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Of all the vis­i­tor des­ti­na­tions in New Zealand, there are few that can of­fer ad­ven­ture be­low the ground as well as on its sur­face.

The long thin rib­bon of land that sits be­tween the tow­er­ing peaks of the Southern Alps and the wild rush­ing waves of the Tas­man Sea is such a place. And as I found to my amaze­ment, there are nu­mer­ous ad­ven­tures to be had in both spheres.

Within the space of a cou­ple of hours drive, there are more vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ences than you can poke a stick off, pas­sive as well as ac­tive. And there’s cer­tainly a lot to be said for head­ing to the sub­ter­ranean world.

My game plan on this visit to ‘the Coast’ - the lo­cals call it - is to travel less and see more. It’s a de­ci­sion that turns out to be ab­so­lutely the right one.

Trav­ellers of­ten look at the 600 kilo­me­tres or so that is State High­way 6 on a map and as­sume they can to ‘do the Coast’ in a day or two. It’s pos­si­ble, if you drive a For­mula 1 rac­ing ma­chine, but an en­tire, di­verse, in­ter­est­ing and ed­u­ca­tional world would pass by in a blur.

The West Coast should, in fact, be savoured. The more days one spends among its scenic de­lights and hos­pitable peo­ple the bet­ter off they will be for the ex­pe­ri­ence. And that’s how I’ve planned this jour­ney.

The West Coast can be ap­proached from the north - the rag­ing waters that drain through the Buller Gorge from two of the re­gion’s big­gest lakes them­selves pro­vide all man­ner of wa­ter sports, from kayak­ing to raft­ing to pa­tient at­tempts to snare big trout with fight­ing tem­per­a­ments. A num­ber of com­mer­cial op­er­a­tors are based along this stretch of a wa­ter­way that emp­ties into the vast Tas­man Sea at West­port.

En­try from the far south is also pos­si­ble, broach­ing the sum­mit from Wanaka near the Gates of Haast, be­fore ar­riv­ing at the small set­tle­ment of that name that car­ries the ti­tle of White­bait Cap­i­tal of the World.

There’s cer­tainly no right or wrong way to en­ter. What’s im­por­tant is that you take the first step - and that you al­low suf­fi­cient time to get the most from the Coast.

On this trip I drive in from the east, de­part­ing the sway­ing golden pas­ture­lands of the Can­ter­bury Plains, to en­ter a scenic won­der­land of green hues, pass­ing over the mas­sive Otira viaduct en route to Arthur’s Pass and the wild, won­der­ful coast­line be­yond. My des­ti­na­tion is the ad­ven­ture play­ground that lies to the north of the Coast’s largest town, Grey­mouth.

The pan­cake rock for­ma­tions at Pu­nakaiki have been revered by trav­ellers ever since the early Maori voy­agers ar­rived to call this coun­try Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. Na­ture at its rawest and most pow­er­ful is on show here, with the crash­ing waves thun­der­ing in from Aus­tralia send­ing huge plumes of wa­ter soar­ing into the air through gi­ant blow­holes. This is, un­de­ni­ably, a sight to be­hold, with photo op­por­tu­ni­ties at ev­ery surge. High tide is the best time to visit Pu­nakaiki, but any time is good.

Half an hour fur­ther to the north is yet an­other of the Coast’s se­ries of iconic nat­u­ral for­ma­tions, one that Nor­west Ad­ven­tures, the lo­cal oper­a­tor based in the his­toric set­tle­ment of Charleston shows off to best ef­fect. No mat­ter how young or how old you may be or what your abil­i­ties are, this long-es­tab­lished oper­a­tor will have an ex­pe­ri­ence fit-for-pur­pose among its reper­toire of un­der­world ad­ven­tures.

Cave raft­ing is a big hit with many of the Coast’s visi­tors and just get­ting there is an ex­pe­ri­ence in it­self. The train jour­ney through primeval rain­for­est is stun­ning, but there is more to come. No-one can help but be in awe while ex­plor­ing the enor­mous cal­catic cave, com­plete with its swath of sta­lac­tites and sta­lag­mites. And float­ing down the Nile River through glow-worm grot­toes en route to the bouncy rapids is amaz­ing - and re­ally good fun.

For those seek­ing a touch more ac­tion, the ad­ven­ture cav­ing of­fered in these parts is a must, but be warned, too much choco­late cake for morn­ing tea may pre­sent a range of is­sues when it comes to squeez­ing or crawl­ing through gaps de­signed for less ro­tund crea­tures.

From Charlestown and its ver­i­ta­ble ar­ray of fun and funky things to do - an overnight stay in this de­light­ful lit­tle coastal town­ship is also highly rec­om­mended - it’s only a hop, skip and jump to Tau­ranga Bay, the site of one of New Zealand’s most im­pres­sive main­land fur seal colonies. Watch­ing the young seal pups be­ing

herded out of harm’s way by their mothers sends even the most ma­cho of ma­cho men into rap­tures. Hun­dreds of more pho­tos to add to the travel di­ary! With such mag­nif­i­cent coastal vis­tas to be had, the walk to Cape Foul­wind - leave three hours for the re­turn trip - is an­other must amid a long list of musts on the West Coast.

West­port, at the mouth of the Buller River, is a short drive fur­ther on and for his­tory and her­itage buffs, its Coal­town Mu­seum is yet an­other must-see des­ti­na­tion. This re­gion was built on coal and gold min­ing and tim­ber ex­trac­tion and this vis­i­tor venue pro­vides an il­lu­mi­nat­ing win­dow look into how the West was won.

For those in­tent of delv­ing more deeply into the his­tory of this north­ern-most stretch of the Coast, get­ting to ‘do’ the Den­nis­ton Ex­pe­ri­ence must not be missed, at any cost. Set on a plateau, the coal min­ing op­er­a­tion based there from 1879 to 1967 sought to prize one of the rich­est, high­est qual­ity seams in New Zealand from the bow­els of the Earth. That black gold was sent by small carts to the port at nearby West­port, down an in­cline recog­nised the world over as a re­mark­able feat of en­gi­neer­ing. So spec­tac­u­lar is the Den­nis­ton In­cline that it was widely re­ferred to as the eighth wonder of the world.

Yet an­other small set­tle­ment nearby acts as a mag­net for me, and thou­sands of oth­ers who take the time out and away from the blue rib­bon route through New Zealand to dis­cover an en­tirely dif­fer­ent world. Karamea - pop­u­la­tion 423 at last count - is a great place to stay a few days, and a very handy jump­ing off spot for more ad­ven­tures, once more un­der the Earth’s sur­face.

The Oparara River runs close by Karamea and the large nat­u­ral arches through which this wa­ter­way runs are spec­tac­u­lar and a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for those with a thirst for back­coun­try ex­pe­ri­ences. The

tourism op­er­a­tors at Karamea are al­ways will­ing to share their lo­cal knowl­edge, as well as rec­om­mend­ing other lo­cal trea­sures and great sights, many of which are known to but a priv­i­leged few.

As usual, I’ve had a dilemma in choos­ing where to go and what to do on the West Coast of the Southern Alps on this visit. There are lit­er­ally hun­dreds of magic lit­tle spots that Mother Na­ture has cre­ated in her bid to cap­ti­vate and en­thral. There are also hun­dreds of ac­tiv­i­ties to in­dulge in. No two are the same and ev­ery one of them has its own de­gree of at­trac­tion and chal­lenge.

That’s the thing about the West Coast. It’s a re­gion of di­ver­gence and dif­fer­ence with a spec­tac­u­lar view or an in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at ev­ery turn. The thin strip of as­phalt that runs down its length, and the end­less side roads that join it, with­out doubt pro­vides one of the most spec­tac­u­lar jour­neys in the world.

With that in mind, my rec­om­men­da­tion is to do the Coast in bite-sized chunks, a lit­tle at a time. Only then will you get to sample the rich­ness and vari­a­tion of this lit­tle piece of par­adise nes­tled on the edge of an ocean that stretches far be­yond the horizon – in­deed all the way to the great arid con­ti­nent that is Aus­tralia.

Cave ad­ven­ture

Den­nis­ton Mu­seum

West Coast sun­set

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