An opportunity came my way on Saturday 04 May 2013 to join a bus tour to the West Wind windfarm I often see when I walk our dogs round the top of Mt Victoria. As we walk our circuit and look across Wellington we sometimes spot the majestic arms of the turbines peeking above the western hills.
Of course, I also often write about wind turbines in my Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald Online, so I was interested to get a closer look.
I’ve visited the lone turbine on Brooklyn Hill several times, but West Wind is much much bigger. The towers are around 70 metres tall, while each of the 3 blades is 40 metres long and weighs around 10 tonnes. By comparison, the Brooklyn Hill wind turbine is around 31 metres tall and each blade is 13.5 metres long.
See my review of the walk from the Brooklyn Hill wind turbine to the radar station in Te Kopahou Reserve.
An added attraction was a stop to see the New Zealand Fur seals on the South Coast, so I signed up for the tour.
The wind farm
The Wellington Rover bus picked 8 of us up outside the City Council offices, while a couple of other buses picked up others in the group at the railway station. All together there were three 9-seater buses on the tour. It was a mild day with some light cloud, occasional sunshine and no wind — perfect for the 4 hour tour.
Our driver, Craig, was friendly and knowledgeable, and looked after all of us really well.
After a short drive out through Karori and down to South Makara Road all 3 buses met up at the gate to Terawhiti Station on the corner with Oteranga Bay Road.
The wind farm itself has 62 turbines in total within the bounds of the massive 53 square kilometre Station. That’s 13,000 acres for the metrically challenged.
We spent a few minutes admiring views at the base of one of the turbines. They’re huge, with enormous blades which seem to disappear in an optical illusion as they reach the bottom of their arc.
I find the turbines majestic and quite beautiful with their smooth curves and regular shape. Certainly seeing lines and groups of them spread across the landscape is spectacular.
Terawhiti Station is huge. It went on and on and on. It was more like driving through a national park than through a farm. The hills are covered with bush and scrub, inhabited by wild goats, wild pigs, even deer, apparently. There are also farm animals: cattle and sheep. Hawks hovered overhead playing in the air currents as they came off the turbines.
We drove up rough roads until we reached the first of the turbines and in other parts of the tour too. Some roads were steep and relatively narrow, while others, created for transporting the turbines, were wide and easy.
The power company created a temporary wharf at Oteranga Bay on the South Coast and built 33 kilometres of roads so as to transport everything into place. We saw occasional notices of height restrictions for vehicles: 12.5 metres, or 11 metres.
At one place our guide pointed out the remnants of the gold mining that took place in the late 1800s. He mentioned a time when there were maybe a thousand miners. Most gave up quickly when a seam they’d found stopped suddenly, thanks to Wellington’s fractured landscape. It could take months of hard graft to find where any seam continued.
Māori settlements were in the area too. We saw the vestiges of one area where they would trap the wood pigeons or kereru that would gather to feast on the fruits of the trees.
Down by Oteranga Bay one area is sectioned off because it was an urupa, or graveyard.
The Army had a presence in the area in World War Two. As with most of Wellington’s hills they installed bunkers, creating roads so they could bring in the supplies they needed. We didn’t visit any of the bunkers or even spot any of them on our tour though.
Apparently Oteranga Bay was also where in the early days the farmers would drive their cattle to so they could be loaded on to barges to be taken to market. Driving them on the tracks over the hills would have taken days.
At some point we stopped at the old homestead on the coast for a toilet break. There’s a rather surprising large flat area of grass by the sea with a couple of houses on it, one of them the old homestead.
Then it was a short drive down to and briefly along the coast to the spot where the seals haul out. Our guides gave us a cup of tea (or coffee or soft drinks) and a muffin or two. Then we had some free time to wander around and observe the seals, without getting close enough to bother them.
There were probably a dozen or more seals sunbathing on the beach, with perhaps a couple of dozen more on the rocks or in the sea nearby. Apparently in July and August there can be hundreds on the beach. Even the ones we saw were pretty pongy. When there are hundreds on the beach the stench must be overpowering.
Our guide explained something interesting to us too: seals move on land with a looping motion like a caterpillar, while sealions lift up and walk on their flippers. The New Zealand Fur Seal (its official name) is actually a sealion.
The seals on the beach are males — the females are away out at sea fishing and looking after any pups.
Not far away were various small fishing and recreational boats, and several divers were in the water too. While access through Terawhiti Station is extremely limited, those with a good 4-wheel drive vehicle can drive around the coast on the beach from Owhiro Bay. In New Zealand the Queen’s Chain is a strip of public land along beaches and beside rivers, that allows access to the water even where private land might seem to lay claim to the beach.
See photos and videos by Aimee Whitcroft who organised the tour.
As the tour wore on I became more and more aware of what a privilege it was to be taking part in it. Terawhiti Station is enormous, rugged and beautiful.
The wind turbines are enormous, sleek and beautiful. There are so many of them, and they stretch into the distance on the ridges of the folded hills.
In retrospect it seems obvious that they require a huge amount of infrastructure. All the roading that had been created so they could be trucked into place was impressive. There are even spare turbines in one storage spot along the route we took.
I count myself lucky to have seen the seals. I have seen them before, at Red Rocks and also when my partner bought me a brief helicopter tour of the South Coast for a birthday once. But every time we can enjoy the creatures around us is special.
I was thrilled to have learned about the gold mining past and the Māori settlements, and enjoyed the isolation, the rugged terrain, and the beautiful warm still day with part cloud, part sun, and views my iPhone didn’t do justice to. The other people on the tour were interesting and pleasant, and the driver was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.
A bonus of the tour was the opportunity to look back at Brooklyn Hill from the western side. I’ve looked down on this section of coast from Te Kopahou Reserve, and from above on our helicopter tour, so this completed my mental image of the area.
All in all it was a fabulous way to spend a morning.