Topic: People - Three Sisters Beach

Topic type:

Pirani and Russell Gibbs and their children live here on their farm.  It is appropriately named Whitecliffs Station.  They also have a unit near the main family home and a large, older homestead across and down Clifton Road that they rent out to visitors.  I have stayed in both places from time to time.

The Tongaporutu village, river side baches and the Reserve are also included here.



3 January 2001

Tongaporutu Coastline - pohutukawa, Clifton Road



I couldn’t resist photographing this washing on a clothesline in a paddock at the Gibbs rental homestead.  Nor a pohutukawa on Clifton Road which runs past the homestead at this point.


8 July 2001  

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This was the first time I had accessed the Three Sisters Beach.  It was here that I met up with Dulcie Richards, a long time resident, and her dog, Becky.  According to my photographic notes, Dulcie was 88 years old and had lived at Tongaporutu for 83 years.  Her dog was 14 years old.  Dulcie had a ‘contract’ with the council to look after the public toilet on the Reserve.  She got paid $500 a year for this task.

Later on the beach, I met up with David Fairey, a fellow photographer.  He owned the shop Infocus in New Plymouth.  We tried to respect each other’s space while we were photographing.



1 January 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Clifton Road


This is Clifton Road.  It is part of the Whitecliffs Walkway.  This photo was taken outside the Gibbs’ farmhouse.  They rent this out to visitors.


11 June 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - graffiti carved into rock face 


The word Carol is carved on the first arch near the Three Sisters.


13 July 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - the Three Sisters


Several people were on the beach.  One person was throwing a red frisbee.  I asked a young couple to pose next to the Three Sisters for scale.  A young woman from New Plymouth asked if I knew where the Maori cave carvings were.  Unfortunately I didn’t know.

Later, I walked towards a large ‘island’ on the headland to see if it was climbable for a future shoot of the Three Sisters.  (I later called this Mammoth Rock and even later I learned of its Maori Name, Pa Tangata).  Just as I was about to leave, a middle-aged man, carrying a can of beer and a spear, emerged from the dunes.  He was after flounder, but as the water was discoloured, didn’t think he would get any.

He asked if I had seen the Maori carvings and offered to show me them after I said I didn’t know where they were.  I then thought about the woman who had asked me about them earlier.  And how she had missed out, but through luck, I was about to find out!

The carvings were in a small through going cave to the rear of the Three Sisters.  They were high up and close to the roof.  They were unphotographable at that time, but when the sun is low in the sky, and north (June/July), then it should be illuminated.  The cave floor was full of water, not dry sand.  The man, I didn’t think to ask his name, nor did I think to photograph him, said he couldn’t remember seeing it like that before.


20 July 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Tongaporutu baches



I photographed the Tonga baches from near the lookout on the main highway.


30 September 2003

On the beach I saw a woman photographer.  At the time my priority was gaining access to what I later called the Four Brothers Beach.  When I returned, the woman was still in the vicinity of the Three Sisters.  She lived in Wellington and had made a special effort to get to this beach to do some photography.  She didn’t make it around the Point to the next beach as I had.

With her there, I had to photograph the Three Sisters from an angle I wouldn’t normally have considered.


29 September 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - the Three Sisters after a storm


ALPHA STORM.  After I had finished photographing this massive storm at both Pilot Point and the Gibbs’ Fishing Point, I headed down to the Three Sisters Beach.

The Gibbs waived their access fee.  Up until now I had paid to use their farm track to access the Three Sisters Beach.  This firstly saved me valuable time and secondly and more importantly, was a safer option than having to lug my heavy photographic equipment around from the Tonga Reserve to the beach.  The Tonga River was often very close to the cliff and the rocks could be very slippery.  As the Gibbs learned more about me and my project, I gradually gained their trust.

Russell Gibbs, another man and two young boys were about to head down to the beach to photograph the Sisters which was what I wanted to do.  They offered to take me down the bottom of their track in their land rover.  I met up with them at the barn.

Before that, the Gibbs were very helpful regarding information about the two Maori families who had lost a young son and a daughter about three years ago at Twin Creeks.

Down on the beach I took a couple of photos of the two and a half Sisters.  One of them showed Russell looking at the Third Sister’s stump.

I later called the Daily News and they published a photo-essay on 1 October 2003 entitled:  “Going, going, Gone!!!”

Following on from this, I did a radio interview for Charles Mabbett of the Morning Report, a radio programme at 7.55 am on Thursday morning, 1st October.  Shortly afterwards I received a call from the New Zealand Herald for permission to use my images of the Sisters for Friday’s Herald.  They were published on Friday the 3rd.

Later, T.V.3 phoned.  They wanted to do an interview for their news that night (2nd October).  This duly appeared during the 6 o’clock news.  It came on for about two seconds, and then the screen went blank.  About five minutes later it re-appeared.  They had edited it so that I sounded quite coherent!

During the afternoon, still on the 2nd October, I got a phone call from a Dr Peter King, a geologist from Wellington.  He and his team would be staying at the Gibbs’ homestead from next week, so I planned to meet up with them.

On Saturday 4th October, the Daily News published a full page feature of my Tongaporutu Impermanence project in their Magazine Section.


6 October 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - geologist on Three Sisters Beach


PHO2008-252, PHO2008-1039, PHO2008-1045

At the Tonga Reserve, at around noon, I had lunch.  A chap on a tractor was mowing the grass.  I photographed him as part of my continuing story.  He was an older chap who had seen my article in the paper.  He gave his name as Brian Ray and said:  “Erosion never sleeps,” I thought that comment was truly apt.

On the beach I met up with one of the geologists from Wellington.  His name was Malcolm Arnott.  He explained something of the construction of the cliffs and of their faults that the waves took advantage of.  The faults being the weak points, thus making it easier for rock stacks to calve off.


8 October 2003  

 Tongaporutu Coastline - scientists on Three Sisters Beach


I met up with Dr Peter King, the geologist from Wellington, at the Gibbs’ rental homestead where he and his team were staying.  He was surprised to hear that one of the Four Brothers had also been taken out by the same storm (29.9.2003), that had famously demolished the Little Sister rock stack.  He added that you could very roughly determine a rock stack’s age by counting from the cliff edge, how many metres there were to the individual rock stack.  Add in a few more years for good measure and you would get an approximate age of the stack.  I assumed from this that the Little Brother could have been around 50 years old.

Peter was surprised that the one of the inner stacks had been taken out as opposed to the two that were further out.  On reflection, he thought it could have been because the destroyed stack would have been in the “breaker line”, whereas the ones further out wouldn’t have been so badly affected.  (I later called this the WASH ZONE).

The following is taken from a RECORDED INTERVIEW that I did with Dr Peter King, D.Sc, Research Programme Leader, Basin Evolution & Petroleum Potential.  Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Ltd., Gracefield Research Centre, 41 Bell Road South, P.O. Box 30-368, Lower Hutt.  The time was approximately 12.15 pm.

NOTE:  Part of this geological information will also be included in Section One on the Tongaporutu Coastline.

PETER:  I work for the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences which is a Crown Research Institute that has been spawned off with a lot of other research institutes from what was formally known as the DSIR.  (Department of Scientific & Industrial Research).

ME:  What I’m basically interested in is the rock formations and the faults.  And how the rock stacks calve off.

PETER:  The rocks that form the base of the sea cliffs all the way along this coast are what one would call semi-consolidated.  They are not very hard like volcanic rocks or igneous rocks.  They are sedimentary rocks that were once sediments that were deposited in the ocean in this case.  And with millions of years of burial, with layers and layers going on top of them, they’ve been compacted over geological time.  Then they’ve subsequently uplifted again, so they haven’t been hardened to the extent of igneous rocks.  However, they are hard enough to form the cliffs, but are not hard enough to be very resistant to erosion.

The rocks themselves are about 10 million years old and were once as I have said, deposited in the deep ocean.  Subsequently, they have been uplifted as a result of tectonic forces, ultimately associated with the plate boundary.  New Zealand sits astride the boundary between the Australian and the Pacific Plates.  The forces associated with the collision of these two plates in the New Zealand region have caused a lot of secondary effects.  One of which is the uplift of the region around the Tongaporutu Coast.

This uplift has ultimately brought these 10 million year old deep marine rocks back up to the surface as consolidated rock layers.  They are mudstones and sandstones.  There is a little of shell rock occasionally where the shoreline of 10 million years ago was maybe excavated out by waves or some sort of current action.  Thus the shells have been transported down the old Continental Slope into the old ancient sea floor.  So occasionally you get things such as shell rock as well.

ME:  Ten million years.  Is that a specific period like the Miocene period?

PETER:  Yes.  That is part of the late Miocene.  The lower part of the late Miocene.  And the region along here is actually one of the key reference areas for palaeontologists who determine the age of the sedimentary rocks in New Zealand.  So in fact, the cliffs in this region have actually given rise to what in the NZ geological time scale is called the Tongaporutian Stage.  The little micro-fossils that are marine organisms that are retained in the rocks today as small micro-fossils, tell us what the age of these sediments are.  And they are contributing to the geological time scale for all of the New Zealand sedimentary rocks.

ME:  I was talking to Malcolm Arnott about the caves.  He said that they were part of the fault lines and that the waves exploit these weaknesses.

PETER:  As part of the uplift story and as part of the plate tectonic story, this whole region is slowly being stretched apart.  Very slowly, only a MILLIMETRE OR TWO A YEAR.  So unperceivable to humans, but over geological time, the crust is slowly being stretched apart as the Pacific Plate, upon which this area lies, is moving slowly eastwards towards its rendezvous with the Australian Plate.  As part of that stretching process, the rocks get cracked or faulted, so gradually they just get pulled apart and cracks form.  Then different blocks fall down relative to one another.

There are lots of faults along this coastline.  Some of which are very obvious as significant dislocations of the rock layers of strata.  If you were to follow one horizon of sandstone or mudstone along the beach, then all of a sudden you come to a crack or something that looks like a crack, and the layer you have been following is no longer continuous ...  It may have been offset vertically up or down along this fault.  And so there are lots of faults or lesser faults, or just cracks that occur in the rocks.

What happens then is quite often the rocks themselves grind together when they slip up and down on these faults.  And the sandstone grains get crushed, forming lines of weakness.  So the rock right next to the fault plane (both sides of the fault plane), becomes almost imperceptibly weaker.  Then, when the waves and high tides and storms come crashing in, they chip away at these rocks.  Thus the lines of weakness preferentially erode.  Eventually, you get little nicks or chasms cut into the cliff face.

These eventually become excavated out to become larger caves.  Then quite often these faults traverse through little promontories or headlands.  The waves can attack in the bays on either side of the headland and ultimately you can have caves forming from two directions.  When this happens they will eventually meet in the middle and break through.  (Not all forming caves end up as through going caves).  At that point you have a through going cave which is now like an open tunnel.  It still has a roof above it, so it has become an arch.  Then, with further pounding by the waves, coupled with the high rainfall and the wind, the roofs of these arches eventually collapse and you are left behind with a stack.  A stack is a pinnacle of rock (rock stack), that is now sticking up as a tiny island just off the shore and no longer attached to the cliff and no longer attached to the mainland.

So there is a natural sequence of events from the uplift, then the faulting, then the erosion, the formation of nooks and crannies.  And then through going tunnels and arches leading ultimately to rock stacks.  Then as we know, these stacks in turn get eroded away and vanish into the greyness of rock that made up the stacks.  They get re-deposited back out in the ocean where they came from in the first place.

ME:  I believe that the coastline is eroding back at roughly two metres annually.

PETER:  That is anecdotal, based on local people who have used some sort of benchmark to measure where the cliff was at one point in time.  And ten or twenty years later it had retreated through erosion back to another position.  In this immediate vicinity in the 50’s, the 70’s or somewhere of that period, there was a rough approximation of two metres per year.

ME:  Where does all the sand that gets washed out during storms go?

PETER:  The sand forms part of the shelf that is out there beneath the waves.  It gets re-worked along the coast by long shore drift.  The currents that run parallel to the shore under the influence of the wind and the waves.  During big storms with quite a lot of erosional activity, it will be carried in suspension or by currents and get transported maybe further offshore.

At the moment we are in a geological high stand, so the sea level is comparatively high.  As such, there may not be very much sediment going out off the shelf edge and down the slope and into the deep ocean basins.  However, in periods of lower sea level where the water depth isn’t so great, it’s easier for the sand to get re-worked by currents down off the shelf margin, and down the continental slope and into the deep basin floor.  This is the way that these 10 million year old sedimentary rocks were originally deposited.

ME:  At times there is a lot of sand on the beach, then there are times where there isn’t.  Is this due to wind direction?  Certain wind directions build up the beach while others and storms remove it?

PETER:  Yes, that is exactly right.  In periods of quieter weather, with fewer storms and hence less wave activity, the waters are quieter.  They are not so erosive and they allow the sand to build up again.  Gradually the beach level becomes higher.  In stormy weather conditions, the sand is scoured and excavated back off.

ME:  Is Tongaporutu one of the most rapidly eroding coastlines in the country?

PETER:  To be honest I don’t know.  Given that the rocks are only moderately hard and that there is a prevailing wind facing this coastline where wave activity is quite severe, I would say it probably is.  There are other areas like Waihi beach and places where erosion of the shore is also a problem.  That tends to be more of a problem in areas where people and housing are concerned.  That is less of an issue here.

ME:  Does the Tongaporutu River have any influence?



Further titbits from conversations.  Peter said that the geological changes occurring over the Tongaporutu Coastline were happening over human lifetimes.  (Erosion).  He also said that the soils above the mudstones and sandstones were deposited from past Mt Taranaki, Pouakai and Kaitake eruptions.

The other geologists up at Tongaporutu at this time were:

Malcolm Arnott.  He was doing what they call a Post Doctoral Fellowship.  He has recently finished his Ph.D. and is on a two year Fellowship with GNS Science.  He was also looking at these rocks with a view to measuring some of their characteristics.  Specifically, computer modelling of the flow of fluids through these rocks, primarily for the oil industry.

Martin Crundwell.  Martin is a Palaeontologist.  He studies the micro-organisms in these rocks.

Kelly Booth.  He has worked in the petroleum industry in the past and is now working with GNS Science on computer applications and technical assistance.

Dr Peter King’s speciality.  He is a petroleum geologist and a sedimentary rock geologist.


11 October 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - tourists, Gibbs' Farm


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At 12.45 pm, the Gibbs were hosting a group of American Tour Wholesalers.  They were being treated to a BBQ, a horse trek to the Three Sisters and a look at the Te Horo Stock Tunnel at White Cliffs.  The object being to interest them in promoting tours to the Tongaporutu area in general and Whitecliffs Station in particular, to clients in the U.S. who were looking for the real Kiwi experience as opposed to mass market package tours.

The group arrived a little late from kayaking in the Mokau River.  The hot food included steak, lamb chops and whitebait fritters.  Drinks included fruit juice, some wine and coffee.

Some people recorded in my diary notes included Malcolm Arnott, a geologist from GNS Science, Lower Hutt, Alan Topia from Taranaki Outdoor Adventures, Brian Ramege, the horse owner, Moira Koch of Sport Taranaki, Irena Brooks of Destination Taranaki and Lisa from Sport Taranaki.  One of the Americans I spoke to was Ben Macrory of Absolute South Pacific.  He was based in New York.

After lunch, we all tipped down to the beach where I managed to get some record images of people on horseback.  Unfortunately the sky was rather bland so the photos weren’t great.

Later on at the Tonga Reserve, I spotted a young couple, Melanie and Bevan McNeil, preparing to do some whitebaiting.  One photo shows Melanie looking into a white plastic container with a few tiny fish in it, most of which weren’t true whitebait.


26 October 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Tongaporutu township



Just after crossing the Tongaporutu River Bridge, I turned up a sharp, steepish road that was on the immediate right hand side of the bridge.  From here I took a couple of photos of the Tongaporutu Village and also the baches on the seaward side of the bridge.


3 December 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - cows, Gibbs' farmland


Opposite the toilet on the Reserve, I couldn’t resist photographing some of the Gibbs’ Angus cattle that were parked up behind a gate.  A yellow warning sign about the pipeline was fastened to the gate.


20 December 2003  

Tongaporutu Coastline - the Tongaporutu baches


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A community meeting was due in the Tongaporutu Hall at 10.30 am re the Tongaporutu Reserve Management Plan Review.  I had planned to attend.  Before going to the hall, I noticed that the yellow pohutukawas were in flower, so I photographed one of them with a Tongaporutu Domain sign in front of it.  To its immediate right was an ugly bright red sign warning about electricity wires.  I then photographed a couple of the Tonga baches.

Shortly afterwards I went to the Tongaporutu Hall.  Inside it was like the black hole of Calcutta.  I bemoaned the lack of light.  A number of bench seats had been set up.  The stage area was closed off with two large, deep red velvet-like curtains.  And to the right was a humungous picture of the Three Sisters as they were.

I counted around 45 people there, including the Gibbs and the MacKenzies.  Councillor Sherril George was also there.  I recorded the meeting, including me discussing my Tongaporutu Project.  I also took a couple of photos.

Afterwards I took a couple more photos of the Tonga baches.

Lastly, I photographed the Gibbs family, minus two family members who weren’t there.



4 January 2004  

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I had planned to stay up at the Gibbs from the 4th until the 6th January.  Firstly in the little caravan on the cliff top above the Three Sisters Beach, then to move into the homestead the next day when it became vacant.

The caravan was a Bedford mobile caravan, painted green.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think to photograph it!  The windows were all open.  I checked out the bed over the driver’s seat.  The stove also seemed okay and the outside long drop dunny was fine too.  There was a large flashlight, a pack of cards and a loud tick tocking clock.  No tea-pot so I couldn’t make any cups of tea.  Would have to stick to drinking Ovaltine and water.  I picked out a huge mug that looked like a whirlpool, it being wider at the top than at the base.  It was decorated with a huge ladybird and a tiny bumblebee.  The shower was outside.

After lunch I drove back along the Gibbs’ farm track towards Clifton Road where the homestead was.  I took several photos in the area.  One photo I wanted to get was of the flamboyant pohutukawa next to the homestead’s garage, with the road leading towards White Cliffs.  Just as I was about to take the shot, a man with a screaming orange vest rode past on a bicycle.  Great, I thought.  “Snap.”

After this I concentrated on getting photos of the Tonga Bridge and the baches.  One of the photos across the bridge shows a road sign with some memorial flowers attached to its base.

At the end of the day, back at the caravan, the moon was up and the sky still clear.  I left some curtains open for the moonlight.  This was for getting up in the night to visit the outside dunny.  Then it was up the three stepped ladder to bed.  As it was warm, I tossed the duvet back and just covered myself with the sheet.  Sleep was slow to arrive.  It got cooler.  Had to get up numerous times and go to the dunny.  Sleep still didn’t arrive.  Too much visual excitement earlier.  The moon set (Monday am) before I could drag my carcass out of bad.  I must have fallen asleep for an hour.  Too tired to care.  My last trek to the dunny revealed fog.  Dawn wasn’t too far away.  It wasn’t black black dark.


5 January 2004

I hauled myself out of bed at 5.20 am.  Dawn was due at 6.04 am.  I’m not a crack of dawn person normally, but there are worthwhile exceptions such as this.

The car was blanketed with heavy dew as was the grass.  Apart from the sound of crisp waves marching towards the shore, silence reigned supreme.

Later on I developed a thumping headache.  After 12 noon I drove down to the homestead where I was to stay for the rest of my time up at Tongaporutu.  I went to bed in the afternoon, but when I got up at 4.15 pm, the headache was just as fierce.  Dehydration, sensory overload, bright, bright light and exhaustion from lack of sleep in cramming to make the most of the weather, were all factors that instigated my monster headache.


6 January 2004  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Tongaporutu baches


PHO2008-504, PHO2008-505, PHO2008-506

My main task today before heading home was to photograph the Tongaporutu village, the Tonga baches and the bridge.  Despite my headache, which though reduced in intensity, was still there, I managed to complete the photography.  Upon mowing the lawns after arriving home, my headache finally dissipated.


15 February 2004

SUPER-STORM EVENT.  Super-Storm One.  Parani Gibbs advised that the geologists, apart from Dr Peter King, whom I had caught up with in October of last year, were here on a field trip.  They were down at the Three Sisters Beach along with Russell.  Down on the beach, due to the weather, they were hunched up under the first arch.  I spoke to one of them re cliff photography.  He said that it had been done by fixed wing light plane and a helicopter in 1992 and 1995.  It had not been done in a continuous sequence from the beach from Rapanui down to White Cliffs.  Only the beach sections they had been working on had been documented.


7 April 2004

Just as I was about to drive up to the Gibbs from the Tonga Reserve, a flotilla of vehicles drove past.  They were from Piopio College according to the sign on one of the vans.  A bus also lumbered past.  There were obviously too many people to be staying at the Gibbs, so I assumed that they were going to ‘do’ the Walkway.  Parani Gibbs later confirmed that.


19 April 2004

While having lunch at the Tonga Reserve, I watched a family having a picnic down by the water.  It was school holidays.  Then I saw the old lady to whom I had spoken to and photographed in July 2001, come along on her mobility scooter.  (Dulcie Richards).  She had come to clean the toilet.  We had a little chat in which Dulcie disclosed that she would be 91 next month.  She then gave me a couple of apples she had in her basket.  These were from the apple tree that she had planted, along with other plants, in the vicinity of the little red fire shed.

Shortly afterwards, a van showed up.  Some people got out with fishing gear and headed off towards the Tonga River.


19 July 2004  

Tongaporutu Coastline - 'Impermanence' exhibition



THE TONGAPORUTU IMPERMANENCE EXHIBITION was held at the Puke Ariki Museum at the conclusion of my year long project documenting the changes on this fascinating coastline.  I subsequently decided to continue with the project, initially for another five years.  The Wall Gallery where part of my exhibition was displayed showed my sponsors and the first of the February 2004’s Super-Storm event.



21 August 2005  

Tongaporutu Coastline - the petroglyphs at Gibbs' Beach


I finally managed to get a good photograph of the Maori carvings.  For this type of interior photography you need several things to come together.  The time of the year, the time of day and a not too dense cloud layer to provide ‘fill’ light.  I also used my 135 mm macro telephoto lens.


30 November 2005

Just in front of the first arch, I saw a young man with a computer.  Perhaps he was from GNS Science.  I should have asked but didn’t.


11 December 2005  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Dulcie Richards' burnt bach


One of my priorities today was to photograph the remnants of Dulcie Richard’s bach.  This was destroyed by a fire on the 7th of this month.  This bach was the place she had called home for 52 years, so I particularly felt for her.  Apparently her washing machine had been the cause of the fire.

So intense had the fire been that the smell of it was still evident.  Contorted corrugated iron roofing lay in mute testament to the fire’s ferocity.  The pohutukawa on the seaward side had one side of it burnt as did the trees across the road.  The neighbouring bach on the bridge side of Dulcie’s bach had been badly damaged on one side.  The right hand bach, being slightly further away was unscathed.



1 January 2006

Down at the barn above the beach, a couple were parked up in their campervan.  Not the best weather I thought, thanks to the ferocious wind.  Down on the beach, it was extremely unpleasant.  I wore my sunglasses to protect against the wind whipped sand.

As I walked towards Elephant Rock, I joined up with a couple, their two sons and their Jack Russell terrier.  They kept chucking it a blue ball to play with.  Under normal circumstances I would have photographed the family for added interest, but the conditions were too prohibitive.


15 January 2006  


Near the Three Sisters, numerous trails of surf bubbles were left stranded on the beach after each outgoing wave.  The bubbles were lit up with the colours of the rainbow.  Beautiful but fleeting.  I grabbed the camera with the 55 mm wide angle lens on and took a quick hand-held grab shot.  I then changed my roll of film and changed the lens to a 105 mm one.  I set the camera up on the tripod and obtained a couple more shots before the bubbles dissolved away.  As I looked through the viewfinder, I saw myself and the tripod reflected in each bubble.  We were in silhouette.

Shortly after, four youths came past.  They asked if the tide was still going out.  I thought how stupid to be here with no idea of the tide state.  No wonder people drown, especially on dangerous coasts like this one.  Still, I should give them some credit for asking.


30 January 2006

I was up at Tonga for a film being produced by Sticky Pictures for the upcoming Earth, Wind and Fire Exhibition at Te Papa Museum in Wellington.  (This is detailed under the Four Brothers Beach).


1 March 2006

After finishing for the day, my legs like lead balloons by now, I approached Mammoth Rock.  As I did so, an old man and his dog walked towards me.  We had a chat about the beach and the changes.  He had seen changes over 70 years and said that the cave with the Maori carvings had been much larger, as had the Little Sister.  She had been as big as the other two Sisters.  Eventually I got too cold standing there and had to move on.  Before we parted company however, he showed me a dead seal close to Mammoth Rock.

Unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the man’s name.


30 March 2006  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


A very low 0.1m tide coupled with very calm conditions gave me access to the Little Sister.  The photo here shows the shadow of me and my tripod, also the top of the Little Sister.  I sometimes do this sort of photography for scale purposes.


17 July 2006  


This photo shows Dulcie Richard’s new bach being built.  It replaces her original bach which burnt down on the 7th December 2005.   It has been painted blue, similar to her old bach.


30 September 2006  


The Gibbs family, including their new twins.  Sadly, one of the twins died of cot death about a month after this photo was taken.




15 July 2007  

Tongaporutu Coastline - rock strata


At the recently destroyed Maori cave carvings sited at the rear of the Three Sisters, the cliff hadn’t collapsed;  rather, part of the inner cave wall where the carvings had been, had been preferentially carved out by waves.  These storm waves had been produced by recent weather events.


23 December 2007  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


I had almost finished for the day and had one frame left on my roll of film.  I used it to photograph the Two Sisters with a man situated between them.  Afterwards, when I walked past, he was with a small group of people, along with a Labrador dog.  He was fishing.  We nodded to each other, and then I was done for the day.



6 April 2008

I saw a man near Elephant Rock.  He appeared to be collecting some mussels.  They were on some exposed rock shelves at the wave-line.


18 August 2008  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


Near Mammoth Rock I spotted a fellow photographer.  As I had ‘workies’ to do, I thought if he was still around, I would catch up with him later.  This I duly did.  I discovered that he was using a Pentax 6x7 film camera, the same as me!  He preferred to use film and hadn’t yet tried digital.  He had wondered why I was photographing the dunes and cliff.  I briefly told him about the Tonga Project, that I was documenting the changes that were occurring.  He countered that it had been a while since his last visit and the rocks (Pilot Point) weren’t there last time.  I asked his name for my records.  He said he was Alex Dodwell or something like that.


28 September 2008  

Tongaporutu Coastline - cliff sequencing, Mammoth Rock


While taking a series of photos from above the Three Sisters Beach, two people emerged from the seaward side of Mammoth Rock.  Shortly afterwards, I saw three people on the beach.  One of them, a young chap, stopped for a chat.  He was on a visitor’s visa for a year.  I told him about my Tonga Project.  He thought it was great.  He added that they’d been down at Picton but had gotten bored and wanted to see more of the country.  He thought it was very dynamic here.

Later on, as I was about to take a photo of Elephant Rock and the scoured out beach leading up to it, a helicopter whap whapped by overhead.  I waited for it to be out of the shot.  As the sea was impatient to reclaim her territory, I quickly grabbed the photo and retreated back to the cliff base.

After I’d finished, an Asian woman came along.  We got chatting.  She thought I had assumed that she was Japanese because of the camera.  She was in fact Malaysian and had been here for 20 years!  We subsequently joked about these misconceptions.  I took a photo of her with her own camera that included the Three Sisters with Mt Egmont in the background.  She initially didn’t want her photo taken, but I said that her family might like it.  She replied she hadn’t thought of it like that and agreed to have her photo taken.  After that we parted company.


12 November 2008  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach 


While cliff sequencing at Rapanui South Beach, I spotted a massive cliff collapse over on the Three Sisters Beach.  After finishing the cliff sequencing, I accessed the Three Sisters Beach to record the event.  I spotted three surfers way out at the surf line, plus their towels on the beach.

After I had photographed the seaward side of the massive cliff section collapse, I went around to the Three Sisters Cave for a round the back view looking north.  As I set up, a helicopter whizzed past.  It banked and flew around several times while I was photographing the newly forming Sister.

A little later on, the three male teenage surfers came part-way towards me, and then stopped.  One of them was one of the Gibbs’ boys.  He said that they’d been down here two days ago and this hadn’t occurred then, so I was spot on in my estimation of the collapse being no more than 48 hours old.


23 November 2008  

 Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Cave, Three Sisters Beach


PHO2011-1407, PHO2008-1423

Near the first arch, I saw a woman with two tiny dogs.  I took a photo to give a human scale to the badly scarred cliffs and sand cliffs to her rear and left.  It is a case though of ‘spot the person’.  After this I saw a man come into view.  Another slightly bigger dog was with him.  Later on I managed to include two people in a photo showing the cliff section collapse.  Quite a few people were on the beach.  They had probably come to have a look at the cliff collapse and the New Sister after having seen the small piece in the paper about it.


14 December 2008  

Tongaporutu Coastline - cliff sequencing, Three Sisters Beach


PHO2011-1428, PHO2011-1434PHO2011-1469

Cliff Sequencing.  There were a number of people present on the beach.  People are always useful for scale.  PHO2011-1469 features Helen Wilkin, a fellow photographer.



11 January 2009  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach



There were quite a few people down on the beach.  Some had dogs, while others were kayaking, fishing or surfing.  There was also a bright red inflatable dinghy with a Yamaha outboard motor on it.  This was located near the Tonga River mouth.  The public’s presence was probably due to a combination of good weather and the school holidays, also the article in the paper re the Three Sisters.


8 February 2009  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Sticky Pictures filming day 


PHO2011-1559, PHO2008-1561, PHO2008-1562, PHO2008-1563, PHO2008-1564

I visited the Gibbs family to re-do their family photo.  I do this on a five yearly basis.  Not all of the family members were present.

After photographing the three farming families, I popped back to the Tonga Reserve to photograph the Tonga dunny and the vehicles that were parked up there.  After that I just photographed what appealed to me at the time re the Tonga baches.

Later on, down on the Three Sisters Beach, I saw several people surfcasting.


11 March 2009

I had to go up to Tonga to deliver all of the family photos I had taken on the 8th of last month.  First up was the Gibbs.  Later, I hoped to access the Three Sisters Beach and the Four Brothers Beach as there was a very low tide.  However, due to the stormy conditions, I didn’t think this might occur.  In fact, if I hadn’t arranged to go up and deliver the photos, I wouldn’t have gone up because it was so windy.  Being blasted by wind whipped sand is not my idea of fun, nor is it greatsville for the camera.


12 April 2009

I had brought up Adam Buckle’s Fuji GX617 technorama (panoramic) large format camera.  It uses the same 120 roll film as my Pentax 6x7 medium format camera.  Adam had lent me his camera for a try out.  Unbeknown to me at the time, it utilizes a filter that balances exposure across the length of the panoramic image. 

Accordingly, all of the resultant panoramic images were at least 1 full stop under-exposed.  One of the images showed some people surfcasting.  There were quite a few people up there as it was a public holiday.  Though this particular photo could possibly have been ‘rescued’ via Photoshop, I decided to scrub it.


25 May 2009  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


I spotted a couple of people on the beach.  I had hoped that it would be empty.  Usually I’m happy to have ‘bodies’ about, but bodies plonk unwelcome footprints in the sand.  I want my cake and to eat it apparently!

Anyway, I found out later on from Adam Buckle that the sand from the Tonga Reserve towards Mammoth Rock had built up so much that you could shove a push chair along it and not sink knee deep into mud.  This probably explains the upsurge in people during the past few months.  Easier access.  I mostly the beach via Gibbs’ farm track.  This is greatly appreciated as it buys me more precious time.

At the Three Sisters Cave, I spotted two people sitting well inside it.  I beckoned for them to come out.  As they could speak reasonable English, I explained just how dangerous these sea caves were.  We had a little chat, and then parted company for a short while.

I met up with them again at the site of a massive cliff collapse to the rear of Elephant Rock.  I asked them if they could pose for me near the cliff collapse to give scale.  I assured them that it was safe for the time being.  The lady was Zheng Xiu Feng and the man was Zhou Pei Ao.  I got them to write their names down in my photo notepad for spelling accuracy.  We chatted a bit more then I changed my roll of film.


2 August 2009

I had gone up to Tonga to photograph the Gibbs family at their whare down near the barn above the beach.  This photography was for the family only and not for the project.  Afterwards, I tipped down to the beach so that I could finish off my roll of film.  I just wanted to record the expanding gap between Mammoth Rock and the dune.

There were two groups of people on the beach.  A dog was with one group.


22 August 2009  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


Several people were on the beach, including a woman with her two kids who were playing.


6 September 2009  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


I hadn’t planned on coming up to Tonga today, but I wanted to drop off the Gibbs’ photos and to try and take some better images of the Middle Sister.  I brought up my digital camera and the panoramic camera and left the Pentax 6x7 at home.

At the Gibbs, after I had given Parani the photos, one of their roosters and a chook wandered into their conservatory to say “Hello”.  One of Parani’s daughters then came in and said that the sea was stained with soil runoff.  From this I knew there had been a cliff collapse somewhere.

Down at the Tonga Reserve where the dunny is, I left the panoramic camera in the car’s boot, taking only the digital camera.  I had planned to access the beach via the public route which passed close to the cliff bordering the Tonga River.  As such I didn’t want to be humping my big tripod or heavy gear.

As I threaded my way along the base of the cliff, heading towards Mammoth Rock, a few other people were doing the same.  The river, though flowing towards Pilot Point, was still hard over on this southern slde of the estuary, not far from the Reserve.  At one point I had to take off my gumboots and hobble over some stones.  The river water that covered them was freezing.  Up on the other side, a young couple both slipped over on the slippery wet smoothed rock.  I very carefully followed them, not wishing to endure the same fate and risk swamping my backpack with water.

The photo shows the Gibbs farm above the dune coastal forest.


19 September 2009  

porutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach



Heading down towards the Gibbs’ barn above the Three Sisters beach, I slowly passed a cow that was giving birth.  The calf was part way out and still in its translucent sac.  This part of the track was narrow and fenced off at both ends.  It was being used as a birthing place.  Once the calves were born, mum and bubby were then transferred to the larger paddock next door.

Russell and another man drove out of the paddock.  We said hello.  Then, a large campervan came down and parked next to me.  It was school holidays next week.

After lunch, I went along to a cliff top overlook above the Three Sisters.  This was the site of the massive cliff section collapse that I had observed on 12.11.2008.  After taking several photos with the digital camera, I had a short chat with Victor Gibbs who was renewing some of the fencing there.  We discussed the dune area.  He said that the sand/land bridge that had connected the dune to Mammoth Rock had been breached on several occasions in the past, but that it had never gone back as far as it was currently.

Down on the beach I spotted a dead penguin at the gap.  Then a couple came down from the same track I had used.  They were from the campervan up top.  She was Jackie Vickers and presumably the man whose name I didn’t ask, was her husband or partner.  I asked them to pose next to the ravaged dune bank for scale.  I also included the dead penguin.

Later on I took a photo with the Pentax 6x7 film camera of two people walking past the dune on the seaward side of it.


15 November 2009  


Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach



Rain was forecast for the afternoon with a north-westerly wind.  Normally I wouldn’t go up to Tonga under such conditions, but I’d arranged to take members of the Taranaki Geological Society on a guided tour of the Three Sisters beach and possibly the Four Brothers beach.  We had been limited to a Sunday and a relatively low tide.

Upon arrival at Tonga the weather was crap.  Unsurprisingly, only three people turned up.  They were Pam Murdoch, Dawn Bowen and Mark Robbins.  We parked up next to the Gibbs’ barn and headed down the track to the beach.  Despite the conditions, we all made the most of our time there.  At the cliff collapse site to the rear of Elephant Rock, I got Mark to pose near to a small arch that was in the process of being carved out.  It was good having compliant people at hand that I could pose next to important features for scale.

NOTE:  The Taranaki Daily News published a photo of mine of all Four Sisters, along with a small write-up on the 17th November.  It appeared on page three.  I also resolved to do a return trip either in March or April when the weather is usually more settled.  And when more members would be likely to attend.



16 January 2010  

aporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


Some of the Gibbs’ boys were on the beach, along with a friend.  They were surfing.  Shortly afterwards when the boys came ashore, I asked Jessie Gibbs if he would stand at the base of the sand cliff on the seaward side of the dune for scale.


30 January 2010  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach



After I had finished on the Four Brothers beach, I returned to the Three Sisters beach.  By now the tide was very low.  A 0.2m low tide was due at 5.05 pm.  There were quite a few people around, some with dogs.  Some of the people were gathering mussels that had been exposed on some low lying reefs near the Little Sister.


28 March 2010  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Three Sisters Beach


I had arranged to re-do the Tongaporutu field trip for members of the Taranaki Geological Society as the one held on 15.11.2009 had been accompanied by wind and rain.  Only three people had braved the conditions back then.  Today, eight people turned up.  I had hoped that Jackie Pole-Smith’s son, Sam and his dad would come, but apparently Sam had cricket practice.  That was a shame because ultimately he missed out on a valuable learning experience.  You can play cricket anytime, but trips up to this volatile coastline are at the Tasman Sea’s discretion.  Also, we were able to access Cathedral Cave on the Four Brothers beach, something that as of the 9th January 2011, too dangerous due to unstable cliff conditions at the cave’s entrance.  I observed a cliff collapse there on 6.11.2010.  It was most likely instigated by the mega-storm that I recorded on 18.9.2009.

I had only brought up my digital camera because it would be unrealistic to hump my big camera and tripod while leading my tour group.  Also, their safety and enjoyment was my primary concern.

I gave my take on cliff collapses, caves, rock platforms, etc.  As the conditions were really great, coupled with a 0.3m low tide that was due at 3.20 pm and a good beach state, we were easily able to pass beyond the Point and access the Four Brothers Beach.

When we returned to the Three Sisters beach, the group went on ahead of me while I took some photos.


31 March 2010

I returned to Tonga again, more quickly than usual, to take advantage of the very low tide with my panoramic camera.  After I had finished on the Four Brothers beach, I returned to the Three Sisters beach to photograph the Sisters looking south towards White Cliffs and Mt Egmont.  While waiting for the light, Stephen MacKenzie roared up on his trail bike.  He had tried to get around the Gibb’s Fishing Point but had left it too late.  I told him that I’d managed to get around it for the first time ever.  He said that he had ridden his motorcycle right down to Pukearuhe, beyond White Cliffs.  He then added that he’d only gotten past all of the bluffs once, and that was about 25 years ago!

Shortly afterwards while I was still waiting for the evening light to be right, a woman who was visiting from overseas, came up to me.  She asked if I knew somewhere she could stay for the night.  By now it was after 6 pm!  I mentioned the Gibbs’, but I don’t think she could afford to, or want to, pay much for accommodation.  Ultimately, I don’t know where she ended up.

Finally, I took my photo.  It turned out great, except that it wasn’t sharp!  Damn!  I hadn’t had a good day with the panoramic camera, managing to make a number of stuff-ups.  Despite that, the photos that I absolutely needed to be right came out okay.  (Those on the seaward side of Gibbs’ Fishing Point).


29 April 2010

Enroute to White Cliffs, I dropped off a canvas photo of the Old Man Puriri that I had taken on the 11th to the Gibbs.  It was just a small ‘thank you’ for the access that they give me over their farm, particularly down to the Three Sisters beach.


11 July 2010  

Tongaporutu Coastline - Tongaporutu baches


In response to the brilliant weather conditions for this time of the year, I headed up to Tonga.  First up, I wanted to re-photograph the baches from my ‘secret’ viewpoint.  I had first photographed them from this particular spot on 6.1.2004.  This time, unlike back then when I had to take two overlapping images, I had a panoramic camera, so could get everything into the single frame.  A bonus was with the river being low and calm, some of the baches reflected nicely in the water.  The only minus point was later, when I had the film developed, the photo was around ½ stop under-exposed.  However, it wasn’t an ‘end of the world’ disaster as it can be rectified once scanned and converted to digital.

Later in the afternoon, a number of people were on the Three Sisters beach.  One group had a dog with them.  They were like me, enjoying the fantastic weather and beach conditions.  On days like this it is a joy to be alive.

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