The Southern Alps run down the backbone of the South Island, both defining and isolating the West Coast. A narrow, rugged and largely untamed strip 400km long and barely 30km wide, the West Coast is home to just 32,000 people. Turbulent rivers cascade from the mountains through lush bush, past crystal lakes and dark-green paddocks before spilling into the Tasman Sea, its coastline fringed by atmospheric, surf-pounded beaches and backed by the odd tiny shack or, more often, nothing at all.
What really sets “the Coast” apart is the interaction of settlers with their environment. Coasters, many descended from early gold and coal miners, have long been proud of their ability to coexist with the landscape – a trait mythologized in their reputation for independent-mindedness and intemperate drinking, fuelled by Irish migrants drawn to the 1860s gold rushes. Stories abound of late-night boozing way past closing time, and your fondest memories of the West Coast might be chance encounters in the pub.
No discussion of the West Coast would be complete without mention of the torrential rainfall, which descends with tropical intensity for days at a time; waterfalls cascade from rocks and the bush becomes vibrant with colour. Such soakings have a detrimental effect on the soil, retarding decomposition and producing a peat-like top layer with all the minerals leached out. The result is pakihi, scrubby, impoverished and poor-looking paddocks that characterize much of the West Coast’s cleared land. The downpours alternate with abundant sunshine, while today’s “gold rushes” occur during the springtime rush to catch whitebait, when anglers line the riverbanks on rising tides trying to net this epicurean holy grail.
The boom-and-bust nature of the West Coast’s mining has produced scores of ghost towns and spawned its three largest settlements – Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika. The real pleasure of the West Coast, though, lies in smaller places, where the Coasters’ indomitable spirit shines through: places such as Karamea, on the southern limit of the Kahurangi National Park, or Okarito, by a seductive lagoon. With the exception of a couple of decent museums and a handful of sights, the West Coast’s appeal is in its scenic beauty – the drive, either up or down the coast, is iconic, matching any great road trip in the world. The Oparara Basin, near Karamea, and the Paparoa National Park, south of Westport, exhibit some of the country’s finest limestone formations, including huge arched spans and the famous Pancake Rocks, while in the Westland National Park the frosty white tongues of the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers poke down the flanks of the Southern Alps toward dense emerald bush and the sea.
Since this is New Zealand there’s no shortage of activities, including thrilling fly-in rafting trips down the West Coast’s steep rivers. The limestone bedrock makes for some penetrative adventure caving, and there’s plenty of hiking, with the Heaphy Track to the north, the Inland Pack Track near Punakaiki and a stack of tramps around the glaciers.
Most people visit from November to April, but in winter temperatures are not too low, there are greater numbers of cloud-free days and pesky sandflies are less active. The West Coast never feels crowded but in the off season accommodation is more plentiful, although many adventure trips and scenic flights, which require minimum numbers to operate, may be harder to arrange. Motels in particular are generally substantially more expensive than elsewhere on the South Island, and the Coast’s laissez-faire attitude means that even on a chilly winter’s night you’re unlikely to be able to get a discount on a room, even if the motel is resoundingly empty. The area’s relative remoteness also means that food and other prices tend to be somewhat higher – consider stocking up on basics before heading here.
Westland has a long history of Maori habitation around its coastal fringes, river mouths and sheltered bays. The main settlement is believed to have been the Hokitika area, with its abundant pounamu (greenstone), where communities lived on fish and forest birds. Beaches, river valleys and mountain passes provided the main access, as the Tasman Sea made canoe journeys hazardous.