Welcome to the West Coast
While the length of NZ’s South Island is over 1000 km, the South West corner and coastline are home to NZ’s fiords and is inaccessible by road. The West Coast road, taking you from Haast in the south west to Westport in the north, is approximately 430km (265miles). It’s home to lush rainforest and wild coastline but the jewels in the West Coast crown have to be the world-famous phenomena of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. They’re not just a distant glimpse either, and many visitors are amazed by how close you can get to these wonders of nature. Glaciers and views aside, there’s plenty to keep the kids occupied on the trip up or down the coast, and lots of family-friendly accommodation to break your journey.
Karamea is well off the beaten track - 100km north of Westport and on the fringes of the rugged Kahurangi National Park. The 1½ hour drive from Westport includes coastal scenery, rainforest-clad hills, friendly villages, and the impressive Karamea Bluff, which offers spectacular coastal views. The road is easy to drive and sealed all the way. Karamea is either your first or last port of call if you're hiking the Heaphy Track.
Situated in the Buller Region, this is the West Coast’s northernmost town from where you can leave the coast and head inland. Well worth a visit is the short detour out to Cape Foulwind. From the carpark there’s a short, easy cliff walk that takes you to fantastic bird and sea viewpoints as well as the seal breeding colony. It’s well populated and you can usually see hundreds of seals lounging on the rocks or taking the odd dip. Westport offers small town amenities, including hospital, cafes, restaurants and pubs, basic shops and accommodation.
The largest town on the West Coast and the commercial centre, Greymouth offers good amenities and is a central base for exploring. While feeling incredibly remote, it’s only 4 hours by road (Arthur’s Pass) or 41/2 hours via the stunning Tranz Alpine train route, from Christchurch. Greymouth is also just half an hour south of the incredible Pancake Rock formations at Punakaiki.
Only 40km south of Greymouth, and famous for its adventure sports lifestyle, fantastic beaches, laid back atmosphere, and perhaps most of all, Greenstone.
About Greenstone – known as ‘Pounamu’ greenstone was used by the Maori settlers to make weapons for hunting - it was a hardy stone that was easy to shape and carve. The Maori also used greenstone for ornament, as we do today.
The Legend – Originally, according to Maori legend, there were two stones, Poutini (the greenstone) and Whaiapu, which belonged to Ngahue and the chieftainess Hina-tua-hoanga respectively. The latter became jealous of Ngahue's stone and drove him from Hawaiki.
Eventually his canoe, Tahirirangi, reached New Zealand and Ngahue hid his greenstone near Arahura on the west coast of the South Island. It was very well hidden and lies there to this day; however, small portions are occasionally broken off and carried down the river. These pieces provided the Maori with their source of greenstone.
Hokitika is home to dozens of shops selling greenstone carvings and jewellery, as well as several factories, so you can see the carvers at work.
The West Coast Glaciers
One of the most incredible sights in New Zealand are the glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef. While we have hundreds of glaciers, mostly hidden in the depths of the Southern Alps, these two magnificent examples are impressively visible to passers-by – no multi-day hikes to get up close!
Fox Glacier – the walks and viewpoints are situated just south of the Fox township. If you’re driving from the south, you’ll pass a sign to a Fox viewpoint, followed by a bridge. For best access, ignore the first viewpoint sign and cross the bridge, then turn right into a carpark. From here you can follow the river bed along a stony path for about an hour. It brings you to within metres of the glacier’s base, and your view of the magnificent terminal face is uninterrupted all the way. The walk is uneven, but not difficult for children of any age. Baby backpacks recommended rather than buggies, although if you’re stuck, you can get great views without completing the walk. Note: at the end of the walk there is a cordon, restricting access to the ice. This is to be taken seriously as chunks of ice the size of cars can and do drop from the face with no warning.
Franz Josef – a short drive from the main road takes you to the carpark from where there are several walk options. The easiest and quickest for a good view is a 10 minute walk. The path is easy and it’s a steady but straightforward uphill zig zag to a viewing platform. Suitable for children and buggies. The view is from a distance but nevertheless impressive and well worth the hike.