Guide image

West Coast

Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki. Photo: Cristoph Strässler

Te Tai Poutini, the West Coast, is a wild and beautiful stretch of the country, running between the tumultuous Tasman Sea, and the soaring Southern Alps.

Come here for remote adventures: hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, or just tour the coast and enjoy the spectacular scenery. You’ll find jagged mountain peaks, icy blue glaciers, ancient forests of beech and shaggy rimu, cut through with rivers, down to the long windswept beaches.

Māori inhabited the West Coast from early times: iwi included Waitaha, then Ngāti Wairangi and Poutini Ngāi Tahu. Māori searched out pounamu (jade), in the rivers, and this greenstone was treasured for its beauty and hardness, making it immensely valuable for tools, ornaments and trade.

Cook sailed along the West Coast in 1770, and named Cape Foulwind (for gales, not gas) but could not anchor safely to explore. The population of the West Coast stayed small, until the gold rush starting in 1864 brought thousands of prospectors to Hokitika and beyond. Coal was another major discovery, fuelling the growth of Westport and Denniston. Today the West Coast is still a sparsely populated region, with a staunch, frontier spirit.

Buller District: activities and places to stay around Punakaiki, Westport and Karamea

Travellers coming by road from Nelson or Christchurch can start a West Coast road trip at Westport, which sits at the mouth of the Buller River. The Buller Gorge is a magnificent scenic stretch of road - and the setting for the annual Buller Gorge Marathon in February. To understand Westport’s mining history visit the Coaltown Museum. At the West Coast Brewery you can sample local ales such as Miner’s Black, or Denniston Draught. About 16km south west of town is Cape Foulwind, a wonderful place to explore the coastline, surf or just watch the waves while enjoying a meal at the popular Bay House Cafe at Tauranga Bay. Make sure to take the walkway to see a colony of NZ fur seals as they loll about, charmingly.

Old Ghost Road - photo: West Coast Film
Old Ghost Road, photo credit: West Coast Film

Westport is the base for the Old Ghost Road, an old gold miners’ trail rebuilt as a glorious 85km trail for hikers or experienced mountain-bikers, winding through native forest, peaks, valleys and river flats. Cyclists can start in the Lyell Historic Reserve and ride the whole trail, or splurge on a combined helicopter, canoe and cycle option.

The historic coal miners’ settlement of Denniston sits high on a plateau, 15 minutes drive north east from Westport. It’s worth coming here for the panoramic views, and for a sense of the tough life these mining families lived. Try the highly rated Denniston Experience, an immersive exploration of the mining life, with a trip underground.

Further north lie three small towns, Granity, Ngakawau and Hector. From Ngakawau, keen walkers or mountain-bikers can access the Charming Creek Walkway, a historic railway track with stunning views of the gorge, and Mangatini Falls.

Continuing north, the Mokihinui River runs between the small settlements of Mokihinui, and Gentle Annie. People coming off the northern end of the Old Ghost Road can stay here, and enjoy peace, sunsets and sweeping views of coast and untamed forest.

Bookabach/4716  Mokihinui
Mokihinui rivermouth, photo: Bookabach.co.nz/4716

The most northerly town on the West Coast, Karamea is a laid-back place, with the focus on outdoor activities such as fishing and white-baiting on the Karamea River, kayaking, mountain biking and walking. The hotel continues to offer hearty grub and a cooling brew, as it has since 1876. A popular side-trip is the challenging drive out to Oparara Basin. The narrow, winding road snakes through dense rainforest to walking tracks that lead to magnificent arched rock formations sculpted by the Oparara River, and to Mirror Tarn with its near-perfect reflections.

Follow the road north from Karamea to the end of the line and you’re at the beginning of the Heaphy Track in the Kahurangi National Park. This track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, stretching 78km through moss-covered beech forest, coastal forest with nikau palms, and out to the coast. The track is open to walkers year-round, and to mountain-bikes, from 1 May to 30 September.

Heading south from Westport, it’s a 20 minute drive to Charleston, the base for Underworld Adventures: your chance to try underground rafting, a glowworm cave tour or rainforest trainride.

Drive another 30 minutes down the coast to the small settlement of Punakaiki, famous for its iconic Pancake Rocks. These limestone rock formations were created 30 million years ago under the sea, then thrust up and eroded into layers like pancakes, with blowholes and surge pools making this a unique and dramatic spot to walk around. Visit at high tide to get the best whooosh and spray from the blowholes!

Pancake Rocks- Tristan Schmurr
Pancake Rocks, photo credit: Tristan Schmurr, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Punakaiki is the gateway to Paparoa National Park, a 38,000 hectare swathe of lush rainforest, cliffs and river canyons. If you’re feeling adventurous, lace up your boots, grab your togs and hike along the Pororari River, up a beautiful limestone gorge with lovely swimming holes. A DoC brochure lists many good local walks. Pike29 Memorial Track is planned for the Paparoa National Park, as a lasting memorial to the 29 men who were tragically killed in the Pike River Mine disaster on 19 November 2010. The track will open in 2018 and will stretch for 45km between Blackball and Punakaiki.

Greymouth and Lake Brunner: places to stay and things to do

Greymouth is the biggest town on the West Coast, and the end point for the Tranzalpine Express - one of the most beautiful train-rides in the world. The town sits at the mouth of the Grey River/Māwheranui, once the site of a Māori pa. Greymouth developed as a mining town, based around coal and gold, and there is plenty of this heritage to explore. The town was prone to terrible floods, until “The Great Wall of Greymouth” wall was built in 1988 - you can stroll along the flood protection wall, on the south side of the river.

Beer enthusiasts will want to check out the Monteith’s Brewery - a local icon. Take a tour of the brewery and you’ll be rewarded with a tasting session of the brewery’s range of traditional beers.

Fans of quad bikes and muddy adventures can head 5 km north of Greymouth to On Yer Bike, for some off-roading in the rainforest.

Shantytown - 10km south of Greymouth - puts you at the centre of the 1860s gold rush. In a recreated mining settlement complete with sawmill, stables, bank, hotel and all the other accompaniments of the era, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Inland from Greymouth lies a scattering of lakes, with alpine and rainforest surroundings. The town of Moana sits on the edge of Lake Brunner, a good place for trout-fishing, kayaking, bird-watching and biking.

West Coast mountain-biking: go green!

One of the best ways to see the wild coastal landscape is by mountain bike. The 4-day West Coast Wilderness Trail is part of the NZ Cycle Trail - Nga Haerenga. The trail takes you from Greymouth to Hokitika, through majestic rainforest, past mighty rivers and wetlands, with views of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea.

Westland: activities around Hokitika, Franz Josef Glacier and beyond

Hokitika, Bookabach.co.nz/34036
Hokitika, Photo: Bookabach.co.nz/34036

Once a bustling gold mining town, Hokitika sits on a wild beach at the river mouth, with glorious sunsets, and views to mountains inland. Hokitika is home to many artists and crafts people, and is known for its pounamu (greenstone) studios, and festivals, such as the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival held in March. At the Driftwood and Sand festival in January, artists and amateurs create quirky sculptures along the shore. Eleanor Catton’s Booker-prize winning novel, The Luminaries, immortalized Hokitika as a wild gold-mining town, and readers can search out places mentioned in the book, such as Kumara, Kaniere, and the Hokitika Gorge.

At the National Kiwi Centre visitors can see our endangered national bird, watch giant eels being fed, and check out the tuatara. Drive 33km east of town for the Hokitika Gorge walk - a short walk with lovely views over the turquoise waters of the glacier-fed river. Fifteen minutes’ drive south of Hokitika, is the Treetops canopy walkway.

Franz Josef Glacier Guides
Photo: Franz Josef Glacier Guides

Te Wahi Pounamu (the place of greenstone) is the Maori name for the South Westland World Heritage Area - a vast 2.5 million ha tract of spectacular wilderness that includes Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. You will kick yourself, with crampons, if you don’t visit one or both of the glaciers. If you want the glacier with more sunshine hours, book a tour of the Franz Josef Glacier/ Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere. You can choose to catch a helicopter up, and to walk with a guide amongst the icy pinnacles and sculpted forms of the glacier itself. These glaciers are spectacular, and unusual in that they descend from the alpine peaks into the rainforest. Snow falling in the névé, or catchment area, becomes ice under great pressure, and rolls down the valley like a frozen cataract, breaking into translucent blue and grey chunks and crevasses, before melting at the terminal face, into a frigid river.

After hiking to the glaciers, you might want to relax in the Glacier Hot Pools, and luxuriate in the steaming waters, in a tranquil rainforest setting.

Glacier Hot Pools
Photo: Glacier Hot Pools

From Franz Josef village it’s a 25 minute drive south to Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe, a faster moving glacier than Franz Josef. The village of Fox Glacier/ Weheka sits just 5 kilometres from the terminal face. Also in the area is Lake Matheson, its serene waters reflecting the mountains.  Wending southwards, the road comes eventually to Haast Pass. Here, you can cut inland towards Mt Aspiring National Park, or continue south, through Okuru, to the end of the coastal road, at Jackson Bay. You could go all Bear Grylls around Haast and Okuru: try canoeing, kayaking or jet-boating on the wild rivers, go hunting, fishing and catch cray or whitebait. Helicopters can fly hunters and adventurers deep into the Southern Alps. Mind you, it’s also just fine to relax at the bach. If you head to the end of the line at Jackson Bay, you’ll find the Craypot, a little cafe in a caravan on the edge of the Esplanade, serving up super fresh seafood, Kiwiana styles. Have a whitebait fritter and admire the view!

What to do

  • Marvel at the pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki
  • Mountain-bike or hike the spectacular Old Ghost Road
  • Take a guided tour onto the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
  • Go boating on Lake Kaniere
  • Take the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth

More info

Where to stay

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Hero image: Cristoph Strässler
Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki (cropped) from Flickr, Creative Commons

Getting there

  • From Christchurch to Greymouth by road: 258km
  • From Nelsonby road: 290km

Don’t forget to pack a raincoat and insect repellent. The rain-shadow effect, and sandflies - all part of life’s rich tapestry.

Piwa perched