The Luminaries

Did you know that there was a gold rush in the West Coast Region of New Zealand’s South Island in the nineteenth century?

Neither did I.


Anna Wetherell’s first glimpse of New Zealand was of the rocky heads of the Otago peninsula: mottled cliffs that dropped sharply into the white foam of the water, and above them, a rumpled cloak of grasses, raked by the wind. It was just past dawn. A pale fog was rising from the ocean, obscuring the far end of the harbour, where the hills became blue, and then purple, as the inlet narrowed, and closed to a point. The sun was still low in the East, throwing a slick of yellow light over the water, and lending an orange tint to the rocks on the Western shore. The city of Dunedin was not yet visible, tucked as it was behind the elbow of the harbour, and there were no dwellings or livestock on this stretch of coastline; Anna’s first impression was of a lonely throat of water, a clear sky, and a rugged land untouched by human life or industry.

The first sighting had occurred in the grey hours that preceded the dawn, and so Anna had not witnessed the smudge on the horizon growing and thickening to form the contour of the peninsula, as the steamer came nearer and nearer to the coast. She had been woken, some hours later, by a strange cacophony of unfamiliar birdcalls, from which she deduced, rightly, that they must be nearing land at last. She eased herself from her berth, taking care not to wake the other women, and fixed her hair and stockings in the dark. By the time she came up the iron ladder to the deck, wrapping her shawl about her shoulders, the Fortunate Wind was rounding the outer heads of the harbour, and the peninsula was all around her-the relief sudden and impossible, after long weeks at sea.

‘Magnificent, aren’t they?’

Anna turned. A fair-haired boy in a felt cap was leaning against the portside rail. He gestured to the cliffs, and Anna saw the birds whose rancorous call had roused her from her slumber: they hung in a cloud about the cliff-face, wheeling, turning, and catching the light. She came forward to the rail. They looked to her like very large gulls, their wings black on the tops, and white beneath, their heads perfectly white, their beaks stout and pale. As she watched, one made a low pass in front of the boat, its wingtip skimming the surface of the water.

‘Beautiful,’ she said. ‘Are they petrels-or gannets, maybe?’

‘They’re albatrosses!’ The boy was beaming. ‘They’re real albatrosses! Just wait till this fellow comes back. He will, in a moment; he’s been circling the ship for some time. Good Lord, what a feeling that must be-to fly! Can you imagine it?’

Anna smiled. She watched as the albatross glided away from them, turned, and began climbing on the wind.

‘They’re terrifically good luck, albatrosses,’ the boy was saying. ‘And they’re the most incredible fliers. One hears stories of them following ships for months and months, and through all manner of weather-halfway around the world, sometimes. Lord only knows where these ones have been-and what they’ve witnessed, for that matter.’

When it turned on its side it became almost invisible. A needle of white, pale against the sky.

From The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton