When we step off the ferry I experience a sudden sense of dislocation. It’s partly that the Boulder Bank has always been over there, and now it is Nelson that is over there. But it’s more than that. The place so obviously belongs to the birds. They are all around us, wheeling over our heads, perched on the driftwood that lies in piles like bleached bones, fossicking amongst the rocks.
But although I have long been curious about the Boulder Bank - its long narrow mass and its lighthouse - I had never set foot on the Boulder Bank until last weekend. When I told a friend I would love to walk the full length of the Boulder Bank, she made all the necessary arrangements: a ferry ride across The Haven; a key to the lighthouse; a vehicle to pick us up 13 stony kilometres away at The Glen.
So it is that four of us gather outside Guyton’s fish shop on a Sunday morning with sunscreen, stout shoes and a packed lunch. Although it is already nine o’clock Rocks Road is not yet fully awake. It is still cool and there is little traffic. The boats moored at the jetty – Pelican, Koo, and Gloria Maria - show no signs of life. Nor do the balconies of the apartments across the road.
When we step off the ferry I experience a sudden sense of dislocation. It’s partly that the Boulder Bank has always been over there, and now it is Nelson that is over there. But it’s more than that.
The place so obviously belongs to the birds. They are all around us, wheeling over our heads, perched on the driftwood that lies in piles like bleached bones, fossicking amongst the rocks. It’s evident that while we watch them, they are watching us, keeping beady eyes on human activity at the port - over there - ready to wing across the water as soon as a fishing boat begins unloading, or the fish and chip shop starts frying.
I also feel suddenly vulnerable standing exposed to the weather on such a narrow ridge of stones and with the sea only metres away on either side. It strikes me that the Boulder Bank is New Zealand writ small - the famous lines from Basil Dowling’s poem A Calm Day flit through my mind: "We in these islands are/Nowhere far from the sea”
We head towards the lighthouse, passing a dilapidated wooden structure labelled Shag Rehabilitation Site. There are no shags anywhere near it; just a lone gull perched at its apex. We come upon the shags much later in our walk - about 15 of them perched hunch-shouldered beside their ragged nests in a dying, grey-limbed tree. The grandly gothic sight of their roost brings another scrap of poetry to my mind. This time it is Shakespeare’s “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
The lighthouse is as quiet and as still as the stones it stands on but it is imposing nonetheless: a tall building on land that has only a few other buildings, all of them low. Inside all is neat and shipshape: white-painted metal walls, red windowsills and red handrails, wooden stairs spiraling up to the light at the very top.
Beside the lighthouse is a low wigwam of pale driftwood. It’s the first and most fragile of the driftwood constructions we come across on our walk. All along the bank visitors have built huts, hearths, seats, benches and cairns as if
driven by some atavistic urge to build shelter or to create something which says I was here, I passed this way. I exist.
We eat our lunch next to one of the most elaborate of the structures - a spiraling latticework of driftwood sheathed in stones. Inside there is a table made of an upended segment of log. Three small hearts cut from red fabric sit on the log table, each held in place with a pebble, and a limp bouquet of dandelion flowers.
The long-buried instincts of the hunter-gatherer also find expression on the Boulder Bank. The old baches are miracles of patchwork make-do. Beside them, neatly stacked, are scavenged nets, floats, rusted corrugated iron, driftwood, timber, sea glass, broken furniture, bicycle wheels, oil drums and window frames.
I have to suppress my own urge to collect and gather and am pleased to arrive home with just three souvenirs – a pink jandal, a bright blue knot of synthetic rope and a feather.
The next day I look for the full text of the poem about how the islands of New Zealand are “nowhere far from the sea” but I can’t find it. Instead I discover a different poem by Basil Dowling. It was intended to evoke Canterbury but it seemed to be a perfect evocation of the Boulder Bank too, a place where “… the eye/Sees less of land than sky,/And men seem to inhabit here/As much the cloud-crossed hemisphere/As the flat earth …/… Here birds and winds fly free,/And tree is miles from tree.”