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.