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Head to the deep south for this new episode about the ports of the world. Latitude -46°, southern storms and extreme conditions: Bluff, New Zealand faces Antarctica and its capricious weather. Isolated from the rest of the world, the port was, however, one of the first points of departure for European settlers in the early 19th century.
From our correspondent in New Zealand,
At the end of state highway 1road that connects New Zealand from north to south, the route ends in Stirling Point, the last landmark before civilization disappears, giving way to the Southern Ocean that, in the distance, reveals the first shores of the South Pole. The expression of ” end of the world which can sometimes be overused, takes on its full meaning here. Under a constantly cloudy sky, Bluff and its houses corroded by wind and weather, almost give the impression of being abandoned.
In this out-of-time city, however, there are still around 2,000 residents. Most are sailors who have to deal with the unpredictable conditions of the ocean. In this storm, a voice reassures them. Meri Leask’s. For almost 40 years, she has been advising and monitoring the boats that sail along the south coast of New Zealand on a daily basis. ” I live in the port. So when the fishermen leave, they walk right through my door. I have a high frequency radio, a VHF radio and I never leave the house without a portable radio in my bag. “, she says.
24-hour surveillance is essential as the waters off Southland, where Bluff is located, are the deadliest. The number of people missing at sea is twice as high here as in the rest of the country. ” Twice a day, I report weather conditions, forecasts. I check every boat leaving the harbor, even those heading to Antarctica or the Chatham Islands. This is very important for families staying on land. Because everywhere here, when the wind starts to blow and the sea conditions change, they can get into serious trouble and we’ve had some very serious situations. If I hear conditions are changing, I tell the fishermen to return directly or, if it’s really bad, find a shore as close as possible. “, she explains.
A role in the Napoleonic Wars
If the port of Bluff is now animated by fishing boats and various freighters, it was nevertheless a strategic point during coalition wars more than two centuries ago. Michael Stevens is a Bluff-born historian. He tells how the port saw the first European ship arrive, following the Treaty of Tilsit, an agreement between Napoleon and Russia to blockade the British Empire:
” During the first decade of the 19th centuryand century, Napoleon had prevented all Russian hemp resources from going to the British. Until then, the British depended entirely on the Russians to obtain this strategic resource to manufacture the moorings and sails of the boats. So this great British colonial ship from Australia, which was at the same time in the port of Bluff, came to investigate the qualities of New Zealand’s flax plantations. In particular, to assess its quality and find out if it could replace European hemp. I think it shows that despite his isolation, Bluff has always been connected to the rest of the world. »
A few years later, British ships will arrive this time with the first European settlers. Traders, whalers and even fishermen join forces with New Zealand’s indigenous Maoris in this region rich in natural resources.
” It is the closest port to a large converging zone, one of the only places in the world where the cold waters of Antarctica and the warm waters of the Pacific mix and provide a very productive sea. There is certainly a lot of wind and rain, which is not hospitable to men. But there are a lot of whales, seals, fish. These maritime resources exist here in great numbers. So this rich ecology attracts people, first the Polynesians and then the first wave of Europeans who are mostly whalers. Bluff is one of those places in the world where nature guides, in a sense, human culture. »
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One of New Zealand’s treasures was born from this culture: the oysters of the Foveaux Strait. Located between Bluff and Stewart Island, this 150-year-old oyster farm is one of the last natural oyster ponds in the world. Between March and August, Graeme Wright and his teams harvest over a million oysters a year. Here, there is no breeding on the shore, but a fleet of eight boats.
” The oysters are between 30 and 50 meters deep. Harvesting is only possible by dredging and always depends on the weather conditions. We often have storms from the south with waves of 6 to 10 meters, but also high tides because it’s a very small strait, not to mention the southerly winds in this part of the world, so it’s not always accessible! But these nutrient-rich deep waters of Antarctica make our oysters unique. ” Unique. Just like the emotion that takes us when leaving Bluff. A busy port, full of life and at the same time so far from the rest of the world. Last civilization before the first ice floes and the frozen desert of the southern continent.