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A recent stopover at the Moeraki Boulders, a natural Otago feature, has me wondering. It is not my first visit but this one is different. The reason; the unexpected swarm of people.
On previous visits I would certainly see others. But I could also have the beach almost to myself and immediate companions. Previous visits had us parking near the beach then walking for 10 to 15 minutes to see the amazing boulders strewn along the tide line. They looked like remnants from a game of bowls played by giants who, becoming bored, had sauntered off.
On this recent occasion, we miss the familiar car park and, instead, follow signs that land us at a large souvenir venue with a cafe and bar. To use the short track to the beach we are asked to pay $2 each. The amazing natural feature usually attracts 300,000 visitors annually. TripAdvisor reviews frequently give Moeraki Boulders minimum points. ''It is an attraction over-run with teenagers and tourists intent on taking selfies.''
Maori mythology tells us the boulders were baskets carrying kumara. They were aboard the sailing canoe Arai-te-uru when it was wrecked along the southern South Island coast. The wreck would have strewn the canoe's contents much as they appear these days. What looks like a net encasing a much-photographed boulder is multi-coloured calcite, an ingredient of the large spherical boulders.
Such curiosities of nature are found on beaches in other New Zealand locations. The Moeraki Boulders, however, are the best known. Complementing Maori mythology is science, telling us the Moeraki Boulders are concretions created by the cementation of the Paleocene mudstone of the Moeraki Formation, from which they have been exhumed from embankments by coastal erosion.
The main body of the boulders started forming in what was then marine mud, near the surface of the Paleocene sea floor. This is demonstrated by studies of their composition; specifically, the magnesium and iron content, and stable isotopes of oxygen and carbon. Their spherical shape indicates that the source of calcium was mass diffusion, as opposed to fluid flow. The larger boulders, 2m in diameter, are estimated to have taken up to five million years to grow while 10 to 50m of marine mud accumulated on the sea floor above them.
After the concretions formed, large cracks known as septaria formed in them. Brown calcite, yellow calcite and small amounts of dolomite and quartz progressively filled these cracks when a drop in sea level allowed fresh groundwater to flow through the mudstone enclosing them.
I am not anti-tourism. I have worked for a vibrant tourist attractions company and have been a longtime travel writer. I also travel a lot myself. I appreciate the interchange of cultures having many beneficial add-ons. One would be enhancing world peace. Travellers of varied ethnic origins get on well together in backpackers, for example.
New Zealand attracts $39.1 billion annually from tourists (2018 stats). Tourists contribute $3.7 billion in GST alone. The industry employs 216,012 people. That's 8% of the workforce.
I toss impressive numbers through my thinking as I navigate a path through the hordes at the Moeraki Boulders. Agile younger people perform handstands on boulders or climb into them. One woman sits cross-legged on a boulder, making me wonder if she is a new twist on Napier's popular Pania of the Reef statue. And, those taking selfies abound.
Have we opened the gates too wide on tourism? Certainly, tourism is great for business operators who put hands up for further expansion. But can our infrastructure, not to mention a fragile environment, cope with the increasing numbers? Centres such as Queenstown, for example, have become too expensive for local people to live in. Those who need to work in tourism frequently can no longer afford to live where tourists go.
The question is, when is enough enough? How long do we turn a blind eye to our burgeoning tourism reality? Should tourism be allowed to compromise the beauty and solitude of wildness?
Last year I visited Iceland, where tourism has lifted the small country from the mire of a drastically failing economy. Iceland is, sadly, experiencing tourism's negative impact on the environment and the cost of living.
A recent Guardian story cites Dutch people also complaining about visitor numbers. ''The tulips are getting trampled and quaint villages of windmills are swamped.''
I recall growing up, thanks to my parents, with a love for New Zealand's natural environment. I remember an early edition of a national park handbook imparting the ideals of music in solitude and magic in silence.
Despite the crush of humanity, I enjoy my recent Moeraki Boulders visit. It is the ideal digestion to a sumptuous lunch at nearby Fleur's Place
-Roy Sinclair is an author and travel writer.