about how we would handle it, after returning from such a quiet country of New Zealand. Pupu springs were a km off her route, but she said it wasn’t a big deal, she would drop us right till there. We thanked her profusely, and we said our goodbyes. “Have a good trip”, she waved us as she drove off.

Pupu springs and the sparkling jewels

At the start of the walk to the Pupu springs was a display with information of the Pupu springs and the importance of these springs to the Maori. The way to the springs was through a small forest trail. Wooden planks were placed a few inches above the forest floor. There were wooden railings on both sides. This approach achieved two things. One, the way to the Pupu springs became wheelchair friendly. And the other was that the forest stayed undisturbed. The roots and the branches didn’t get trampled over with each visitor’s footsteps.

The forest here had some giant trees with a complex root system – reminiscent of our banyan trees. But we couldn’t pay too much attention to the trees. We were a bit too excited to see the clearest water we had ever seen. The wooden pathway now opened up to a platform. At the edge of which were railings.

And beyond it – were the Pupu springs. Sparkly. That’s the first word that comes to mind as we think of the water we saw. It was glittering like the queen had emptied all her diamonds and emeralds and sapphires here. We could see the coral and the plants swaying under the water. It was all very disorienting. We had seen sparkling water earlier when we had walked across Isla del Sol. We were high above and the water of the lake Titicaca had been sparking blue under the bright afternoon sun. Which is beautiful – and logical. The water of the Pupu spring was drop-dead gorgeous. The shining sun on this beautiful day was making those precious stones sparkle even more. But then the flora that was swaying in sync with the gems on the surface was the kinds you see only when you are scuba diving underwater – at least snorkelling in some of cleanest waters. But never like this – standing atop a waterbody!

But then again – when had we seen water this clear? With a visibility of 35 meters (meters – not feet!), it would’ve been only surprising, if the Pupu springs didn’t spring up some mind-bending visuals. The blue-green waters of the Pupu spring and the dancing sparkles had us hypnotised for a long while. We had been so mesmerised that we hadn’t taken any pictures of this spectacle. Which was the perfect reason to go around the platform in every direction and capture the splendour as much as we could.

We started walking back to the main road and try our hand at hitchhiking again. Once again, we were in luck. Just outside of the Pupu springs, a van stopped by and asked us to join in. A couple of friends were inside the van. Pointing to some equipment at the back they said they had gone to test the waters of the Pupu spring with it. When we asked if they were testing the clarity of the water, they replied a vehement no! Because the water of Pupu springs was so clear, you needed highly specialised equipment to measure its clarity. They were testing the water for any disinfectants, making sure that the purity of the water was intact and suitable for drinking.

Takaka and the whole of Golden Bay got its water directly from the Pupu springs. Alan from Annie’s had given us an idea about how special this water, which had undergone years of natural filtration under the surface of the earth was. He wasn’t joking when he had said that their biggest problem when they step out of Golden bay was the taste of the water. Being used to this sweet tasting water of the Pupu springs, the taste of Water everywhere else in the world fell short. He would insist all his guests to fill up as much water as possible before they left the Golden Bay!

Walking through the Labyrinth in Golden Bay

The guy whose car we were now travelling in was originally from the USA. He had worked in the Silicon valley, before shifting to Hawaii and now the Golden Bay in New Zealand. He now lived atop a small hill, growing all sorts of fruits in his surrounding orchards. “Apples?” we asked him, to which he replied, “Everything. But still not some that you guys have in India. We just can not grow your mangoes here!” We laughed in agreement. He clearly was a traveller, and by now we knew that meant several trips to India. As we said our goodbyes, we told him that his was the kind of life we were working towards. “Yeah, it’s a beautifully simple life”, he said and he drove away.

Labyrinth of the rocks was just that – a labyrinth. At the entrance was a map. A note next to it said that if our map was in good condition when we stepped out, we could drop it in the map box so it could be reused by other visitors.

We walked through tiny lanes and mazes of rocks. One lane leading to another, and sometimes the same one again. Much of it all looked the same, which is when things got confusing. To help visitors out, were tiny characters, placed strategically, blended very well with the surroundings. These tiny characters were toys like dinosaurs and characters like Barbie, Tintin or the grunge. Think of every cartoon or a kid movie, and the character from those helped us find our way. Some rocks here looked like a turtle, some like dinosaur skin. You had to crawl through some and squeeze in through some others. Some led to a dead-end, other to dangerous witch’s caves – with scattered bones et al!

Exploring the Golden Bay beaches, a special way

We next decided to go to the bayside, and visit the Pohara beach, which was around 4 km away. Our successful attempts at hitchhiking since morning had encouraged us to travel further ahead.

Once again, we got into the hitchhiking routine. This time a single man in his SUV stopped for us. Again, another popular hitchhiking advice – saying a good car will not generally stop for hitchhikers – gone wrong! This time, it was a Rich English, a guy from the UK. His wife was from the Golden Bay. After spending a large chunk of their lives in the UK, they had moved back to the Golden Bay and were now living in Pohara. He got excited when we told him we were Indians from India, not Fiji, as he had thought we would be. He and his wife had spent “many wonderful weeks” travelling in India, he told us.

A little further ahead, he asked us if we had the time. “There is this place, I would love to show to you guys. Think you will like it”. Of course, we had all the time in the world, considering exploring this region was the only thing we had to do!

Reserve named The Grove, in Golden Bay

We went into a reserve called the Grove. Two minutes off the road, and it felt like we were in the middle of the forest. We were now walking in the cool damp shade of giant trees, a drastic transformation from the sunny weather outside. Rich explained to us the different trees, and how some of them were unique to New Zealand. The rocks were also unique here – they were hard and non-porous, yet had sediments like the brittle ones. Even the rocks were covered in lichen – the air was that pure!

For the first time, we saw the giant fern trees so close in their natural surroundings. Rich told us that the new leaf forming, known as koru – was a symbol synonymous to New Zealand. It was used as a logo for many things Kiwi, including Air New Zealand. He then put some of the giant fern leaves aside, to see if he could show us the koru on the fern, but there wasn’t any. “You wouldn’t take your hand under the leaves in India, would you? There could be a poisonous insect, even a snake there!” But since New Zealand had a unique ecosystem, devoid of any predators, it was perfectly safe to put your hands under a tree in the forest!

We reached the end of the walk and climbed up the steps to the lookout point. Rich asked the two of us to go ahead because he wanted us to take in the view first. And the view did take a bit of “taking in”. It felt like the entire Golden Bay was spread out before us. It didn’t look anything like the forest we had just walked through.

There were fields in front of us, beyond which were hills with houses. We could see a uniform green of the orchards on these hills. Rich helped us get an orientation. He pointed to the hill at the back. That was the Takaka hill we had driven over on our way to the Golden Bay. He pointed to the Takaka town where our hostel was. And straight ahead in front, not visible that day, but on a clear day, we could see the sand of the Farewell Spit – the remotest point of the Golden Bay, also the northernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand.

Pohara Beach

We reached the Pohara beach in a few minutes. As he parked to let us get off, he made us another offer,
“only, if you would like to”. He would love to take us around the area and show us around a bit, he said!
How could we not want to? Borrowing from the Godfather, it was an offer, there was no way we could refuse. He said he was carrying some perishable stuff in the back of his car, that his wife needed to make dinner. He had to put it in the fridge at home before it went bad. He would join us soon at the beach.

We told him, we would like nothing better. But if he was sure he had the time. To which he told us, not to worry. He really would love to show us around. “So many strangers showed us so much kindness when we were in India. I am happy to get a chance now, to pass it on to some Indians”. Humbled, we said we would wait for him at the beach.

He returned in 10 mins. We now learnt a bit of the Golden Bay history. Around the 1960s, approximately the same time that the hippie’s movement began in the West, many artists came to the Golden Bay and started living here. But they didn’t own any land or houses here, and the local authorities foresaw that problems could arise if this was allowed to continue. So in order to bring composure to the area, the government gave each of these settlers and considerable allowance. They were given a set limit of certain months to try and set up their lives. Start earning a living. If they didn’t succeed, they would have to leave the Golden bay.

With the allowance in hand, many artists explored their creative interests and at the end of the set limit, had managed to make a decent living for themselves. They really did want to live here and took the opportunity that the government had given them.

People travel to places to go on a vacation. But if you live in the Golden bay, your life is already a vacation, Rich told us!

Together, we explored the fossilised rocks on the Pohara beach. Rich then took us to another beach called the Tata beach.

Where he insisted on visiting the toilets. Painted in bright colours, with bold pictures of animals and birds – the toilets fit in perfectly with the bohemian character of the Golden Bay we were beginning to discover. We spent some time at the Tata beach, after which we visited the Abel Tasman memorial. Rich gave us a brief account of the history of Abel Tasman’s arrival. All along, he was also sharing all he knew of the trees and the plants and the flowers that we were seeing. A big part of our conversations was how the ecosystem was maintained in the Golden Bay.

Waterfall at the Totaranui Reserve

It was nearing evening time and we headed to the last spot of the day on this side of the Golden Bay. It was the Totaranui reserve, the same one that we had seen from the beachside in the Abel Tasman National Park.

The path inside the Totaranui reserve started with sheep farms, with fenced lines. We were then walking next to the river. Pointing to the well-laid paths inside the reserve, Rich commented that trekking in New Zealand could feel like a cakewalk for someone used to the Himalayas. He informed us that though New Zealand didn’t have any predators, rivers were one of the biggest killers. People underestimated how quickly the river levels could rise. Always take the level warning seriously, he warned us.

We crossed a swinging bridge, just like the one in the Abel Tasman National Park and reached a rocky area. There was a beautiful waterfall here. We could’ve gone down to the water, but it was getting colder and darker. After spending some time at the waterfall, discussing stories about the waterfalls we had all seen, telling him about the Iguazu waterfalls we had seen in Brazil- Argentina, we started our walk back.

It was almost dark now. Pohara was a good 6 km from Takaka, and we could hardly expect Rich to come all the way to drop us. Without even a hint of “do you wanna try hitchhiking again”, he proceeded to drive up to Takaka.

In Takaka, we asked him to join us for dinner. “Oh no, the wife will be waiting at home”, he told us. We asked him if he would like to have some coffee at least. “It’s very kind of you to offer to have dinner with me”, he told us. We told him, the case was totally the contrary. We had never imagined in our wildest dreams that we could see so much without having a car around. Let alone, be shown around by someone living here. We were overwhelmed by his kindness and enthusiasm. We didn’t know how to thank him. “Oh that’s simple”, Rich said. Just pay it forward.

Isn’t that what travel is all about! He couldn’t have said it better.

After our successful hitchhiking attempts on the first day in Golden Bay, we decided to stay here for another day to try and visit the Wharariki beach. We had read it is the best beach in all of New Zealand, 54 km from Takaka, at the far end of the Golden Bay. This distance meant that a car was the only way we could get there.

The town called Collingwood in Golden Bay

We tried our hand at hitchhiking again, this time to Wharariki beach. A car going all the way didn’t come by. But we got a few lifts that took us to Collingwood, which was along the way. It was the second-largest settlement in the Golden Bay, after Takaka.

We then waited outside Collingwood, hoping that a car coming either from Collingwood or Takaka would pick us up. When nothing came by, we walked a little further ahead. Still nothing. We waited for almost 2 hours. A few cars passing us were going either just to the farms along the way or they were loaded with travellers and their stuff. It was almost 2 PM. We figured it wasn’t wise to take the risk of going ahead now since we also had to get back to Takaka, 50 km away. In less than two days, we also saw the uncertainties that hitchhiking brings about!

We turned back. We had seen the Pupu springs, met so many people. We had definitely experienced more than we had imagined we would.  We would see the rest “some other time”, we thought. 

We walked back to Collingwood. It was less of a town, more of an artist village. We were greeted by the Royal Spoonbills – native birds of the Golden Bay, sitting by the lake at the entrance of Collingwood. We sat on a bench by this lake and had the packed lunch we had thought we would have at the beach.

A quick walk around the town revealed a whole range of art galleries and yoga centres. There was even a music and art centre for the kids. We went into an art gallery where the artist was inside. His speciality was using photoemissive light for his paintings – so that they would glow in the dark! He had mainly painted his interpretation of the original man and woman, the human chakras and such philosophical interpretations of what he saw around.

He said he also had a fresh produce shop at the back. We walked back and there was no one there. The artist had also gone off by then. We thought the shop was closed maybe. But the produce was all lying there. Fresh fruits, marmalades, fruit sauces were all kept there. The prices were written on a blackboard. You took what you wanted, and deposited the money in a wooden box kept on a table. No “human presence” was deemed necessary was such a simple, human transaction!

Renting a car in the Golden Bay

Everyone back at the hostel had heard of our interesting hitchhiking exploits the previous day. They all asked if we could reach Wharariki by hitchhiking. When we told them what happened, most of them tried to cheer us up saying, it’s always a chance. Sometimes things work out, some days are disappointing.

But the lady at the hostel, wife of big Alan would have none of it. “Why don’t you rent a car?” We told her that we had been informed in Nelson, that there was no car rental company in Takaka. “Oh nonsense!” she said very matter of factly. She picked up the phone and dialled the car agency’s number. Only after that, she went on to ask us if we had a driver’s license. She told the lady at the other end that a decent reliable couple was coming over to rent a car. “If you hurry, you can catch the sunset at Wharariki”

The disappointed of the day was suddenly transformed into an action-packed evening. We ran to the car agency, which was just across the road from Annie’s (the advantages of a small town!). They told us that the car had just been returned so they hadn’t had the time to clean it. If we were okay with it, we could have it. It looked perfectly fine to be hired. In 5 minutes the paperwork was done. “Go rush, catch the sunset”, she told us. “And don’t miss the seals, they are on the right”, was her parting shot.

Wharariki beach has to happen!

It was the perfect place for us to drive. Since we had already seen the route twice, we knew exactly how to go ahead. With hardly any traffic, beautiful empty roads and no traffic signals, it was the easiest place to drive in New Zealand. We even picked up a guy who was waiting for a lift, just where we had been picked up since the previous day. He was a trekker from Chile (what a lovely South American connection!). He was heading to walk the Heaphy track, one of the best treks in New Zealand. We all reminisced about South America. We dropped him off at the starting point of this track and moved on for the Wharariki beach.

We were now driving through the farmland. There were a few homestays and guesthouses around. The last stretch of 6 km was a gravel road, we had to drive carefully. The blowing dust reduced visibility. We parked the car and followed the directions to the beach. It was a 1.5 km walk, first through farms, then through a lot of sand.

If you look at the map of New Zealand, this part of the South Island looks like a kiwi, and the Wharariki beach is placed perfectly at the kiwi’s eye.

We reached the beach to find a bunch of Japanese photographers, with their high-end cameras, heavy lenses and tripods all in position to frame this sunset. If the beach had to be described in one word, it would be peaceful. Calm and unending. It was just the sand and the water. And two of the most beautiful rocks in the water we have ever seen. Sitting next to each other, the holes in these rocks casting the perfect reflections in the water. It’s a long beach, but we didn’t want to put these two rocks out of sight. Wharariki beach is of great importance to the Maori. They believe that this is one of the places where the soul leaves the human body on a journey to the afterlife. Whether you believe in reincarnation and afterlife or not, there was something special about the Wharariki.

We couldn’t place a finger to it. Maybe it was the sheer chance by which we got here. Maybe it was the day full of struggle. Maybe the fact that it was the far corner of the Golden Bay, and New Zealand. Or the fact that we hadn’t even heard of such a place until just a few days ago. But there was something special about Wharariki. We have been to a few beaches before which have absolutely blown our minds. Copacabana-Ipanema were full of life, the ones in the Abel Tasman National Park were gorgeous. Wharariki was – perfect.

As the sun set, the wind got stronger. We had to pull out our sweaters and windcheaters. Through the changing colours of the sky – the usual pink, golden, oranges – we stood there fixated by the rocks and the humongous holes in them that the wind had created. Maybe it was the strong presence of the forces of nature. We suddenly remembered feeling similarly fixated by the eroded rocks of the Himalayas. Maybe all the places where nature rules supreme do have a special aura around them. 

We waited at the beach till it was almost dark. Now, a beautiful night sky started greeting us. We would have loved to wait for the milky way to show up, but we were driving for the first time. Though the Golden Bay was safe to drive, we thought it was better to not make it very late. We walked back to the car park. This time, it was pitch dark. Though the routes are well marked, a new place and darkness have an undeniable relationship. Thank goodness Richard had shared with us just the previous day, that there were no snakes or anything poisonous in New Zealand. Else it would have been a scary walk back from the beach to the parking.

Farewell Cape in the Golden Bay

The next day we drove back to the Wharariki beach. But this time, we took the diversion for the Farewell Cape, the northernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand. There was a big gate here as we drove on the gravel patch through the farms. We didn’t know if it meant it wasn’t accessible. But there wasn’t any board saying so, and there wasn’t any other way. We tried to look for a security guard. And soon realised the folly in this thought. Who were we kidding! This was New Zealand, they didn’t “spend” a human being on something as silly as a security guard for a gate. What was the need of a security guard when all you had to do was open the gate, get the car in, and close the gate again behind you. They trusted you and your decency to respect the privacy of the farming families and the security of their animals.

The Cape Farewell point was a vantage point surrounded by steep cliffs. The brown rocks of these cliffs shone brightly in the early morning sun. The ocean stretched out till as far as we could see, glistening blue. We knew this was our last day in the Golden Bay and we tried to take in the views as much we could. Who knows when we would be back!

Wharariki beach, in the morning

We went back to the Wharariki beach, had a quick glimpse at the wind cut rocks and this time, turned right in the direction of the seals. In a tiny puddle were tens of baby seals, playing, running in and out of the water, playing with their baby brothers and sisters. Their fur wet and shining brown. This was the closest we had ever seen the seals. There were strict instructions put up about not touching them for their good health, so they do not catch any infection. Everyone, despite being at almost kissing distance from them, respected this and stayed out of their way.

Golden Bay and its pure-hearted people

We could have watched them the entire day, but we had a bus to catch later in the day. We drove back to Takaka, this time picking up a car-full of hitchhiking strangers. We fuelled up the tank and returned the car. The same lady was at the agency. She asked us excitedly if we saw the sunset and did we catch the seals. We told her about the amazing experiences we had had. She said she was glad we had enjoyed ourselves and that she could be of help by renting out the car to us. Then she asked us if we had enjoyed the car. We said yes, we had faced no problems, whatsoever. We thought she would want to see the car. At least ask us if we had filled up the fuel. None of it came up.

We couldn’t resist and asked her if she didn’t want to check the car. She again asked if there was a problem. When we said none, she said the people in charge would clean it later. We then also informed her that we had filled up the fuel. “I am sure you have”, she smiled. 

We couldn’t help tell her that this level of trust and honesty is not something we were used to. It’s such a correct and beautiful way of dealing with people, as well as doing business. “Things become so much simpler, don’t they, when you can trust each other?”. “They sure do”, we replied as we waved our goodbyes.

Golden bay had opened our eyes to a new, almost utopian way of life. When Simon had told us it was the best part of NZ, he probably was talking of the landscape. But it had revealed to us the best way to live our life. Pure and simple.

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