Golden Bay, named for the golden sand of the beaches along its coast, is on the northwest edge of New Zealand's South Island. There is just one road in, over the Takaka Hill - a range of hills, actually, about 800m at the highest point. It is a dramatic place - weathered marble, sinkholes and caves - some very deep, strange rock formations, and underground rivers. Unsurprisingly, it was apparently used as a location for some filming for the "Lord of the Rings".
Just west from the Takaka Hill are the Waikoropupu Springs - the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand and the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. The clarity of the water is remarkable - the underwater visibility has been measured as 63 metres. The only place with clearer water is under the Weddell Sea in Antartica. The clarity of this water results from a prolonged period of filtration as it travels in underground channels through the limestone rock of the Takaka Valley. At the springs the water wells up with considerable force, and in some areas you can see the sand and stones of the lake floor dancing with the water movement. The plants growing underwater are so easily seen they look much closer than they are, like a colourful garden.
The beauty of the springs did not trump gold fever. In the late 1850's prospectors burned and cleared the surrounding plant cover - which would have been mature lowland forest - and constructed water races to channel water from the springs to sluice for gold. Numerous water races and sluice channels remind us of the damaging (and futile in this case) gold fever of the past, and they are only partially obscured by renewed plant growth. Almost none of the original forest remains in this area - damage to the bush continued into the 1970's. The reserve around the springs reveals different stages of forest development as regrowth occurs, with signage that explains this fragile process.
Sigh. How thoughtless and foolish we can be if our preoccupation is just what we can take from the land! How we treat the land is greatly affected by our beliefs and priorities... The Maori perspective protected the water from contamination because it was seen as sacred. But they were not in control, and people were allowed to dive in the water of the springs until the threat of contamination was extremely tangible and disturbing in the form of an alien invasion - Didymo (Didymosphenia geminata) a freshwater diatom.
Charmingly called "rock snot" this revolting pest (and I am delighted by most plants!) began to invade the rivers in the South Island from 2004. It is extremely difficult to stop the spread, and a great deal of effort is being expended to control it. Under the Biosecurity Act 1993, the entire South Island is a Controlled Area, which means people are legally obliged to prevent the spreading of didymo and face penalties to the tune of $100,000 in fines or 5 years in jail if they knowingly infringe.
And it seems that this was the trigger - at last, the protection of the springs was taken really seriously. This is now the official rule - "The waters of Te Waikoropupu Springs, including Fish Creek and Springs River, are closed to all forms of contact (including fishing, swimming, diving, wading, boating and drinking the water) to safeguard water quality and to respect cultural values." Serious protection of what I too see as a treasure.