Farewell Spit, a slender sandbar of some 35 kilometres, curves gently eastward partially to enclose the waters of Golden Bay and shelter them from the wild Tasman Sea. It comprises sand eroded from the South Island’s west coast and borne northward by coastal drift until checked at Cook Strait. In its lee, Golden Bay is imperceptibly filling up with sand, becoming progressively more shallow and less extensive.
Both Cape Farewell (named by Cook as he sailed from New Zealand in 1770) and the spit were seen by Abel Tasman in 1642. The Dutch explorer turned into Golden Bay after seeing smoke rising here, the first indication that the land he had found was inhabited. Tasman named the spit Visscher’s Sand-dune Hoeck.
Cape Farewell is the northernmost point of the South Island, being some little distance north of Levin on the North Island’s west coast.
The spit, soon recognised as a shipping hazard, has claimed at least 11 vessels. Construction of a lighthouse began in 1869. Built literally at sea level, its tower had to be some 30.5 metres high, considerably taller than most. The light, first used in June 1870 and electrified in 1954, gives one flash every 30 seconds and is visible for 24 kilometres. In 1897 the tower was rebuilt to a height of 26.8 metres. Last century, when the sea covered most of the spit at high tide, a keeper decided that a grove of tall trees would serve as a good landmark to mariners by day. As the spit was infertile, each time he went to Puponga for stores he returned with saddlebags of topsoil, eventually planting macrocarpa trees, a grove of which can be seen today. The light became automatic in 1984.
Farewell Spit, including all areas exposed at low water on spring tides, is a wildlife reserve, and large areas are closed to the public. Visitors are, however, encouraged to walk around a large area at the base of the spit, and over the adjoining Farm Park at Puponga. There are innumerable wading birds to be seen, and in March and April one may witness, in an atmosphere of mounting excitement, the spectacle of flocks – each of thousands of wading birds – commencing their remarkable annual migration of some 12,000 kilometres to the tundras of Siberia. Most numerous are the bar-tailed godwit (up to about 20,000) and the knot (up to about 27,000) but there are other species as well. Finally the numbers dwindle to just a few, which stay behind and winter over here. The main body return in September.