It’s that time of year again when people start planning to get into the great outdoors. In particular, it’s the season for walking the Te Araroa Trail, the pathway from Cape Reinga in the North Island to Bluff in the South Island, some 3,000 km.
I hiked the South Island leg early this year myself, which took me two months. One of the things that struck me was how much history and human connection there was to the route, but how little I knew about it, let alone had any time to attend to, when there were 30km or so to get under my belt each day.
With this in mind I thought I might write some blogs reflecting on trail locations by using images from Te Papa’s collections.
Bluff: End or Beginning
So let’s begin with Bluff. That’s usually thought of as the end of the trail, but increasing numbers begin there because it makes sense to move away from the coldest and wettest part of the country before the approach of winter. In the lingo of the trail these people are TA NoBos (Te Araroa northbound). I was a NoBo.
The start point in Bluff is the famous signpost at Stirling Point, about as far south as you can go in the South Island. It’s been photographed a gazillion times by tourists and I’m sure every TA walker has their photo taken there, whether just beginning or finally completing their journey.
But Peter Peryer created a different take on this iconic object in 1985, making the sign almost human.
As I wrote in my book, New Zealand Photography Collected, Peryer draws on “the feelings associated with ends-of-the-earth places – the bleakness of isolation and the longing that comes with distance. He turns a plain signpost into a lonely sentinel that tells the visitor they have arrived – but which simultaneously suggests, in a confusion of jutting arms, that all the places worth visiting are elsewhere.”
Walkers who have just spent four marathon months getting here from Cape Reinga would probably have mixed emotions that at least partly mesh with Peryer’s photograph – triumph that they finally made it, but with nowhere further to go, the deflation of an adventure ended. Their daily purpose in life now over, its time to head home. For people just starting out though, the sign proclaims, “Go forth! Your destiny is away from here.”
Ship Cove: Proclaiming History
The other end of the trail in the South Island is at Ship Cove / Meretoto in the Queen Charlotte Sounds. There is another marker here, but this one is a monument commemorating the five visits of Captain James Cook during the 1770s.
It was one of Cook’s favourite spots in New Zealand, and he spent a total of 170 days here over his three voyages. It was a secure anchorage with good supplies of wood, water, and fish. There were also opportunities to trade with Māori.
Expedition artist John Webber made many drawings around Ship Cove during the 1777 visit, and eleven years later worked these up into a painting back in London.
It is a work with documentary value, showing both Māori and Europeans engaged in a variety of activities. But it also a work made according to the artistic conventions of the time, with the figures picturesquely arranged and a golden glow mysteriously lighting the centre.
Today the civilising effect that Webber imposed on the landscape has been echoed in reality, though in a rather less romantic way, to say the least. Mark Adams’ panorama depicts the same spot in 1995, with mown grass and random barbecues.
More clutter of civilisation is pointedly emphasised in this photograph by Adams.
While it is right and proper that such a significant site should be marked, somehow it all takes away from any imagining of how it was when Māori and Pakeha had their first sustained contact. Proclaiming history also seems to ruin it.
Nevertheless, the monument does offer TA walkers the opportunity for another symbolic image to witness the beginning or end of their South Island trek.
Curator of Photography