Petr Hlavacek Photography
The South Island’s West Coast is wild and rugged, yet immensely beautiful. Wave-pounded coastlines, lush temperate rainforests, the island’s highest mountains and accessible glaciers all feature. The first settlers came in search of gold but now coal mining and increasingly, tourism are the region’s lifeblood.
Very much a town created around the 1860's gold rush and the ensuing development of road and rail links, Greymouth is rich in history and steeped in Maori heritage. Although only a small town, it is the main centre along the West Coast and provides a good, central base for exploring the region.
Rail travel is very much a part of Greymouth and the town is the terminus for the TranzAlpine rail journey. This spectacular journey across the Southern Alps from Christchurch is considered to be one of the world’s great rail journeys. Greymouth offers a range of activities only minutes from the town centre, including the Art Gallery, Monteith’s Brewing Company and the History House. It is also possible to take a walk along the flood wall which protects the town from the Grey River.
South of Greymouth, nearby Shantytown offers a fascinating insight into the gold rush days of the 1880’s, re-creating the atmosphere of the era. There is a steam locomotive offering rides and you can try your hand at panning for gold.
Further south, Hokitika is known for its greenstone (pounamu) carving. Whilst to the north the stunning Pancake Rocks and blowholes of Punakaiki are backed by the lush forests of Paparoa National Park.
Sleepy Karamea, in the north, is the gateway to the vast wilderness of Kahurangi National Park, with its legendary limestone caves and arches. Nearby Westport is known for its colonies of fur seals, which breed at Cape Foulwind.
West Coast Glaciers
The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are without doubt the greatest lure of this region. Nestled on the edge of the rainforest these great cascading frozen rivers are only 6 km from the Tasman Sea. They are amongst the fastest moving glaciers in the world, with Franz Josef known to move up to 5m per day on occasions. Both are well worth seeing, but understandably many visitors only stay in the area for one or two nights. They are remarkably accessible and can be explored on guided walks, heli-hikes and scenic flights.
The townships that have built up around the glaciers are small and quite parochial, but as a result of the influx of visitors over the years, they have developed into well-equipped resort towns, with a good choice of accommodation available.
One of the ‘must do’s’ of the area is a visit to the iconic Lake Matheson. Lying just west of the Fox Glacier township, this lake is famous for offering idyllic views of the surrounding mountains, almost perfectly reflected in the mirror-smooth waters. This is one photo opportunity not to be missed.
Lying south of the glaciers, this picturesque region has been deemed a World Heritage Area. The large areas of rainforest and wetlands, as well as sweeping beaches and scenic lakes and rivers, all contribute to the splendour of the area, which is also rich in wildlife, especially penguin and fur seal colonies.
The area offers excellent hiking trails over a range of terrain and these are amongst the quietest in the country. One of the better know is the Hapuka Estuary Walk at Haast Beach near to the historic settlement of Jackson's Bay. This is a tiny fishing hamlet and one of the most remote towns in New Zealand. Panoramic views from Knight's Point typify the wild and rugged coastline.
Haast Pass leads inland, linking the remote West Coast to the Southern Lakes. There are many waterfalls just off the road, including Fantail and Thunder Creek falls.
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