In broad terms the West Coast consists of a narrow strip of land composed mainly of alluvium and glacial deposits brought down by the rivers and glaciers flowing from the Southern Alps. Located on the western side of the main range it has an exceedingly high rainfall, which is well distributed throughout the year. Thus Hokitika has an average annual rainfall of 108·8 in. and the average number of rain days is 194. Nevertheless, sunshine hours are quite high, 1,840, and the range of temperature is low. The mean daily maximum for January is 65·3F and the mean daily minimum for July is 35·6F. The original vegetation was mostly nothofagus (or beech) and podocarp forest, and it remains so over large areas because of the steep terrain. A portion of the forest is still being exploited; the remainder has been converted to farm land, but a considerable area is occupied by scrub and poorly regenerated forest. The land-utilisation survey for 1959 estimated that only 168,800 acres, or 4·4 per cent of the total area, was developed and, of this, 37·6 per cent was under poor grass; 378,600 acres, 9·8 per cent of the total area, was under scrub, whilst 66 per cent was still clothed in native bush and 16·6 per cent consisted of barren mountain tops.
To understand the region one must pass beyond this elementary physical pattern, because in terms both of human and of physical geography the West Coast divides into a northern and southern section, the dividing line being to the south of Hokitika, perhaps near Ross. To the south the physical pattern is, as already described, a narrow coastal plain with the ranges steeply rising above it. There are no settlements of a thousand or more people; a few small villages, such as Harihari (population, 1961, 250), act as centres for the farming population which occupies some of the larger alluvial fans. Sheep, as well as dairy and beef cattle, are run. There is very little sawmilling to the south of Ross, but the tourist, who provides the third source of income, has the opportunity of passing through some large sections of virgin bush. The attraction is always the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, which descend from the main ranges at altitudes of 10,000 ft to within 700 ft of sea level. Exceptional views occur of glaciers framed by native bush, and from sites nearer to the coast a magnificent panorama is obtained of the glaciers and the principal peaks of the Southern Alps, Mount Tasman (11,475 ft), Cook (12,349 ft), and La Perouse (10,101 ft). These constitute the more public of the scenic attractions; progressively, other attractions are being opened up to a smaller clientele through the use of the aeroplane. With the completion of the Haast Pass road, the greatest detraction to tourism in the region, the necessity of making the long return journey to Hokitika, has been removed and it is now possible to continue the journey through to Central Otago.
The northern section of the West Coast is essentially the work place of the region. It is not without its tourist attractions (the Punakaiki Rocks have a fascination for some), but there is more to engage the attention of the economist, geographer, sociologist, and historian. The simple plan of the physical geography is broken by the Paparoa Range, which stands between the coast and the main range. Composed largely of metamorphic rocks, it attains a height of 4,925 ft in the north and 3,992 ft in the south, and it is here, near the lower reaches of the Grey River, that the range is flanked by coal-bearing early Tertiary rocks. The valley of the Grey and its tributaries creates a large area of lowlying country to the east of the Paparoa Range, which is important for farming and which contains the main road and rail connections between Greymouth and Reefton and via the Buller Gorge, Westport. North of Westport the simple pattern of coastal plain backed by mountains is repeated, but the relief is much lower, between 3,000 to 5,000 ft, and whilst old metamorphic rocks are present, the rocks of the coastal range are largely of Tertiary Age with coal-bearing series exposed close to Denniston, Stockton, and Seddonville. This area is known as the Buller coalfield. To the north lies Karamea (population, 1961, 220), a small centre serving the farming population located on the surrounding alluvial fan. Beyond Karamea the coast is wild, desolate, and uninhabited.