Story: West Coast places

Page 1. Karamea

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2013 population: 375

This isolated lowland, 96 km north of Westport, has a pleasant climate, with warmer temperatures and less rain than the rest of the region. The main industry is dairy farming, with an increasing amount of horticulture and tourism.

The name Karamea is used for both the township and the whole area. It is a contraction of Kakara-taramea, meaning sweet-scented gum, which was made locally from the leaves of speargrass.

The urban area consists of two distinct settlements along the main road: Market Cross and Karamea itself.

Promised land

The first land available to European settlers in Karamea was on a high terrace, which turned out to be poor agricultural land. When the settlers eventually relocated to the more fertile flats of the Karamea River, they named the southern side The Promised Land and the northern side The Land of Promise. Nowadays these areas are known by the Māori names Arapito and Umere.


Little gold was found in the area in 1860s, and so it remained largely uninhabited, despite a navigable port at the mouth of the Karamea River.

In the early 1870s the Nelson provincial government took advantage of a government-funded scheme to develop a special settlement at Karamea. Most of the immigrants came from England, with a group from the Shetland Islands (north of Scotland). Early settlers included the Lineham, Scarlett, McNabb, Johnson, Jones, Simpson and Allen families, whose descendants are still in the area.

Although a track was formed across the hills to connect with the road and railhead at Seddonville, land transport out of the district was difficult in the early days. The present route over Karamea Bluffs to Westport was not opened until 1916. After the 1929 Murchison earthquake the port at the mouth of the Karamea River silted up, and the only access to the area was then by road.


Agriculture was largely at subsistence level until the road to Westport was opened. The first cooperative butter factory was opened in 1911. The dairy industry gradually expanded, and the manufacture of milk powder started in the 1970s. Milk is now collected daily from farms by tanker and transported to Hokitika for processing.

Radiant minerals

Copper–molybdenum veins were discovered in the Mt Radiant range, south-west of Karamea, in 1906. There was a large amount of prospecting in the next few years, including blasting underground drives. The area was too remote and rugged to be reached by packhorses. Prospectors had to carry in supplies and gelignite by backpack, and carry out ore samples on the return journey. Despite claims of a large mineral deposit, only small areas have been found, which are not economically viable to mine.

Kahurangi National Park

The flat area of Karamea is surrounded on three sides by Kahurangi National Park, which covers a large area in the north-west of the South Island. There is an information centre at Karamea, which is the start (or finish) of two major tramping tracks, each taking 3–5 days: the Wangapeka Track (near Little Wanganui) and the Heaphy Track (starting north of Karamea). It is possible to do a circuit of both tracks.

Ōpārara valley

A network of tracks has been developed in the Ōpārara valley by a community-based trust in partnership with the Department of Conservation. This is an area of varied lowland forest north-east of Karamea. Existing tracks have been upgraded, and abandoned forestry roads have been converted into a mountain-bike trail.

An area of limestone country in the headwaters of the Ōpārara River has been eroded into a spectacular complex of arches and caverns, including cave formations. Some of the caves also preserve the skeletons of birds, bats and frogs that were trapped there thousands of years ago.

Parts of the cave system are accessible to casual visitors. Some parts can only be reached on guided tours, which may include kayaking along the river. Some areas are completely closed in order to preserve them in their natural state.

How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan, 'West Coast places - Karamea', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Simon Nathan, published 23 Feb 2009