Unknown to most, Whites Bay is an balmy beach fringed by thick forest and dominated by the dwindling hillsides of nearby Mount Robertson. A neat network of walking tracks explores all the area’s features. The real treat of this walk is the view along Rarangi Beach south towards Cape Campbell and the Inland Kaikouras. These look their best early in the morning as the snow-capped peaks catch the early morning sun and the parched hillsides glow orange.
At Tuamarina, 9 km north of Blenheim and 20 km south of Picton, turn into Hunter Road (Rarangi signposted). Follow this 10 km through the settlement to the parking area at the road end. The start of the track is signposted just before the carpark. There’s a DoC campground and toilet behind the beach.
Whites Bay is 5.5 km along Port Underwood Road from Rarangi. At Whites Bay the track is signposted to the south of the cable station building and carpark.
From Rarangi the track climbs steeply through a forest composed almost entirely of five-finger. The zigzags are numerous. After 20 minutes the track meets the Port Underwood Road. Follow this for 15 minutes to the signpost on the right and the start of the steep descent towards Whites Bay. This is predominantly through pine forest. A short detour leads to a small but separate beach from Whites Bay. Continue along the boardwalk to Whites Bay, the cable station and carpark.
However it is not the landscape which put Whites Bay on the map. By a curious quirk of fate it ended up as the South Island node for the first telegraph cable connecting the North Island to the Mainland.
In the 1860s it could take a month for Government correspondence to travel between Christchurch and headquarters in Auckland. Not a very efficient state of affairs! Some would say today even with email and instant communication the efficiency is not much better. Despite the administration shifting to Wellington there still existed a need for better communication.
The technology already existed in England the USA for submarine telegraph cables, but the idea was not entertained for New Zealand until 1859, when Canterbury constructed the first cable between Christchurch and Lyttelton. Others were opened in Otago between Dunedin and Port Chalmers in 1862 and Southland from Invercargill to Bluff in 1864.
In 1863 Postmaster General R. Wood proposed the idea of a similar cable beneath Cook Strait, which was approved by the House of Representatives at the initiation of Julius Vogel. The tender of $480 per nautical mile was accepted by the London firm of W.T. Henley.
Government marine engineer J. Balfour conducted a survey for a possible route but his recommendation was later usurped and the Lyall Bay to Whites Bay route preferred. The cable was an amalgamation of three conductors, each containing seven copper wires insulated with gutta-percha and covered with tarred jute. 12 No. 1 galvanised wires were then twisted around the exterior and the entire 50mm diameter cable wrapped onto a revolving drum.
The rate of overboard deposition was 7 knots per hour. All went well until six miles into the operation, when the cable became fouled on the winch gear, halting the boat, snapping the cable and disintegrating the machinery with the strain.
The second attempt fared better until 2 ½ miles from the end, when to everyone’s dismay the cable ran out. The cable had been kept too taught and been swept into a semicircular arc during suspension underwater. Only after retrieving the original cable lost on the seabed at the first attempt was the laying completed.
On August 26th 1866 the first test proved successful and the sailors had a good old shindig on the beach, drinking champagne and lighting a bonfire. The telegraph station building was soon constructed, although staff were often bored with the isolation. The station closed in 1896 when a direct link between Wellington and Christchurch was established. The building still remains although it contains no reminiscences of the history.
South Island ▷ Marlborough ▷ Blenheim
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Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍