Saturday, March 15

The Art Deco Capital of the World

Napier, located on the Hawkes Bay coast of New Zealand, is a unique city.  Large sections of the city were leveled by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the morning of February 3, 1931. At least 256 people lost their lives in Napier and neighbouring towns.  The toll made it the nation's most deadly natural disaster.  Such was the scale of the quake that it lifted the surrounding area an average of 1.8 metres above sea level.  In fact the regional airport sits on a coastal plain that was once the floor of a large lagoon. 

Despite the devastation, local were determined to rebuilt.  At the time, Art Deco was architectural style in vogue.  Hundreds of buildings were erected reflecting its colourful, geometric forms.  The result, is an incredible architectural time capsule. Today, a preservation society actively works to preserve the city's stunning heritage. I can recall only one other location where a similar concentration of Art Deco can still be found; Miami Beach, Florida.

I spent last weekend in Napier while enroute to Wellington for work.  Over the years I've tried unsuccessfully to visit the Hawkes Bay. This time luck was with me.  My flight from Auckland landed shortly after 3:30pm on Saturday.  I collected my rental car and made my way to south to Te Mata Peak.  This craggy ridge rises 399 metres above the surrounding coast, offering near perfect views of the entire region.  A narrow, somewhat hair-raising road winds its way up to the summit. 

However, the white knuckle ride is worth the effort as the view is inspiring. You can look across to Napier and the Mahia Peninsula, down on the Tukituki River and local vineyards and across the rolling, fertile Heretaunga Plains.  While I was at the summit a car club on an afternoon tour pulled into the carpark. The group included an assorted of immaculately maintained vintage cars and convertibles.

I then drove up the coastal road to Napier, enjoying the ocean views and my first glimpse of the white limestone cliffs of Cape Kidnappers.  This cape sits at the southern tip of Hawkes Bay.  It distinctive coastline finishes with a small pyramid-shaped island.  The headland was named after an attempt by local Maori to abduct the servant of a member of Captain James Cook's crew in 1769. The crew member was Tiata, a Tahitian accompanying Cook's interpreter Tupaia.

The local tribesmen assumed that the Europeans had enslaved Tiata and attempted to rescue him.  Cook's journal states that Tiata was in the water near Endeavour when a Māori fishing boat pulled alongside and dragged him aboard.  Sailors from Endeavour′s deck immediately opened fire on the fishing boat, killing two Māori and wounding a third. Tiata promptly jumped overboard and swam back to Endeavour, while the remaining Māori paddled their craft back to shore.

 
On Sunday morning I joined an Art Deco walking tour of the central business district.  An enthusiastic local resident spent an hour sharing tales of the city history, interpreting Art Deco's forms and pointing out it expression on the surrounding buildings.  I enjoyed the tour more than I'd expected.  Afterwards, I visited the recently opened regional museum to see its earthquake exhibit and watch a film that captures the personal memories of those who lived through the disaster as young children.

After lunch it was off to the Bluff Hill lookout to see Napier's harbour and take in the expanse of coastal land that rose from the sea in 1931. My weekend visit coincided with the arrival of the Sea Princess, an Australian cruise ship.  As a result, the harbour was dominated by the vessel and the town was filled with exploring crowds.  The influx did have its benefits as the locals were out in force with live bands, vintage car displays and other regalia. 

My weekend in Napier finished with a real highlight.  By chance, weeks earlier I'd come across a tour of the famous gannet colonies at Cape Kidnappers.  Australasian gannets are beautiful sea-faring birds.  They've found along the southern coast of Australia and eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island. Gannet pairs typically mate for life, breeding only one chick each season.  At Cape Kidnappers, four large breeding colonies have developed, with more than 20,000 nesting birds.  Incredibly the birds return for 16 weeks every year, between October and April, to raise their chicks.

Reaching the colonies is an adventure in itself.  The tour involved being towed in a trailers by two antique tractors along 8kms of spectacular cliff lined beaches.  The beaches are only accessible at low tide.  Each trailer has comfortable padded seats and welded footrests so the journey is more comfortable than it sounds.  The coastline is extraordinary.  The tectonic forces of New Zealand's restless continental plates are on full display.  Fault lines cut the cliffs at crazy angles, ancient seabed fossils can be seen in the sedimentary layers rising up from the waves.  It's all rather magic.

The tour ends at the start of walking track that takes you up to the gannet colonies.  The largest colony is situated on wind-swept plateau, more than 200 metres above the beach.  A 20 minute walk along the coast and up a steep, winding track takes you to the colony. The sight of thousands of birds is amazing, as are the rather potent, chocking guano fumes that greet you as you crest the hilltop.  I spent almost 40 minutes soaking up the view and marveling at the fact that I'd finally made to this famous, stunningly beautiful corner of New Zealand.  I can't wait to show Garry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An amazing place to visit. I have been there three times and still find interesting places to enjoy,outs