West Coast Towns
By Paul Murray
Way up north as far as you can drive; you’ll arrive at the warmest, driest place on the wonderful West Coast. Karamea has a great climate year round and the drive from Westport is spectacular, so take your time, stop often and enjoy the many interesting spots along the way. Nestled between the densely forested mountains of the Kahurangi National Park and the Tasman Sea, Karamea is a geographical island paradise, connected to the rest of New Zealand by the stunningly scenic 100-kilometre “bridge” road north of Westport.
The road to Karamea is one of the most beautiful drives in the world and affords stunning views of the Tasman coast, river valleys, verdant forest and jagged mountain ranges. The journey takes you along the coast through the charming seaside villages of Granity, Ngakawau and Hector and across the Mohikuniui River before heading into the mountains of the Kahurangi National Park, you'll pass ancient tree giants, beneath majestic tree ferns and go high over the Karamea Bluff before dropping into the broad alluvial coastal plain at Little Wanganui. You'll pass happily grazing dairy herds on lush green pasture, the expansive Otumahana Lagoon and over the mighty Karamea River before arriving in the beautiful hamlet of Karamea...getting there is just the beginning of your adventure.
In Karamea, you’ll find the largest limestone arch in the Southern Hemisphere, limestone caves with glow worms and the bones of a giant moa, rushing rivers to raft, forests to explore, mountains to climb and beaches to roam…Karamea is often referred to at the West Coast’s “best kept secret.”
Westport is the gateway to the Northern West Coast. It is at the end of the Lewis Pass road from Christchurch, which enters the West Coast region at Maruia Springs…you’ll know you’re entering the West Coast when the forest starts to thicken, the mountains become more majestic, the air gets fresher and the climate improves. Westport is right on the coast and is a great base exploring the region’s many attractions. There are adventure activities like jet boating, rafting, caving and horse trekking, as well as coal mine tours, the Coal Town museum and much more to do in Westport. The smart traveller will turn north and head up to Karamea after exploring Westport region and visit the quaint coastal towns of Granity, Hector, Ngakawa, Mokihinui and Seddonville before heading over the spectacular bluff road through the Kahurangi National Park to Karamea.
To the south lies Cape Foulwind. Ship captains, who found it difficult to fill their sails due to lack of breeze, rather than the evil aroma the name suggests, named the cape.
Situated equidistant between Punakaiki and Westport, this quaint little town once boasted 94 hotels, was home to 18,000 people and was considered as a possible location for the capital city of New Zealand. The town boomed on the back of the gold rush and from 1866 to 1884 it was perhaps the most happening place in New Zealand. Only one of the many gold mines that used to operate in the area is still working and guided tours of the Mitchell’s Gully Gold Mine workings includes a working a battery stamper powered by a water wheel that pulverises gold-bearing quartz rock to release its riches.
The Underworld Adventures company operates out of Charleston and conducts a range of limestone cave and underworld rafting guided tours in the Paparoa National Park. Educational, exciting and fabulous fun, the company’s tours are great value and begin with a little train ride through stunning rainforest and beneath towering limestone cliffs.
Ingenious feat of engineering excellence, the Denniston incline was the steepest railway ever built and it was powered by gravity. The weight of a laden coal truck being lowered to the rail yard at Waimangaroa was used to lift goods and people in empty coal buckets to the top of the hill. The brakeman, who applied friction to the cable at the Denniston summit, controlled the speed of the bucket. The experience of riding to the top of the mountain in a coal bucket at the mercy of the brakeman was apparently so harrowing that some of the women who successfully completed the journey never again left the mountain such was their terror at the mere thought of again having to take the fearful ride.
Reefton is considered the gateway to the West Coast for travellers from the east. The region is all about history. Built on gold, the town dates back to the 1860s and retains much of its old-world charm today. The main street of the town has a Western movie set feel and many of the buildings lining Broadway Street date back to the 1870s. Reefton was the first town in New Zealand to have electric lighting, which was switched on in 1888, just six years after Thomas Edison’s technology first lit the streets of New York.
Coal mining supported the region in the 1900s and these days, gold and coal mining remain the community’s economic foundation. The historically high gold price of late has boosted the local economy and given the region a surge of development and much of the town has been renovated to retain its historic appeal. The drive between Reefton and Westport along the Buller Gorge is enchanting; there are many places to pull over, stop and breath in the scenic splendour of the raging Buller River and the giant white clouds that rise from the steep forested valley.
The vibrant town of Hokitika is perhaps the most artistic and creative urban centre on the West Coast. Artisans work with local materials; gold, silver, pounamu greenstone, driftwood, paua shell and stone to create a tremendous array of fine art pieces, jewellery and sculpture that make for excellent souvenirs as you’ll be taking home a piece of the West Coast lovingly fashioned into an original work of art by a Coaster.
A good starting point would be the stately Carnegie Building, which houses the West Coast Historical Museum and the information centre. The museum has an exceptional collection of both Maori and European artefacts, a documentary video display of the region’s history and a gallery of local painting and sculpture. Another attraction for visitors is the Saturday outdoor market on the bank of the Hokitika River. The market showcases the talents of local artists and craftspeople and fresh produce is also sold. Hokitika is an excellent base for exploring the area and a visit to Hokitika Gorge, Lake Kaniere, the Ross goldfields and Kumara regions will be highly rewarding.
Hokitika Cemetery is also a very interesting place to visit as it has the graves of South Westland explorer and philosopher Charles Douglas, as well as that of Eric Stanley Graham, the West Coast’s most infamous mass murderer. Graham, a dairy farmer, ran amok in 1941, fatally shooting seven men, four of which were policemen. Graham was wounded and later died of his injuries and was later buried in a nondescript grave at Hokitika Cemetery in a row of graves that includes two of his victims. A monument recalling the tragic incident now stands at Kowhitirangi and can be seen on the road to Hokitika Gorge.
Among the many gravestones, people from the world over are represented; some of the headstones are in Hebrew, Chinese and other languages and the many New Zealand soldiers lost in the Boer, Vietnam and both World Wars reflect the great sacrifice made by New Zealand in the service of her allies. The cemetery looks out over the Tasman Sea and is a very interesting place to stroll around and reflect on yesteryear.
The National Kiwi Centre has live kiwi, tuatara and giant eels on display and you can carve your own greenstone pendant at Bonz n Stonz, or take a leisurely cruise on calm waters through virgin rainforest on a paddleboat…Hokitika has a plethora of sightseeing and all-weather activities for the whole family.
It was here that the largest gold nugget in New Zealand was found in 1909. The “Honourable Roddy Nugget” was as big as a man’s fist and weighed 99 ounces. It was purchased by the N.Z. government and presented to King George V as a coronation gift. A 1950 enquiry about the whereabouts of the nugget to the Royal Family resulted in the embarrassed Imperial Household reporting that the nugget had been melted down to gild a Royal tea service! (Further discomfiture ensued when the said tea service could not be located).
(There is some conjecture over the nugget’s origin. Some consider the “Honourable Roddy” was in fact found in Australia and smuggled to New Zealand by dishonourable diggers and planted at Ross to fraudulently inflate the sale price of their gold claim).
The land beneath the township of Ross has never been mined and a Ministry of Commerce geologist estimated in 1993 that gold deposits of about $700 million lie under the town.
The loop walkway around the pancake rocks at Punakaiki is one of the most popular tourist spots on the West Coast. An easily accessible walkway that is wheelchair friendly winds through the nikau palms, cabbage trees and flax to a spectacular layered limestone formation that has been shaped by the elements and crashing waves from the Tasman Sea. At hight tide in a big sea, the waves crashing into the limestone force water into cracks and crevasses and up through blowholes in the rock to create huge plumes of salty spray in which rainbows can often be seen. People of all ages will enjoy this walk and the stunning coastal views.
Opposite the entrance to the blowhole loop track is Punakaiki Crafts, a West Coast artist’s cooperative. Punakaiki Crafts has an international reputation for excellence and the work many of the Coast’s most creative artists and craftspeople is available for sale. From warm possum skin lingerie, creative and unique Coast jewellery to smiling driftwood fish, Punakaiki Crafts is a great place to pick up a quality souvenir from the West Coast.
There are also some great tramps in the Punakaiki area from the sedate Truman Track, which meanders through the rainforest to a stunning coastal view, to the more challenging Inland Pack Track into the heart of limestone country. The Pororari and Punakaiki rivers offer fabulous canoeing, safe swimming and bird watching activities and there are also many caves in the region and horse riding along the beach is the embodiment of freedom.
Between Punakaiki and Greymouth, Barrytown is situated on an expansive fertile plain between mountains and sea and is a perfect location for an extended “away from it all” break. The area has many retreat-type accommodation facilities suitable for families or for a romantic escape.
Right in the heart of Arthur’s Pass National Park, this idyllic alpine village is a warm and cosy base for mountaineers, alpinists and nature lovers to explore the peaks and valleys, forests, waterfalls, rivers and snowfields in close proximity to the town. Inquisitive Kea, a native alpine parrot, can be seen in and around the village. Prone to mischief, kea are extremely curious and playful, they pose for photographs and sometimes try to dismantle your car with their sharp beaks and strong talons. They have been known to open unattended packs to sample hiker’s lunches and souvenir tourist’s cameras and flown off with them into the forest.
This fabulous old pub was once a coach stop between the Canterbury and the West Coast. It is still a great location to break up the drive in either direction, and an excellent place for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Down the road is probably the best camper van facility in New Zealand. Jacksons Retreat has all-weather camping facilities and a great view of the Taramakau River and the mountains around Lake Brunner.
Otira was once a busy town that serviced construction gangs working on the 8-kilometre Otira tunnel, which opened in 1923 and enabled rail transport between Christchurch and Greymouth. It flourished as a rail town until road transport and buses took over much of the freight and people transport in New Zealand and gradually became a ghost town on the way to Greymouth. The town’s raison de’etre ceased to exist, employment opportunities faded, the people moved on and eventually, all the houses stood empty and the businesses closed. However, the entire town—the pub, 17 houses, the fire station and engine, the swimming pool, school, railway station and community hall--was purchased in 1997 by entrepreneurs Chris and Bill Hennah for the princely sum of $78,000. In the past decade, they have been working hard to restore the town’s infrastructure and rebuild the services and facilities it once offered.
Otira is a very interesting place to stop and have a break and it is also possible to stay at the historic hotel, in one of the renovated houses, or the backpackers there to explore the town and the many walking tracks in the area.
As the commercial hub of the West Coast, Greymouth is centrally located and is the Coast’s largest town. All roads lead to Greymouth as well as the scenic Tranz Alpine train line, which terminates in Greymouth after traversing the Southern Alps on its way west from Christchurch. The town is replete with fine restaurants, museums, art galleries, amenities, facilities and services you would expect from a major urban centre. A number of sport fishing charter boats operate out of Greymouth between July to September and some record blue fin tuna have been caught off the Coast recently. Greymouth is also home to the famous Monteith’s Brewery and tours of the facility and beer tasting is a great activity in any weather (sorry kids, this one is for mum and dad only).
Across the Grey River is the suburb of Cobden, which has some marvellous day walks along driftwood-strewn pebble beaches and along the Tasman coast.
From Greymouth on most days, a clear view of the large looming Southern Alps suggests much awaits the traveller heading south. Greymouth represents a botanical turning point and the forest changes from nikau palm groves, pohutukawa and other more tropical trees fade out and are replaced by more cold-tolerant varieties such as rimu, kahikatea and beech forests.
Home of the N.Z. Labour Party, Blackball was the site of a miners strike in 1908 when the miners downed tools seeking a 15 minute extension to their lunch 15-minute lunch break. The successful strike paved the way for similar action by miners across the country and from it workers nationwide were empowered. The town is on a plateau with views of the peaks of the Paparoa Range. The many walks in this region are centred on the remnants of the region’s gold and coal mining history.
“Formerly the Blackball Hilton” a historic hotel in Blackball, was formerly called the “Blackball Hilton.” However, a sternly worded letter from lawyers representing the Hilton family suggested that legal action would be taken against the owners of the old pub if they didn’t change the name of the establishment. Not wishing to enter into a protracted legal challenge with such a deep-pocketed opponent the publicans duly changed the name.
New Zealand’s premier historic attraction. This replica township has been constructed from buildings from round the West Coast and recreates the atmosphere and style of a West Coast boomtown. Shantytown has working stores in the style of the late 1800’s as well as a steam train, sawmill, goldfields, water races, a shebeen, a hospital, bank, jail, gold panning activities, a Chinese mining settlement and a fabulous display of relics and artefacts from the heady days of the Gold Rush.
A raft of aquatic activities await you at Lake Brunner as well as numerous scenic and historic bushwalks around the lake that take in the region’s gold mining and timber milling history. One of the best trout fishing locations in New Zealand with year-round fishing possibilities, local fishing guides, tackle and bait supplies and plenty of fishing stories at the Moana Hotel in Moana, the main township on the lake. Lake Brunner is a fabulous location for a family holiday ands is one of the West Coast’s fastest growing tourist destinations. The Tranz Alpine train stops at Moana and it is possible to disembark here and enjoy the lake for a few days before heading on to Greymouth and beyond.
On the way to Lake Brunner from Greymouth a detour to the Jack’s Mill School historic reserve is very rewarding. The school principal Edward Darracott was a inspiring and innovative leader who believed in teaching his students how to think for themselves as well as providing them with practical skills that they could apply to their lives. The students built beautifully landscaped gardens and constructed a 3/4-sized bungalow and in the process developed gardening skills, botany, architecture, carpentry, bricklaying, plastering, painting, surveying, report writing and other abilities. Darracott believed that if the students were actively involved in the beautification of the school grounds and creating an aesthetically pleasing environment, that it would promote inner harmony in the students. The school grounds are in the process of being restored by a group of former students and the Department of Conservation. The school, bungalow and grounds are recognised by the New Zealand Historical Places Trust.
To stand at the terminal face of a massive frozen river and feel the weight and might of this natural phenomenon is a truly humbling. To then strap crampons to your boots and climb upon the glacier and explore its crevasses and folds is an incredible experience. Glacier Country is understandably one of the most popular destinations on the West Coast. Outside of Argentina, New Zealand is the only country where glaciers extend their icy tongues into the temperate rainforest and grind to a halt only 250 metres above sea level. Government geologist Julius von Haast named Franz Josef Glacier in 1863 after the then Austro-Hungarian Emperor. Franz Josef is a hive of activity year-round. There are helicopters buzzing overhead, buses coming and going and throngs of sightseers browsing around the town and enjoying the many fine restaurants and cafes as well as the excellent information centre, which has models of the region and loads of information about the glacier, it’s history, geology and physiography. Two glacier guiding companies operate out of Franz Josef as well as a number of helicopter and fixed-wing scenic flight companies that will take you high above the mountains and can even land on the upper reaches of the glacier for a truly incredible natural experience in white and blue.
Rare white heron (kotoku) nest at the Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve in the summer months and guided tours, which include a jet boat ride to the sanctuary, is a wonderful way to observe these most regal and elegant birds tend their young.
The Kotuku Gallery in the main street has a fine collection of Maori artefacts, craft and artworks.
It was here in 1931 that Australian pilot and adventurer Guy Menzies completed the first solo flight across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. Menzies crash landed and his craft—the Southern Cross Junior--came to rest wheels up in a swamp. Much controversy surrounded the flight as Menzies had informed the authorities in Australia that he would be flying across Australia west to Perth, however, shortly after takeoff, he banked east and took on the Tasman. He completed the flight in 11 hours and 45 minutes. A quaint little rural town, Hari Hari has a lot to offer trampers, anglers, deer hunters, bird watchers and sightseers.
The 16-kilometre drive off the coast road to the charmingly quaint coastal town of Okarito will be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the august jaws of the Southern Alps, an expansive and peaceful estuarial lagoon teeming with bird life and the solitude and calm for which this special place is renowned. An obelisk commemorates the first recorded sighting of New Zealand by Abel Tasman near here in 1642 as well as the charting of the coast by Captain James Cook in 1770.
A lovely little village at the foot of the largest glacier on the West Coast. The town offers a more intimate glacier experience as the town is smaller than it’s neighbour Franz Josef. The Fox Glacier Guiding Company has been conducting ice tours since 1928 and offers a range of half and full day hikes on the ice as well as several heli-trek options ranging in duration from several hours to several days. Training courses for aspiring alpinists and ice-climbing excursions are also on offer for the more adventurous. Interestingly, the Fox Glacier—unlike most of the world’s glaciers—has been advancing sine 1985.
Stunning walk for all ages around a still and peaceful lake that on a clear day perfectly mirrors the Southern Alps and the giant snow-capped peaks of New Zealand’s highest mountains; Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.
Walk along a wild, stony beach littered with driftwood past old gold workings, tunnels and abandoned machinery through the forest to a seal colony where seals can be observed in their natural state…lolling about on the beach, fighting, lumbering along, and plunging into the ocean from the rocks.
Here the coast road emerges from the forest canyon to reveal sweeping coastal views of the bipolar Tasman Sea, which ranges from a millpond to a thrashing turbulent maelstrom, depending on how it is feeling.
To paddle a kayak or canoe on this peaceful mirror lake inspires reflection and introspection. Surrounded by ancient kahikatea tree giants and steep mountains, the lake offers tranquil sanctuary from the dense forest. A walk through the forest at Monro Beach will bring you to a calm bay of stones and shells where rare Fiordland Crested penguins (Tawaki) can be seen from July to January. Guided tours are available for guests at Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge. Please take care not to disturb the birds, observe them from a distance and respect their habitat.
The southernmost settlement on the West Coast is also its only seaport. A calm and sheltered bay is home to a few hardy Coasters, a small fishing fleet and Fiordland crested, blue penguins, fur seals and dolphins can be easily seen most days. The drive to Jackson Bay should be rewarded with a meal at The Cray Pot, which serves a bounty of seafood from local waters.
Located at the heart of the South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage Area, Haast is a wild, untamed and wonderful place. Today the word “untouched” has become a synonym for beautiful, when it really means “pristine.” The Haast region is one of the genuinely untouched accessible places left on Earth. Here mighty rivers, giant trees, ferocious seas and tempestuous weather combine to create an emotive masterpiece of natural splendour. The World Heritage Information Centre is perhaps the best such facility n New Zealand and has a wealth of information, photographs, displays, maps and charts on the region’s history, geography, flora and fauna.
Designated a World Heritage Area by UNESCO in 1991, the South-West New Zealand (Te Wahipounamu) World Heritage Area covers 2.6 million hectares, or about 10% of New Zealand. Other World Heritage Areas include; Mt Everest, the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon.
Maori knew this spectacular, wild and remote region as “Kaika Paeki,” “Place of Abundant Food.” They visit the area to hunt and fish and stock up on supplies as they made their way to the West Coast from Otago and Southland in search of pounamu greenstone. Today, Makarora offers a range of outdoor activities, day walks and more challenging multiple-day walks up and down mountains, across rivers and along pristine valleys.