Along with a flinty pioneer history, this region is defined by the wilderness covering nearly 90 percent of its area within six national parks and countless other reserves. With pristine lakes, undeveloped coastline, virgin rainforest and some of New Zealand’s highest peaks, the West Coast is Fiordland’s nearest rival for natural beauty.
It’s a fantastic place for a Britz campervan adventure, with stacks of spectacular sights readily accessible by road. The coastal highway stretches the entire length of the region, passing through regularly changing landscapes punctuated by crazy geological formations such as Punakaiki’s pancake rocks. Back-roads penetrate deep into rainforest.
Scattered along the way are unpretentious towns such as Westport, Reefton and Greymouth, steeped in colourful pioneer and mining history. Hokitika lures in travellers with the promise of gold and greenstone treasures, while Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers bask in the blue glow of their famous icy flows.
Lying on the western side of the great Southern Alps, this long, skinny region is connected to the east via the Buller Gorge, and three alpine passes – Lewis, Arthur’s and Haast. These allow for all sorts of loop routes from either Christchurch or Queenstown Britz depots.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
The Coast revels in a wealth of natural spectacles, such as the limestone arches at Oparara and spurting blowholes at Punakaiki. The surreal azure waters of Hokitika Gorge are a photographer’s dream, while the frozen flows of Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers offer a rare chance to hike on the ice.
These, however, are just the pin-ups in the postcard rack. Beyond them are countless other strange and alluring sights, many catching the traveller by surprise. There are the rivers tumbling down from hidden valleys, glowworm grottoes, beaches strewn with jewel-like pebbles, ancient trees along a hiking trails, and snow-capped peaks against sunset skies. The whole of the West Coast is a natural wonder.
Rivers, lakes & beaches
The coast is a region of many rivers, most of which run rapids from mountains to sea; lovers of whitewater rafting should check out trips on the Buller and Whataroa. Some rivers slow to a friendlier flow, such as the Pororari near Punakaiki where there’s easy kayaking and swimming within a sublime limestone gorge.
The Tasman Sea coast is wild, windswept and rich in drama, driftwood, seals, seabirds and sunsets, but a no-go for swimming. Fortunately, there are lakes galore, often with waterside campsites in rainforest surrounds. Mahinapua, Kaniere and Ianthe are just three of these (although maybe only the kids will brave the water!). Near Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson is lauded for its mirror-like reflections of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The West Coast is a walker’s paradise, with easy trailhead parking, handy campsites and clear track signage ensuring achievable, enjoyable adventures for everyone. As well as challenging mountain hikes, there are numerous easier ambles along historic water races, pack tracks and logging tramways, such as Charming Creek north of Westport, and Mananui Tramline near Hokitika.
Forest walkways are a speciality. Two excellent examples are Te Weheka and Te Ara a Waiau that link the glacier viewpoints to their townships. Not only are they are rewarding alternative to driving to the busy car parks, they feature illuminating storyboards that bring the landscape to life – as do many of the region’s popular trails.
The West Coast is an internationally renowned bird-spotting area, and even the most disinterested of travellers may find themselves turned on to twitching. The must-see is New Zealand’s national icon, the kiwi, which can be encountered at the particularly child-friendly West Coast Wildlife Centre, and at nearby Okarito and Whataroa, havens for the majestic kotuku (great white heron) and cheeky but highly intelligent kea (native parrot).
New Zealand fur seals can be unobtrusively observed in their rocky colonies around Westport’s Cape Foulwind Walkway, or Galway Beach near Fox Glacier.
The Coast’s gritty human history begins with the highly prized greenstone (pounamu) that drew early Maori to the coast. Pioneers followed on quests for gold, coal and timber, leaving in their wake many derelict dwellings, industrial relics and graveyards.
Tales of such times past are evocatively retold at Greymouth’s Shantytown heritage park, Westport’s Coaltown Museum, and atop the bleak but beautiful Denniston Plateau to its north. Hokitika, as featured in Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, also has an excellent museum and heritage walkway.
Reefton & Waiuta
At Reefton, an hour’s drive inland of Greymouth, streets lined with historic buildings, Black’s Point Museum and resident ‘Bearded Miners’ paint a vivid picture of a bygone era. Hidden in the adjacent mountains, the fascinating ghost town of Waiuta is highly photogenic and heaven for the generally curious.
Secreted in Paparoa National Park, behind the coastal hamlet of Charleston, is a spectacular cave system adorned with strange formations and galaxies of glowworms. Norwest Adventures’ trips into this subterranean wonderland range from easy to adventurous, and all start with a fun rainforest railway journey into the Nile River Canyon.
West Coast Wilderness Trail
This new cycleway [link to Britz Bikes story] serves up a series of striking surprises on the way from Greymouth to Ross across 135 kilometres of varied and view-filled terrain. It is easily split into segments of varying length and difficulty (with bike hire and shuttles available), and passes classic pubs such as Greymouth’s Paroa Hotel, Kumara’s Theatre Royal, and the Empire at Ross.
At the southern end of the coastal highway, beyond Haast, sleepy Jackson Bay is the West Coast’s only natural harbour. The drive to the end of the line and back – definitely a road less travelled – boasts epic wilderness scenery, satisfying short walks, and the Cray Pot, an incredibly atmospheric spot for fish and chips.
- The West Coast is well set up for campervan travellers, with clear road signage, easy parking and excellent visitor information centres.
- The region’s 30 or so holiday parks have a strong focus on campervan travellers, so offer first-rate, family-friendly facilities and a sociable atmosphere.
- Outside of January and Easter, campsite bookings are usually not required so campervan travellers can follow a flexible itinerary.
- There are 11 Department of Conservation campsites, with sites available on a first-come-first-served basis.
- Shops and petrol stations are sparse in some places, so it pays to plan ahead for groceries and fuel.
- It does rain a lot, but mostly in big drops and mainly at night.
- The Coast is dotted with glowworm grottoes – ask locals where to find them.
- Hungry sandflies can be defeated DEET-free with widely available Okarito Sandfly Repellent.
- Call into a roadside stall for free-range eggs and whitebait, and make yourself the ultimate West Coast delicacy – the whitebait pattie.