THE SANDS OF TIME

As he walks the south­ern dunes, beach­comber Lloyd Esler finds his­tory un­furl­ing at his feet.

North & South - - In This Issue - PHIL MCCARTHY

Beach­comber Les­ley Esler finds his­tory at his feet.

In­ver­cargill teacher, au­thor, guide and city coun­cil­lor Lloyd Esler has been wan­der­ing the raw south­ern coast­line for 28 years.

The wild ex­panses of Oreti Beach, on the ocean side of the Sandy Point penin­sula, are ever- chang­ing. At the beach's south­ern end, the dune face has eroded by about 100m af­ter a sig­nif­i­cant storm two years ago. Across the es­tu­ary mouth lies the small set­tle­ment of Omaui, where a fresh­wa­ter la­goon has formed.

“I don't like to call it dam­age as it's a nat­u­ral process,” says Esler, 59.

He sees the trans­for­ma­tions more as a prod­uct of shift­ing cur­rents, storms and the in­her­ent in­sta­bil­ity in the soft shore­line than a sign of cli­mate change. And as the dunes re­cede, they're re­veal­ing sea de­bris – snap­shots of a re­verse time­line, be­gin­ning with the in­ven­tion and rapid dis­per­sal of plas­tics, in­clud­ing dis­tinc­tive squid lures from the 1970s. Pu­mice from a 1964 vol­canic erup­tion in South Georgia, and frag­ments of ship­wrecks and square glass gin bot­tles dat­ing back to the 19th cen­tury have also been ex­posed.

As the dunes on the main part of the beach re­treat, a 100m sand and rub­bish bulge is form­ing on the es­tu­ary shore. De­bris that tra­di­tion­ally washed up on Oreti Beach is now swept around the cor­ner to the south where the new dune sys­tem, mostly com­posed of plas­tic and other rub­bish, is bed­ding in.

“It's un­for­tu­nate for the beach­combers out on Oreti Beach,” says Esler. “There's less stuff to find. Peo­ple go out there look­ing for am­ber­gris, but it's been years since I've found any there.”

How­ever, habi­tats are adapt­able, as shell­fish get scoured out and re­set­tle. He cites the ex­am­ple of post- earth­quake Kaik­oura, where marine species are likely to re­colonise the newly re­shaped coast­line within 12 months.

One of Esler's more in­trigu­ing ideas is that the prized and scarce South­land del­i­cacy to­heroa are not na­tive in­hab­i­tants of the area: the shift­ing sands show no signs of the shell­fish be­yond the past 100 years. “I've got a the­ory that to­heroa were brought here and seeded, be­cause they're not show­ing up in mid­den and old dunes.”

He mourns the loss of the na­tive coastal sedge, pin­gao, which has been wiped out by ag­gres­sive mar­ram grass at the mouth of the Oreti River. “We've lost the en­tire na­tive dune sys­tem.”

The sparsely pop­u­lated coast­line is Esler's place to es­cape from a busy sched­ule of part-time teach­ing (mostly “science stuff” around South­land pri­mary schools), coun­cil busi­ness and tour guid­ing for US com­pa­nies look­ing for some­one with good lo­cal knowl­edge. Tour groups in the past have in­cluded re­tired ad­mi­rals, se­na­tors and pro­fes­sors whom he ac­com­pa­nies on ed­u­ca­tional two-week jour­neys around the South Is­land.

Esler has au­thored books on In­ver­cargill, the story of flax in New Zealand, and the che­quered his­tory of rab­bits and pos­sums here. For his next project, he's gath­er­ing ma­te­rial on the oys­ter in­dus­try and Foveaux Strait.

“I love be­ing knee- deep in salt wa­ter,” he says, stop­ping to pick up rub­bish as he walks along the beach. “The coast is al­ways chang­ing, so there's al­ways some­thing dif­fer­ent to see.”

”I love be­ing knee-deep in salt wa­ter. There’s al­ways some­thing dif­fer­ent to see.”

Left: Lloyd Esler ex­plores Oreti Beach.

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