The Wild, Wild West Coast

Trails like this (which is the Oparara Valley Track) crisscross the wet and wild West Coast.

Trails like this (which is part of the Oparara Valley Track) crisscross the wet and wild West Coast.

I knew very little about the West Coast region of the South Island before we spent a week here, except for its reputation as rainy, buggy and rural. The average rainfall is 2575 mm (8.4 feet), and a sign at Abel Tasman National Park said, “You think the sand flies are bad here? Wait ’til you get to the West Coast!”

“At least you’ll miss the crowds over there,” a tour-guide type mentioned in a look-on-the-bright-side tone.

We detoured to the West Coast to participate in a low-profile trail running event (which I’ll write about next time), and we’re so glad we did. We have been blown away by the West Coast’s landscape — and not just ’cause it’s windy. This swath of New Zealand is gorgeous, authentic, unspoiled … and, yes, wet. Perhaps nowhere is New Zealand’s remarkable commitment to preserve open space and make it accessible with well-maintained trails more concentrated than in this region, which has five national parks and more “tracks” (what Kiwis call trails) than I could keep track of. For trail runners like us, it’s paradise.

The West Coast region covers some 375 miles of coastline, and its biggest district, Greymouth, has a population of less than 14,000. Almost half the West Coast residents live in and around Greymouth, while the others live in a sprinkling of sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it towns populated mainly by coal miners, pub owners and shopkeepers. Imagine if you drove from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz and the biggest town were about the size of my hometown of Piedmont, and you begin to sense how sparsely populated the region is. Here are highlights from our far-flung tour:

Karamea

Oparara Arch, a 200m-long limestone tunnel carved over eons by the river, is one reason to visit Karamea.

Oparara Arch, a 200m-long limestone tunnel carved over eons by the river, is one reason to visit Karamea.

Way, way out there, at the north end of the West Coast’s main road, is the funky farming community of Karamea, famous for caves in the Oparara Basin and gateway to the Kahurangi National Park and its 78K Heaphy Track (the longest of New Zealand’s amazing Great Walks). We drove up on a rainy day that obscured the views, wondering where the hell we were and what we were doing, and checked into The Last Resort motel, where the decor is dorm-room-circa-1985. (The lounge and restaurant are quite nice though, with a woodsy Big Sur kind of vibe.) The next day we put on our windbreakers and drove up a 10-mile dirt road with not another car in sight. The slick mud made the car fishtail, and again we wondered where the hell we were and nervously joked that it looked like we found ourselves in the place where Jurassic Park was filmed.

Finally we reached a trailhead with a brand-new picnic area surrounded by museum-quality informational boards describing the colorful history of logging and mining here. It also explained the science behind the cave and arch formation, and answered perplexing questions such as, Why is the river here the color of an amber ale? (Answer: tannins from the foliage stain the water, as though all the water were passing through a giant teabag.)

The river runs reddish-brown here, stained by tannins in the forest.

The river runs reddish-brown near Karamea, stained by tannins in the forest.

The kids took it all in and enthusiastically set off on a hike among fuzzy-green trees that Colly said looked Seussical. We all marveled at the porous mountain that drips like a sponge and the natural arches that sprout stalactites and stalagmites. (Roadschooling doesn’t get much better than this.)

One of the "Seusical" trees along the trail.

One of the "Seussical" trees along the trail.

We had to crane our necks all the way back and look straight up to get this view of a natural bridge over the trail. The limestone arch sprouts symetrical sideways trees.

We had to crane our necks all the way back and look straight up to get this view of a natural limestone bridge over the trail.

Morgan and I didn’t make it onto the Heaphy Track, but we took turns running through rain forests and over bouncy suspension bridges along the 8-mile Oparara Valley Track, which opened in late 2008 after years of work and fundraising by local volunteers. I actually got teary eyed when I reached a hut in the woods midway on the trail, which the volunteers built as shelter for hikers and adorned with informational boards showing pictures of the crew building the track and camping in the woods. Someone had taken the time to carve a chair and matching ottoman out of a giant stump. The hut was so special and so secluded, so lovingly constructed, that it struck me as an unintended monument to Thoreau in that it invited anyone who had the spirit to delve into the woods to sit back and spend as long as possible contemplating Nature.

Charming Creek and Granity

Colly and Kyle learned about coal mining history along the 10K Charming Creek Track, which follows old railroad tracks through tunnels and past waterfalls. Rusted mining equipment is left along the way.

Colly and Kyle learned about coal mining history along the 10K Charming Creek Track, which follows an old railroad bed through tunnels and past waterfalls. Rusted mining equipment is left along the way.

We stopped for a few nights in a place about an hour south of Karamea that’s a speck on the map, Ngakawau, which is next to Granity (which isn’t saying much). Our little inn, the Charming Creek B&B, was a great spot to stay — right across the street from a blustery beach — but only if you don’t mind being in an isolated area (we didn’t). We spent the days homeschooling and hiking along the beach and the Charming Creek Track, which follows the roaring Ngakawau River.

A piece of old iron along the Charming Creek trail by Mangatini Falls.

A piece of old iron along the Charming Creek trail by Mangatini Falls.

The West Coast tracks feature numerous suspension bridges like this one over the Ngakawau River. I found them scary but Kyle and Colly loved to make them bounce.

The West Coast tracks feature numerous suspension bridges like this one over the Ngakawau River. I found them scary, but Kyle and Colly loved bouncing across them.

The Charming Creek railroad tracks, which transported coal and logs for decades, now lead hikers and runners up the mountain.

The Charming Creek railroad tracks, which transported coal and logs for decades, now make a path for hikers and runners.

Westport

Cape Foulwind next to Westport (click to enlarge).

Cape Foulwind next to Westport (click to enlarge), as seen from The Bay House restaurant.

Westport is the only “big town” (pop. approx. 3000) in the north half of the West Coast. It’s a working-class community with the basics we needed (market, laundromat) but not much to offer in town itself. Outside of town, however, are more natural playgrounds.

We checked into a forgettable motel and then drove toward Cape Foulwind (which doesn’t actually smell bad) and stumbled upon the surprisingly sophisticated, Thai-influenced Bay House restaurant with an incredible view of waves crashing against the rocks at sunset. Anyone who’s anywhere near Westport should have a meal and walk around here.

The Bay House restaurant behind the big rock the kids climbed.

The Bay House restaurant behind the big rock the kids climbed.

Westport sits at the base of the Buller Gorge, a spectacular river valley. (I know I’m overusing superlatives in this post, but I can’t help it!) We got up close to the river on horseback during a two-hour ride with Buller Adventure Tours. Having suffered through numerous nose-to-tail guided rides on bomb-proof horses, I was pleasantly surprised to find rental horses in good condition with high-quality tack and a guide who let us trot and canter. At one point, we forged a sizable creek (not Buller River itself, which is much bigger than the stream in these photos).

Kyle manage to ride English by himself for the first time and guide his reluctant pony through the creek.

Kyle manage to ride English by himself and guide his reluctant pony through the creek.

Colly took her horse through the deepest part and got her jeans soaked!

Colly took her horse through the deepest part and got her jeans soaked!

Now we’re headed to the southern half of the West Coast — between Westport and Greymouth — to explore places like Pancake Rocks and the Croesus Crossing before heading over Arthur’s Pass to Queenstown. Today marks the five-month day of our journey, approximately the halfway mark of our trip if we return in June as planned, and I can’t believe how far we’ve come.

Morgan deserves the credit for taking these great photos ...

Thanks to Morgan for taking these great photos ...

... and the kids deserve credit for being great hikers!

... and thanks to the kids for being great hikers!

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