Caught up in another dream,
drifting on a blue ocean…
– Gerry Rafferty, The Right Moment
At dawn I am standing on a new land. It is low tide, and in the small dark hours before the arrival of the new day, the sea has withdrawn from Wainui Inlet and created the sandy islet upon which I stand. A tiny, gentle squall of warm rain blows across Golden Bay. Cat’s paw ripples mark its progress across the water and I feel it buffet me as it strikes my island. The offing is empty save for a few tawdry gulls pecking at a half-submerged sand-bar further offshore. Out on the horizon, the sea and the sky are welded together in a seamless joint of blue and grey.
A landscape of golden sand-flats stretches away behind me, curving around a low point upon which stands a single kanuka tree. The ocean has sculpted the sand with stripes and hollows, rills and fissures, hummocks and crenulations. With each tide the moving water brings subtle changes to the inlet and the shallow, muddy estuary behind it. It is a place of constant movement and change. Even now, the tide has turned and my tiny sand country is growing smaller. I turn my back on the ocean and wade back towards terra firma.
The Wainui Inlet cuts a deep notch into the hills on the eastern edge of Golden Bay. The ocean wraps itself around a rocky headland which guards the outer edge of the inlet, and slides up onto a long strip of low dunes covered with sedges and gorse. Thick, coastal rainforest cloaks the spurs and valleys running down to the water’s edge from the skyline ridge which rises steeply from the eastern shore of the inlet.
Our home for the week is a small, rented cottage overlooking the mouth of the inlet. It is a simple place: a few rooms with a kitchen, a living room opening onto a concrete patio and a lawn running down towards the ocean. There are kayaks piled up behind a shed out back and a lemon tree hung to breaking with bright yellow fruit. It is a bach in the true New Zealand sense: nothing fancy but perfect for bare feet, sandy towels and eating outdoors.
When you arrange your day by the tides it is all about timing. You have to wait for the right moment. By midday, the ocean has once again seeped into the inlet, filling its nooks and crannies; swirling into its secret places; hiding its islets and sandbars beneath a shallow skin of water. I launch a kayak and paddle out past the rocky pinnacles on the western side of the inlet.
The boulders and outcrops which have so recently been part of a sandy beach are now jagged islets and black, submerged reefs. I paddle west, hugging the land like an explorer charting an hitherto unexplored coastline. In some of the coves, the ocean has piled up stacks of sun-bleached driftwood. The tangled heaps are the skeletons of forests, washed down from hidden mountain ranges and cast up on this distant shore. I think of a line from James Reeves’ poem The Sea:
“And ‘Bones, bones, bones, bones!’
The giant sea-dog moans,
Licking his greasy paws.”
At dawn the next day I am paddling on an ocean of liquid glass. Beneath my kayak, the waters of Golden Bay lie in a flat plane stretched out to the horizon. The gentlest of swells raises and lowers me as if some giant slumbering sea creature is breathing in the depths. The vast dome of the sky glows pink and mauve as the rising sun clears the hazy, jumbled skyline of Abel Tasman National Park. The noise of cicadas, echoing across the water from the shore, sounds like steam escaping from the boiler of a long-gone coastal freighter.
I switch on my phone. A couple of text messages come through. I update my Facebook page with a photo of my feet in the yellow plastic bow of the kayak and the empty ocean surrounding me. I title the photo “My Wednesday Morning” then switch the phone off. I don’t need to hear from anyone. I am on holiday. I turn the kayak and paddle back towards shore.
Backed by the rugged Paparua Ranges, in the top north-western corner of the South Island, Golden Bay stretches in a long arc west from Totaranui, near Takaka, around to Farewell Spit. The spit curves round like the beak of a kiwi and shelters much of Golden Bay from the prevailing westerly weather. The waters of the bay are relatively shallow and are warmed by the summer sun to the temperature of a perfect blue bath.
The coastline of Golden Bay is notched with dozens of tiny inlets and bays, each one sheltering a cottage or two, an occasional camping ground or the hidden retreats of artisans and dreamers. Sluggish rivers, their waters brown with tannins leached from the inland rainforests, meander down from the ranges and fall asleep in the bay.
There are four of us at the cottage this week. For Linda and our girls Lydia and Emma, the holiday is all about sleeping in, sun-bathing, reading and just doing nothing much. For me, it is all about exploring. Whenever it is low tide I can wander along the beach where there are caves and outcrops and raggedy coves of weathered rock to explore. Tiny creeks drip from bush-filled gullies and flow out across the sand in patterns which resemble veins beneath the skin of an ancient hand.
Occasionally I come across evidence of other beachcombers: footprints, driftwood huts, indistinct paths leading up into the hinterland beyond the beach. But for the most part it is just me, the edge of the land, the shifting patterns of light and shade, and the ceaselessly moving ocean.
On our last day at Wainui I paddle inland with the high tide. The sun is incandescent in the blue dome of the sky and although a westerly wind is whipping the ocean outside into a chaotic chop, the waters of the inlet are calm. Crowds of oystercatchers rest on the sandbars, awaiting another low tide when the mud-flats, with their infinite supply of cockles and worms, will once again be revealed. Cormorants roost on the crooked limbs of dead trees protruding from the water.
At the head of the inlet I stop paddling and just drift. Soon the tide will turn again and I will be able to let its gentle weight pull me back out towards the blue ocean. All I have to do is wait for the right moment.