The Wild West Coast of New Zealand's South Island
The West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, commonly known as The Coast, is rich in history and breathtaking scenery. It occupies a long stretch of flat land between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. Once peppered with thriving small towns and mining communities, apart from the main centers, townships are no longer more than mere villages. It is a long way from anywhere, but the Coasters, people who live on the West Coast, like it that way. They have had a hard life over the years and this has contributed to the unique character of the region. The West Coast is reported to have the most relaxed and friendliest people in New Zealand.
With a population of just over 10,000, Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast. It was originally the site of a Maori pa or fortified village and named Mawhera, meaning wide-spread river mouth.
Greymouth was the focus of the West Coast gold boom in the 1880s. Now, tourists can visit Shantytown, about 8km south of Greymouth. Shantytown recreates a gold mining town. Amongst its many attractions are over 30 historic buildings, the chance to ride on an 1897 steam locomotive and experiencing an old saw mill. Visitors can also try their hand at gold-panning, with everyone assured of a few flakes.
A little more than 100km north-west of Greymouth is Westport, with a population of around 4,250. Once another gold mining town, it now supports the nearby coal mining. Until the beginning of the 20th century, coal was the major energy source of New Zealand. Coal Town, a coal mining museum in town has a simulated mine and reconstructs aspects of coal mining life.
Not far from Westport is a seal colony at Tauranga Bay near Cape Foulwind. At the right time of the year a short walk will take you up close to the seals. Westport is also developing a reputation for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. White and black water rafting, caving are among popular activities in the area.
Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
On the coast at the tiny settlement of Punakaiki, half way between Greymouth and Westport, are the Pancake rocks and blowholes. Made of limestone, the rocks at Dolomite Point have been weathered over the years, now looking like layers of pancakes. At the peak of high tide, when there is an on-shore wind, the waves surge into the caverns below the rocks and squirt out in a geyser like fashion above.
Hokitika has a population of around 3,800 and is 40 km south of Greymouth. Previously another gold mining area, it is now the major center for Pounamu or greenstone, New Zealand’s jade. Visitors can watch craftsmen working with the stone, buy a crafted piece of jewellery, or hunt for their own greenstone on nearby beaches. In March each year, Hokitika hosts a Wild Foods festival that attracts visitors from all over New Zealand and the world.
Although townships are few and far between, the West Coast is definitely worth visiting. There is plenty to see and do if you take the time to do so. The character of the mining days lives on and exploring the area can be a rewarding experience.
Other new Zealand travel articles by Val Mills: