My Favourite Walk: Charleston a hidden gem on our wild West Coast
Charleston is one of those small South Island West Coast communities that most will drive through, their mindset on Westport or south to Punakaiki. Or, as we had done on a couple of trips, pulled into the well- sited car park for a morning tea or lunch break. This year, we decided to make it a two or three days “destination.” And we weren’t disappointed ! The first sight of a relatively new three story Adventure Tourism building decked out in Rust Red and Mustard colours dominated the sight lines as a jarring contrast to the soft pallet of nature, but who are we to make judgement?
We were going to be staying at the older style Charleston Holiday Park and Motor camp 100m along the main road. Very spacious, well equipped, owned and operated by an extremely friendly and helpful couple.
They provided excellent advice and a comprehensive map to ensure we would get plenty of exercise tramping around the recognised good spots. Without their briefing, we would probably have missed so much!
Our first surprise was to see signs around indicating that Charleston had celebrated its 150th Birthday last year, and whereas a community hall, motel, the Tourism Centre and Cafe plus a
small number of houses make up the community today, it had once been a thriving town of around 4000 to 7,000 inhabitants in its gold-mining days and serviced by possibly 40 to 90 hotels.
Different sources/differing figures. A Google search for Charleston rewards with many photos of early days in Wikipedia and the history pages.
There are a couple of nearby historical cemetries which are reasonably handy.
Dating back to the late 1860’s, of particular interest is the nationality and faith of some of those early settlers as well as the fact that drowning was often the cause of their demise. A special place that rests in its own peaceful isolation.
One can carry on this walk down to the Nile River Bridge before completing a circuit and return on the road back to the motel, tourism centre and holiday park.
Not far away are the two small bays with their evocative names of “Constant” and “Joyce”. Rocky headlands with their encompassing arms provide a certain amount of protection against the strength of the marching
The two beaches are sandy, and the tumble rolled stones provide interest for those of a rock-hounding bent – us included.
We are gob-smacked to learn that trading schooners used to visit “Constant” in those early days, often coming from as far away as Onehunga, on the Manakau, Apparently, they used to drop anchor off shore, then be manually oared into the confines of this little harbour.
Of course weather and waves were a major consideration and to assist, the middle headland, almost in itself an island, was under the control of a “Harbourmaster” who would raise a coloured flag on a flagstaff to indicate the entrance swell and wave conditions.
The flagstaff track access is a little difficult to locate but is well worth the effort. There is an informative plaque near the base of the flagstaff which outlines an almost unbelievable maritime history and the number of those old sailing boats that could be in the harbour at one time.
If you are feeling romantic or maybe reflective, it is a wonderful spot from which to watch the sun drop down into the sea as evening descends, the advancing swells providing an ever changing foreground as they dash their energy on the rocks in a white cauldron.
The road off SH7, between the hall and the Holiday Park has the interesting name of “Darkie Terrace Road”. A no-exit road, maybe 7km long, where you will come to a closed gate. Do not be deterred, as this is primarily to keep the sheep in a paddock. There is ample parking 200m further on. This is not a well known area apart from the adventure tourism company which takes tourists on some of their adventures such as a Rain Forest Train Trip, a visit to the glow-worm cave or underground rafting in wetsuit and inflated tubes.
We opted for the walk/tramp along the banks of the Nile River, through large stands of native bush to cross the suspension bridge and end at the entrance to the glow worm cave.
Some brochures describe the area as part of the Paparoa National Park. The bush is certainly attractive and it shares the same type of limestone structures as are found near the better known Punakaike.
But without the crowds. Apart from sheep, and the small train on its trip, we never saw another person.
There is one more must see. Heading north on SH6, about 500m past the motel and tourist venture, you will drive down a slight hill to cross the Nile River Bridge. Immediately, take a left into Beach Road. A gravel road which will
take you around the edge of a very scenic area. There are a few houses fronting a compact anchorage where ships used to frequent, before departing through the river mouth out into the ocean. Some of the Charleston history pages carry photos of such vessels. You have now reached another beach/bay named Nile Mile Beach.
At the southern end, where the river meets the sea, the occasional fisherman casts a line, but for us, the real point of interest was the large multi hued rocks unlike anything else we have seen around our coastline. Not only the muted patterned colours but also with the presumably quartz crystals glittering like diamonds in the sunshine.
The beach itself has extensive areas of coloured stones, pure white crystal, yellows, multi greys, pinks, speckled, half”n’half, amazing.
At the northern end of the beach there is an access way from the rocks, where you will scramble up to get an all round view. The highlight is at the seaward end where a short timber bridge hangs desperately onto the rocks to enable access over a narrow wave-swept gut to “Hamptons Rock”, a local fishing spot.
Whilst the narrow bridge is only about 3m long, we chicken out on crossing due to the huge waves that were venting their fury as they swept under the bridge.
Beach Road carries on for a few kilometres before coming out back on SH6, turn left for Westport. The best part is that most travellers stay on the highway, so Beach Road, and Nile Mile Beach are left relatively free of the hordes of tourists that clog so much of our wonderful West Coast.
There are three or four other attractions that we would have liked to have explored...maybe another day. But of one thing we are quite certain. We have never travelled to anywhere in New Zealand where we have been as pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of attractions that Charleston offers.
The walks are mostly short, about 60 minutes, with the Nile River up to Glowworm Cave about a comfortable three hour return. Go see for yourself!. And tell us what we missed!
Opposite page above left: Striated rocks in pastel hues. Above right: Boardwalk out to Hamptons Rock. Above: Joyce Bay Middle right: Walking beside the locals. Below right: Charleston historic cemetery.
Above right: Entrance to Joyce Bay. Below left: Massive limstone overhangs. Below middle: The track follows the Nile River. Below far right: Nile mile Beach
Opposite page below left: Soaring limstone cliffs with an aged tree in front. Below right: A limestone cliff in the shape of a ship’s bow. Above: The Rain Forest Express. Below left Nature’s art. Below right: Almost out to Hamptons Rock.