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, Greymouthand 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 Foxglaciers 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.
Around 150km south of Hokitika, two white rivers of ice force their way down towards the thick rainforest of the coastal plain – ample justification for the region’s inclusion in Te Wahipounamu, the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. The glaciers form a palpable connection between the coast and the highest peaks of the Southern Alps. Within a handful of kilometres the terrain drops from over 3000m to near sea level, bringing with it Franz Josef glacier and Fox glacier, two of the largest and most impressive of the sixty-odd decent-sized glaciers that creak off the South Island’s icy spine, together forming the centrepiece of the rugged Westland National Park. Legend tells of the beautiful Hinehukatere who so loved the mountains that she encouraged her lover, Tawe, to climb alongside her. He fell to his death and Hinehukatere cried so copiously that her tears formed the glaciers, known to Maori as Ka Riomata o Hinehukatere – “The Tears of the Avalanche Girl”.
The area is also characterized by the West Coast’s prodigious precipitation, with upwards of 5m being the typical yearly dump. These conditions, combined with the rakish angle of the western slopes of the Southern Alps, produce some of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers; stand at the foot for half an hour or so and you’re bound to see a piece peel off. But these phenomenal speeds haven’t been enough to counteract melting, and both glaciers have receded over 3km since Cook saw them at their greatest recent extent, soon after the Little Ice Age of 1750. Glaciers are receding worldwide, but the two here sometimes buck the trend by advancing from time to time, typically around five years after a particularly big snowfall in the mountains.
The glaciers were already in full retreat when travellers started to battle their way down the coast to observe these wonders of nature. They were initially named “Victoria” and “Albert” respectively but, in 1865, geologist Julius von Haast renamed Franz Josef after the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and following a visit by prime minister William Fox in 1872, the other was bestowed with his name.
Activity in the glaciers focuses on two small villages, which survive almost entirely on tourist traffic. Both lie close to the base of their respective glaciers and offer excellent plane and helicopter flights, guided glacier walks and heli-hiking. With your own transport, it makes sense to base yourself in one of the two villages and explore both glaciers from there. If you have to choose one, Franz Josef has a wider range of accommodation, restaurants, and offers the most comprehensive selection of trips, while Fox is quieter.
The village of Fox Glacier, 25km south of Franz Josef, is scattered over an outwash plain of the Fox and Cook rivers, and services the local farming community and passing sightseers. Everything of interest is beside SH6 or Cook Flat Road, which skirts the scenic Lake Matheson on the way to the former gold settlement and seal colony at Gillespies Beach. The foot of the glacier itself is around 6km away.
FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER (Waiau) is the slightly larger of the two glacier villages. The glacier almost reaches the fringes of the village, the Southern Alps tower above and developers have done what they can to create an alpine character with steeply pitched roofs and pine panelling. It’s an appealing place, and small enough to make you feel almost like a local if you stay for more than a night or two – something that’s easily done, considering the number of fine walks and the proximity of the glaciers.
In Franz Josef you can hike to the glacier, join a guided walk on the glacier, kayak on a nearby lake or take a scenic flight. Guided glacier walks and kayaking take place in most weather conditions, but on misty and very wet days you’ll find that scenic flights and heli-hikes are cancelled and alternatives limited.
The existence of a glacier is a balancing act between competing forces: snowfall at the névé, high in the mountains, battles with rapid melting at the terminal lower down the valley, the victor determining whether the glacier will advance or retreat. Snowfall, metres thick, gradually compacts to form clear blue ice, accumulating until it starts to flow downhill under its own weight. Friction against the valley walls slows the sides while ice in the centre slips down the valley, giving the characteristic scalloped effect on the surface, which is especially pronounced on such vigorous glaciers as Franz Josef and Fox. Where a riverbed steepens, the river forms a rapid: under similar conditions, glaciers break up into an icefall, full of towering blocks of ice known as seracs, separated by crevasses.
Visitors familiar with grubby glaciers in the European Alps or American Rockies will expect the surface to be mottled with rock debris which has fallen off the valley walls onto the surface; however, the glaciers here descend so steeply that the cover doesn’t have time to build up and they remain pristine. Rock still gets carried down with the glacier though, and when the glacier retreats, this is deposited as terminal moraine. Occasionally retreating glaciers leave behind huge chunks of ice which, on melting, form kettle lakes.
The most telling evidence of past glacial movements is the location of the trim line on the valley wall, caused by the glacier stripping away all vegetation. At Fox and Franz Josef, the advance associated with the Little Ice Age around 1750 left a very visible trim line high up the valley wall, separating mature rata from scrub.
The Grey River forces its way through a break in the coastal Rapahoe Range and over the treacherous sand bar to the sea at GREYMOUTH, the West Coast’s largest settlement. The drab, workaday town is not the highlight of most visitors’ itineraries, but is the end of the line for the TranzAlpine Railway (an increasing number of people take the train from Christchurch and pick up a rental car here) and a convenient stop for drivers. Greymouth, like Hokitika, has a reputation for high-quality greenstone carving. Once you’ve checked out the greenstone galleries, adventure activities and brewery tours, do what you came for and move on, particularly in winter when The Barber, a razor-sharp cold wind whistling down the Grey Valley, envelops the town in thick icy fog.
Greymouth began to take shape during the early years of the gold rush on land purchased in 1860 by James Mackay, who bought most of Westland from the Poutini Ngai Tahu people for 300 gold sovereigns. The town’s defining feature is the river, which is deceptively calm and languid through most of the summer but awesome after heavy rains. Devastating floods swept through Greymouth in 1887, 1905, 1936, 1977 and 1988; since the last great flood, the Greymouth Flood Protection Scheme has successfully held back most of the waters.
Kiwis are mad on multisport and punch above their weight on the international circuit, and every weekend you’ll see scores of people honing their biking, running and paddling skills. The ultimate goal of all true multisporters is the gruelling 243km Coast to Coast Race (second weekend in Feb; w coasttocoast.co.nz), which requires a pre-dawn start from the beach near Kumara Junction, 15km south of Greymouth. A 3km run leads to a 55km cycle uphill to Otira where jelly-kneed contenders tackle the most gruelling section, a 33km run up and down the boulder-strewn creek beds of the Southern Alps, before kayaking for several hours down Canterbury’s braided Waimakariri River and then cycling the final stretch to Sumner.
From humble beginnings in 1983 – when it was the world’s first major multisport event – the Coast to Coast has blossomed into a professional affair with over a thousand competitors. Serious contenders engage a highly organized support crew and specialized gear; only the most high-tech bikes will do and designers build racing kayaks especially for Waimakariri conditions. Most competitors take two days, but around 150 elite triathletes compete in “The Longest Day”, tackling the same course in under 24 hours. Mere mortals – though admittedly extremely fit ones – can also compete by forming two-person teams sharing the disciplines.
The event remains largely a macho spectacle that draws considerable press interest and correspondingly generous sponsorship – a vehicle manufacturer is usually coaxed into offering a car or truck to the winner if they break a certain time. The course record is an astonishing 10hr 34min and 37 seconds, set in 1994.
South from Greymouth, SH6 hugs a desolate stretch of coast with little of abiding interest until HOKITIKA, 40km away. “Hoki” is infinitely more interesting than Greymouth, due to its location on a long, driftwood-strewn beach, some engaging activities – including the strangely seductive sock-making machine museum and an atmospheric glowworm dell – and proximity to good bushwalks in the surrounding area, not least of which is the spectacular Hokitika Gorge.
Despite its beautiful beach, the town is primarily renowned for its crafts scene, and is becoming something of an artists’ enclave, with a slew of studios, galleries and shopfronts where you can see weaving, carving (greenstone or bone) or glass blowing in action or buy the high-quality results of the artists’ labours. The National Kiwi Centre, a privately run aquarium and nocturnal house combination, is also here, but it’s difficult to justify the high admission price.
Like other West Coast towns, Hokitika owes its existence to the gold rushes of the 1860s. Within months of the initial discoveries near Greymouth in 1864, fields had been opened up on the tributaries of the Hokitika River, and Australian diggers and Irish hopefuls all flogged over narrow passes from Canterbury to get their share. Within two years Hokitika had a population of 6000 (compared with today’s 4000), streets packed with hotels, and a steady export of over a tonne of gold a month, mainly direct to Melbourne. Despite a treacherous bar at the Hokitika rivermouth, the port briefly became the country’s busiest, with ships tied up four deep along Gibson Wharf. As gold grew harder to find and more sluicing water was needed, the enterprise eventually became uneconomic and was replaced by dairying and the timber industry. The port closed in 1954, only to be smartened up in the 1990s as the focus for the town’s Heritage Trail.
Maori revere pounamu (hard nephrite jade) and tangiwai (softer, translucent bowenite), usually collectively known as greenstone. In Aotearoa’s pre-European culture, it took the place of durable metals for practical, warfaring and decorative uses: adzes and chisels were used for carving, mere (clubs) for combat, and pendants were fashioned for jewellery.
In Maori, the entire South Island is known as Te Wahi Pounamu, “the place of greenstone”, reflecting the importance of its sole sources, the belt from Greymouth through the rich Arahura River area near Hokitika south to Anita Bay on Milford Sound – where the beautifully dappled tangiwai occurs – and the Wakatipu region behind Queenstown. When the Poutini Ngai Tahu arranged to sell most of Westland to James Mackay in 1860, the Arahura River, their main source of pounamu, was specifically excluded.
Greenstone’s value has barely diminished. Mineral claims are jealously guarded, the export of greenstone is prohibited and no extraction is allowed from national parks; penalties include fines of up to $200,000 and two years in jail. Price is heavily dependent on quality, but rates of $100,000 a tonne are not unknown – and the sky’s the limit when the stone is fashioned into sculpture and jewellery. Many of the cheaper specimens are quite crude, but pricier pieces exhibit accomplished Maori designs.
Hokitika is the main venue for greenstone shoppers: keep in mind that the larger shops and galleries are firmly locked into the tour-bus circuit so prices are high. Big shops are fine for learning about the quality of the stone and competence of the artwork but smaller places have more competitive deals. Buyers should ask about the origins of the raw material – insiders suspect that lots of greenstone sold in New Zealand is cheaper jade sourced overseas.
Lake Kaniere’s eastern-shore road passes the magical Dorothy Falls, with giant moss-covered boulders in unearthly shades of green, and continues to a side road leading to the dazzling Hokitika Gorge, where a gentle path leads to a swingbridge over the exquisite turquoise-coloured Hokitika River.
Some of the best bush scenery and walks around Hokitika are 30km inland where the dairying hinterland meets the foothills of the Southern Alps. Minor roads (initially following Stafford Street out of town) make a good 70km scenic drive, shown in detail on DOC’s Central West Coast: Hokitika leaflet. The road passes the fishing, waterskiing and tramping territory of Lake Kaniere, a glacial lake with fantastic reflections of the mountains in the crystal water, several picnic sites and primitive camping along its eastern side. The most popular walk is the Kaniere Water Race Walkway (9km one-way; 3hr; 100m ascent), starting from the lake’s northern end and following a channel that used to supply water to the goldfields, through stands of regenerating rimu.
In the last decade or so, Hokitika has become synonymous with the annual Wildfoods Festival (second Sat in March; wwildfoods.co.nz), when the population quadruples to celebrate bush tucker. Around fifty stalls in Cass Square sell delicacies such as marinated goat kebabs, smoked eel wontons, huhu grubs, “mountain oysters” (a.k.a. sheep’s testicles) and, of course, whitebait, washed down with home-brewed beer and South Island wine. The feasting is followed by an evening hoedown, the Wildfoods Barn Dance and bonfires on the beach.
The main highway snuggles in close to the Southern Alps for most of the 135km to the glacier at Franz Josef. The journey through dairy farms and stands of selectively logged native bush is broken by a series of small settlements – Ross, Pukekura and Harihari. The most popular attractions along the way are Whataroa, to visit the White Heron colony, and Okarito, where the relaxed charms of the lagoon and kiwi-spotting trips may give you pause.
Immediately south of Hokitika, it’s 5km along SH6 to a relatively hidden landing where gentle paddleboat cruises take you along the Mahinapua Creek to the lake. A couple of kilometres on, the Mahinapua Walkway (16km return; 4hr; mainly flat) offers easy walking with picnic opportunities at a lakeside beach. A further 2km south along SH6 the Mananui Bush Walkway (30min return) leads through coastal forest remnants to dunes and there’s a particularly nice basic camping spot at Lake Mahinapua, accessed off SH6 1km south.
In 1642, Abel Tasman became the first European to set eyes on Aotearoa at Okarito, 15km south of Whataroa and 10km off SH6, now a secluded hamlet dotted round the southern side of its eponymous lagoon. The discovery of gold in the mid-1800s sparked an eighteen-month boom that saw fifty stores and hotels spring up along the lagoon’s shores. Timber milling and flax production stood in once the gold had gone, but the community foundered, leaving a handful of holiday homes, a few dozen permanent residents and a lovely beach and lagoon, used as the setting for much of Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Bone People.
Nature-based kayaking trips and cruises departing from Okarito offer the chance for close encounters with the area’s seventy species of birdlife including the kotuku (white heron) and royal spoonbill, while bushwalking tours have an excellent success rate for spotting kiwi.
Despite its isolation, virtually at the end of the road (to continue any distance north you’d have to go on foot along the Heaphy Track), there’s no shortage of things to do in KARAMEA, 100km north of Westport. The southern section of the Kahurangi National Park easily justifies a day or two and the Oparara Basin rewards exploration.
Back in 1874, this was very much frontier territory, with the Karamea River port providing the only link with the outside world. Settlers eked a living from gold and flax, but after a couple of fruitless years realized that the poorly drained pakihi soils would barely support them. They pushed on, opening up the first road to Westport just in time for the upheavals of the 1929 Murchison earthquake, which altered the river flow and permanently ruined the harbour. Logging finally ceased in 2000, leaving tourism, agriculture and fruit-growing as the town’s lifeblood.
Visitors with no aspirations to tramp the full length of Heaphy Track can sample the final few coastal kilometres from the mouth of the Kohaihai River, where there’s river (but not sea) swimming, a beautifully sited DOC campsite ($6) and an abundance of maddening sandflies (consider buying sandfly “armour” – close-weave mesh jackets, from $30 – and a range of other protective gear from Westport’s i-SITE). In the heat of the day, you’re much better off across the river in the cool of the Nikau Walk (30–45min loop), which winds through a shady grove dense with nikau palms, tree ferns and magnificent gnarled old rata dripping in epiphytes. When it cools off, either continue along the Heaphy to Scott’s Beach (1hr 30min return), or stick to the southern side of the Kohaihai River and the Zig-Zag Track (35min return), which switchbacks up to an expansive lookout.
Stretching 169km from its source at Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park to its mouth at Westport, the Buller River’s blue-green waters reflect sunlight dappled through riverside beech forests as they swirl through one of the grandest of New Zealand’s river gorges. The Maori name for the Buller is Kawatiri, meaning “deep and swift”, qualities which lure rafters to several stretches. Gold was discovered along the Buller in 1858, sparking a gold rush centred on Lyell, now a ghost town whose outlying remains can be visited on the Lyell Walkway.
The Buller lies between the Lyell and Brunner ranges, and is traced by SH6 from Kawatiri Junction to Westport through Inangahua Junction, where Greymouth-bound travellers turn south towards Reefton. From Reefton, SH7 hugs the Grey River, a far less dramatic watercourse, as it flows through a wide valley to the east of the granite tops of the Paparoa Range past more evidence of the gold and coal industries, principally at Blackball and the Brunner Industrial Site.
Kahurangi’s finest limestone formations lie east of the Karamea–Kohaihai Highway in the Oparara Basin, a compact area of karst topography characterized by sinkholes, underground streams, caves and bridges created over millennia by the action of slightly acidic streams on the jointed rock. This is home to New Zealand’s largest native spider, the harmless, 15cm-diameter gradungular spider (found only in caves in the Karamea and Collingwood area, where it feeds off blowflies and cave crickets), and to a rare species of ancient and primitive carnivorous snail that grows up to 70mm across and dines on earthworms. Tannin-coloured rivers course gently over bleached-white boulders and, in faster-flowing sections, the rare whio (blue duck) swims for its supper. If your interest in geology is fleeting, the Oparara Basin still makes a superb place for day walks or a picnic.
South of Westport, SH67 crosses the Buller River and picks up the SH6, the main West Coast road. This stretch of coast is home to the Paparoa Range, a 1500m granite and gneiss ridge inlaid with limestone that separates the dramatic coastal strip from the valleys of the Grey and Inangahua rivers. In 1987, the coastal limestone country was designated the Paparoa National Park, one of the country’s smallest and least-known parks. The highlight is undoubtedly Pancake Rocks, where crashing waves have forced spectacular blowholes through a stratified stack of weathered limestone. But to skip the rest would be to miss out on a mysterious world of disappearing rivers, sinkholes, caves and limestone bluffs best seen on the Inland Pack Track, but also accessible on shorter walks.
Maori often stopped while travelling the coast in search of pounamu (greenstone), and early European explorers followed suit seeking agricultural land. Charles Heaphy, Thomas Brunner and two Maori guides came through in 1846, finding little to detain them, but within twenty years this stretch was alive with gold prospectors at work on the black sands at Charleston.
Visitor services are centred on Punakaiki, close by the Pancake Rocks, where bus passengers get a quick glimpse and others pause for the obligatory photos. A couple of days spent here will be well rewarded with a stack of wonderful walks, horse riding or canoeing up delightful limestone gorges.
The best way to truly appreciate the dramatic limestone scenery of the Paparoa is on the Inland Pack Track (27km; 2–3 days), but this should only be undertaken by folk with plenty of hiking experience. Most of the terrain is easy going, but there are no bridges for river crossings, and while the water barely gets above your knees in dry periods, the rivers can become impassable after rain. With less time or greater demand for comfort, some of the best sections can be seen on two day-walks.
The Pancake Rocks and blowholes at PUNAKAIKI are often all visitors see of the Paparoa National Park, as they tumble off the bus opposite the twenty-minute paved loop track which leads to the rocks. Layers of limestone have weathered to resemble an immense stack of giant pancakes, the result of stylobedding, a chemical process in which the pressure of overlying sediments creates alternating durable and weaker bands.
Subsequent uplift and weathering has accentuated this effect to create photogenic formations. The edifice is undermined by huge sea caverns where the surf surges in, sending spumes of brine spouting up through vast blowholes: high tide with a good swell from the south or southwest sees the blowholes at their best.
More shapely examples of Paparoa’s karst landscape are on show on a number of walks. Inside the Punakaiki Cavern, 500m to the north, you’ll find a few glow-worms (go after dark: torch essential) and, 2km beyond that, the Truman Track (30min return) runs down from the highway to a small beach hemmed in by wave-sculpted rock platforms.
Apart from the rocks, there’s good river swimming in the Pororari and Punakaiki rivers, and sea bathing at the southern end of Pororari Beach, a section also good for point-break surfing.
In recent years kayakers and rafters have realized that some of the most thrilling and scenic whitewater trips are on New Zealand’s West Coast, where dramatically steep rivers spill out of the alpine wilderness, fed by the prodigious quantity of rain that guarantees solid flows most of the time. The steepness of the terrain means you’re in constantly thrilling if not downright scary territory (rivers in this area are mostly Grade IV, sliding either one up, or down). If you enjoy rafting and want more, this is a good place to come.
Few of these rivers had been kayaked or rafted until the 1980s, when helicopters were co-opted to reach them. Most rafting trips still require helicopter access, so costs are relatively high, and what you pay will often depend on numbers, so getting, say, six people together will save you a packet.
Though their popularity is increasing, trips are still relatively infrequent and you should book as far in advance as possible. The main season is November to April, though rafting is generally possible from early September to late May, and there is a minimum age of 13 years (15 for some of the more frightening runs).
The most commonly rafted rivers are (from north to south) the Karamea (Grade III+), the Mokihinui (Grade IV), the Arahura (Grade IV), the Whitcombe (Grade V), the Hokitika (Grade III–IV), the Wanganui (Grade III), the Perth (Grade V) and the Whataroa (Grade IV).
South of the glaciers, the West Coast feels even wilder. Many visitors do the run from the glaciers to Wanaka or Queenstown in a day, missing out on some fine remote country. Facilities aren’t completely absent: many accommodation and eating places are clustered around Haast, and there’s an increasing number of other pit stops along the way. There wasn’t a road through here until 1965 and the final section of tarmac wasn’t laid on the Haast Pass until 1995.
SH6 mostly runs inland, passing the start of the hike to the Welcome Flat Hot Springs and through kahikatea and rimu forests as far as Knight’s Point, where it returns to the coast along the edge of the Haast Coastal Plain, whose stunning coastal dune systems shelter lakes and some fine stands of kahikatea. The plain continues south past the scattered township of Haast to the site of the short-lived colonial settlement of Jackson Bay. From Haast, SH6 veers inland over the Haast Pass to the former timber town of Makarora, not strictly part of the West Coast but moist enough to share some of its characteristics and a base for the excellent Gillespie Pass Tramp.
If gold and coal built the West Coast’s foundations, the timber industry supported the structure. Ever since timber was felled for sluicing flumes and pit props, Coasters relied on the seemingly limitless forests for their livelihood. Many miners became loggers, felling trees which
take from three hundred to six hundred years to mature and which, according to fossil records of pollen, have been around for 100 million years.
Few expressed any concern for the plight of Westland’s magnificent stands of beech and podocarp until the 1970s, when environmental groups rallied around a campaign to save the Maruia Valley, east of R eefton, which became a touchstone for forest conservation. I t wasn’t until the 1986 West Coast Accord between the government, local authorities, conservationists and the timber industry that some sort of truce prevailed. I n the 1980s and 1990s most of the forests were selectively logged, often using helicopters to pluck out the mature trees without destroying those nearby. While it preserved the appearance of the forest, this was little comfort for New Zealand’s endangered birds – particularly kaka, kakariki (yellow-crowned parakeet), morepork (native owl) and rifleman – and long-tailed bats, all of which nest in holes in older trees.In 1999, Labour leader Helen Clark honoured her election pledge and banned the logging of beech forests by the state-owned Timberlands company. Precious West Coast jobs were lost and the government stepped in with the $100 million fund, which helped restart the local economy. Thousands still felt betrayed in this traditionally Labour-voting part of the world, but a resurgent farming sector, higher property prices and increased tourism gave Clark breathing space, until the economic downturn and 2008 general election, when she lost government to the National Party’s John Key. All logging of native forest on public land throughout New Zealand has remained banned since 2000.
Like a proud fly caught in amber, WESTPORT, despite government and tourist money and the council’s zealous desire to modernize, remains fixed in time. Diversions are scarce, except at the seal colony at Cape Foulwind, on the brain-clearing walk to the old lighthouse beyond or exploring the ghostly former coal towns of the Rochford Plateau. Were Westport – once known as “Worstport” – not a transport interchange, few would stay in this workaday fishing port as the temptations of the Heaphy Track and Karamea, 100km north, are too strong. However, stay some must, and time here is made tolerable by good-value accommodation, an engaging museum, some adventure activities and an outstanding restaurant, The Town House, that could hold its own in Auckland, Wellington and well beyond.
Almost everything of consequence in Westport is around Palmerston Street. For tours to the nearby former coal-mining town of Denniston.
Westport was the first of the West Coast towns, established by one Reuben Waite in 1861 as a single store beside the mouth of the Buller River. He made his living provisioning Buller Gorge prospectors in return for gold, but when the miners moved on to richer pickings in Otago, Waite upped sticks and headed south to help found Greymouth. Westport turned to coal and, while the mining towns to the north were becoming established, engineers channelled the river to scour out a port, which fast became the largest coal port in the country, but now lies idle. Westport battles on, with a respectable-sized fishing fleet and the odd ship laden with the produce of New Zealand’s largest cement works, at Cape Foulwind, fuelled by coal from the opencast mine at Stockton.