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The Boulder Bank of Nelson

December 30th, 2011
By Ian Miller

When the European settlers first landed in the north of the South Island, the Boulder Bank was hiding a secret place the indigenous Maori did not want discovered.

Nelson is tucked away from Tasman Bay behind a long finger of coarse gravel and rounded boulders known as The Boulder Bank. This unusual natural reef, or spit, is about 13 kilometers long and behind it, a sheltered harbour. Without the Boulder Bank the port city of Nelson may never have developed in its present location.

When English property developer Captain Arthur Wakefield arrived in Tasman Bay in early October 1841 he was looking for somewhere to develop a settlement to be called Nelson. The Motueka Maoris told the men that they would not find a better place for settlement than the land behind the beach called Kaiteriteri near where they were already anchored.

The Wakefield party was not satisfied with the Kaiteriteri area and on the 19th October a group of five set sail across the bay in a small sailing lugger. As a guide they took with them a young Maori man named Pito, who unbeknown to the explorers had been instructed by his chief not to allow these strangers to discover their secret place across the bay.

After a cold, two-day sail and despite protests from Pito that the area was not worthwhile, the men decided to run the lugger through surf and onto the Boulder Banks rocky beach. Two of the men, walked to the top of the bank and to their surprise saw a large estuary with what appeared to be a sheltered harbour at one end.

Pito was, understandably, unhappy and refused to show the explorers the estuary's entrance until he was assured that his Chief would not be told of his failure.

To the Maori of Motueka, the estuarine mud flats behind the Boulder Bank and the deep waters nearby were a valuable source of snapper and other kai moana (seafood). They did not want these pale skinned strangers sharing this bountiful food source.

However, immigration was unstoppable and the harbour proved excellent, although the entrance was difficult at times for sailing ships to negotiate. In the hills and valleys behind this natural harbour, the city of Nelson was born and thrived.

The arrival of European settlers changed Maori forever. The Maori were overwhelmed by the sheer number of settlers who arrived and settled around Tasman Bay. Some Maori moved away and others stayed to make a good living by growing vegetables, sweet potatoes (kumera) and raising pigs to sell to settlers in Nelson and in the new city of Wellington, across Cook Strait.

The Boulder Bank is built from rock that falls into the sea from cliffs along the coast a few kilometres to the north east. These rocks get rounded by rolling along the sea bed, pushed by current and wave action. As the current slows they get dropped in a row that stretches in a 13 kilometre long finger extending south from the cliffs, forming a geologically rare boulder bank.

Rocks are still slowly rolling south along the seabed at about 7.5 meters a year and over the past 6000 years enough rocks accumulated in an irregular row to form the Boulder Bank. Today this Boulder Bank shelters Port Nelson.

The problematic harbour entrance was apparent right from the start so in 1903 the Nelson Harbour Board had a 61 meter wide channel cut through the south end of the Boulder Bank to give ships easier passage into the port. The "cut", as it is known, was later widened to 150 meters and requires regular dredging to keep it from gradually closing in.

After a couple of earlier lights, a kit set cast iron lighthouse was imported from England in 1861 and erected on the Boulder bank. It was first lit on the 4th of August 1862 and remained in use until the 4th of August 1982 when it was replaced with a new light on the mainland.

The cut in the Boulder Bank left its southern tip as Haulashore Island and today the island is a pleasant place for picnics, fishing and swimming. It is possible to walk along the Boulder Bank starting near the cliffs at the Glen but a small ferry boat provides rides across the harbour to the lighthouse and Haulashore Island. The boat ride is considerably easier than the long walk along the uneven surface of the Boulder bank to the old lighthouse and the only way to get onto the island.

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