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West Coast places

by  Simon Nathan

This is a comprehensive guide to the towns, coastal and inland areas, and other places of interest in the West Coast region.



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.

Buller coal towns

Following the discovery of high-quality bituminous coal at Burnetts Face in 1860, thick coal seams were found at several nearby localities. It was gradually realised that the Buller coalfield extended more than 30 kilometres along a high plateau (500–600 metres above sea level), from Denniston to Seddonville. Much of this area carries only stunted vegetation because of the infertile nature of the coal-bearing rocks.

Communities grew up close to the major mines, often in remote localities. The 1911 census showed that a substantial population was living in coal towns:

  • Seddonville: 525
  • Millerton: 708
  • Granity/Ngākawau/Hector: 882
  • Denniston (including Burnetts Face): 1,469
  • Waimangaroa: 362.

Life in the mining communities on the plateau was bleak. As motorised transport became available, mining families gradually moved down to coastal locations with a better climate.

Hell-fire coal

Coal from Seddonville was traditionally hard to sell because of its exceptionally high sulfur content (generally 5–6% and sometimes more). Brimstone, the pungent smell of sulfurous coal burning, is traditionally associated with hell. In the late 20th century Seddonville coal was banned from most urban areas, and one of the few places where it was used was the Karamea dairy factory.


Township on river flats in the lower reaches of the Mōkihinui River, 50 km north-east of Westport. It was named after Premier Richard Seddon, who visited the area in 1893. New Zealand’s first state coal mine was opened at Seddonville in 1903, but closed in 1914 because of mining difficulties. A number of private mines worked coal during the 20th century, but mining has now ceased.


High-altitude settlement, 31 km north-east of Westport. Named after H. J. Miller, a director of the Dunedin-based Westport Coal Company, Millerton was opened as a company town for miners at the nearby Millerton Mine in 1896. Few miners still live in Millerton, but a small community survives, attracted by cheap land and housing.

Opencast mines from the plateau behind Millerton provide a large proportion of the bituminous coal produced in New Zealand. The coal is transported on an aerial cableway to storage bins at Ngākawau, then taken by rail to Christchurch.

Charming Creek walkway

A railway line to the abandoned Charming Creek mine has been converted into an easy, 5.5-kilometre walkway through native forest. The first part is through the spectacular Ngākawau Gorge, which is crossed by a suspension bridge near the Mangatini falls. An all-weather track, this is an exciting walk on a wet day when the river is in flood, and the falls are deafening.

Granity, Ngākawau and Hector

The narrow coastal flat near the mouth of the Ngākawau River, 32 km north-east of Westport, has an almost continuous strip of housing (2013 population: 456). There are three distinct mining settlements. Granity is situated at the bottom of the hill road to Millerton. Ngākawau is on the south side of the Ngākawau River, named after the shags (kawau in Māori) that nest nearby. The settlement of Hector, on the north side of the river, is named after James Hector, a 19th-century geologist who studied the Buller coalfield.

The open, boulder-strewn coast is one of the best places on the West Coast to collect wave-polished stones.


A small, almost abandoned coal town, 27 km north-east of Westport. It was named after R. B. Denniston, manager of the first major mine to open in the 1870s and later a director of the Westport Coal Company. On a bare plateau at an altitude of 600 metres, Denniston was the bleakest of the coal mining towns, often shrouded in fog. The nearby town of Burnetts Face was squashed into a narrow valley, close to the original coal discovery. Jenny Pattrick’s novel The Denniston rose (2003) gives a depressingly vivid picture of the lives of miners and their families.

Coal was transported from the plateau down to a branch railway line by the Denniston incline, a spectacular cable railway. Mining ceased in the 1990s, and only a few inhabitants remain. Part of the town is a historic reserve, with a museum and walking tracks around mining relics.


A small mining and milling town, 17 km north of Westport, at the foot of the winding road up to Denniston.



2013 population: 4,035

A river port near the mouth of the Buller River, 99 km north of Greymouth. Westport is the main commercial and administrative centre for the northern part of the West Coast, also known as Buller.

Westports of the world

Worldwide there are more than 20 towns called Westport, mainly in North America. New Zealand’s Westport is the only one in the southern hemisphere. A thriving organisation, Westports of the World, holds annual conventions, hosted in New Zealand in 1988, 1997 and 2006.


During exploration of remote parts of Nelson province in 1858, John Rochfort entered the Buller River from the sea in the cutter Supply, and showed that it could be used as a port. After gold was discovered in the middle reaches of the Buller River, a small trading settlement grew up on the eastern side of the river mouth. About 80 people lived there at the end of 1861, in a township known as Buller. The name Westport was proposed for the settlement by J. C. Richmond in 1863, apparently because of its similarity to Westport in County Mayo, Ireland. At the height of the gold rushes in 1867 the population grew to 1,500.

The discovery and mining of high-quality bituminous coal near Westport led to the progressive development and expansion of the port. Breakwaters confined the river to a defined channel, with a minimum depth of 4 metres at low tide. Until the railway through the lower Buller Gorge was completed in 1944, all coal was exported by sea.

Westport had a peak population of over 5,500 in the 1950s. It has gradually declined to just over 4,000.

Changing industries

Although the output of coal from the Buller coalfield has increased since 1990, the number of people employed in coal mining has declined. Almost all the coal is now transported out of the region by train.

In 2015 the largest employers were Solid Energy and the Holcim cement works, which manufactures cement at a plant near Cape Foulwind from local limestone and coal. Ships carrying cement were the main users of the port, although some of the cement was transported around the South Island by rail. In the early 2010s Solid Energy reduced staff numbers, while in 2015 Holcim announced that the works would close in two to three years.

Shaky ground

Parts of Westport were damaged by large earthquakes in 1910, 1929, 1962 and 1968. The worst was the 1929 Murchison earthquake, when the post office tower and several other buildings collapsed. Although other West Coast towns suffered damage in these earthquakes, it was generally more severe in Westport. On the positive side, Westport has a number of fine art deco buildings, constructed after the 1929 earthquake.

Increasing agricultural production

Westport is surrounded by flat land – a sequence of uplifted marine terraces formed during past inter-glacial periods. Although the land appeared suitable for agriculture to early settlers, iron layers (called iron pans) have produced sour, infertile soils, locally called pākihi (from a Māori word that originally meant open country). Hydraulic excavators have allowed the development of the technique of ‘flipping’, where the soil is dug to a depth of 2–3 metres, inverting and mixing it as well as breaking the iron pan to improve drainage. With the use of fertiliser, there was a substantial rise in dairy production, and large areas of previously abandoned land were farmed.

Carters Beach

Located on the western side of the Buller River, about 5 km from Westport, Carters Beach is the only sheltered sandy beach on the West Coast suitable for swimming. An 18-hole golf course and Westport airport are located nearby.

Cape Foulwind

On the coast, about 12 kilometres west of Westport, Cape Foulwind is a rocky headland jutting into the Tasman Sea. Granite was quarried here for the breakwaters that protect Westport harbour. A circular walkway goes past the lighthouse, and there is a seal colony at the southern end of the walkway, near Tauranga Bay.

Buller valley

Buller River

The Buller (Kawatiri in Māori, meaning deep and swift) is the largest river on the West Coast. From its source at Lake Rotoiti in the adjacent Nelson region, it flows 169 km to the Tasman Sea near Westport. On the way it crosses two major mountain ranges, forming the upper and lower Buller gorges. The upper gorge is narrow and rocky, whereas the lower gorge is wider and more open.

Remembering Kehu

Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy, with a Māori guide, Kehu, explored the West Coast in the mid-1840s. Although Brunner and Heaphy have major landmarks on the West Coast named after them, Kehu was ignored in naming features. A minor stream in Cascade Creek, a tributary of the Buller River, was belatedly named after him in the 1970s.

After the Scenery Preservation Act 1903 was passed, the upper and lower Buller gorges were two of the first areas to be designated scenic reserves. The Buller River is regarded as one of the outstanding wild rivers in New Zealand, and since 2001 has been protected by a water conservation order that bans changes to its natural quality, and to the level and flow of the river and many of its tributaries. There is considerable recreational use of the river, including jet-boating, kayaking, rafting and fishing.


Travel through the upper Buller Gorge was difficult until the late 19th century. Boats, tracks and, later, narrow roads made the valley more accessible by the 1870s, although they were susceptible to damage from bad weather and earthquakes.

There have long been plans for a railway along the Buller River to link Nelson and the West Coast, but the gorge sections have been difficult and expensive to excavate. The section through the lower gorge was opened in 1943 but the planned section through the upper gorge has never been started.

Gold mining

The discovery of alluvial gold in late 1859 brought prospectors into the valley, although there was never a gold rush. Supplies were transported up the Buller River by boat – at times poled, rowed, and pulled by horses and men.

In 1869 Antonio Zala and Giorgio Zanetti discovered gold-bearing quartz veins in a tributary of Lyell Creek. Underground exploration led to the discovery of a reef 4–5 metres wide. The Alpine mine produced gold from 1871 to 1912.

From 1891 to 1911 a number of small gold dredges worked the middle section of the Buller River, between Blackwater River and Lyell. Gold returns were patchy, and dredges were often damaged or washed away by floods.

Gold mining in the Buller valley had virtually ceased by the First World War. Although gold can still be found locally, no areas rich enough to work have been discovered.


The 1955 discovery of uranium ore in the lower Buller Gorge, west of Hawks Crag, created great excitement. Despite considerable prospecting over the next two decades, only low-grade deposits were found, and no mining has ever been undertaken.

A big shake-up

The northern part of the South Island was shaken by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake at 5.24 a.m. on 24 May 1968, centred around Īnangahua Junction. There was widespread damage close to the epicentre, and landslides closed both the upper and lower Buller gorges. It was the first time that many New Zealanders had heard of Īnangahua.

Īnangahua Junction

A small settlement near the juncture of the Īnangahua and Buller rivers, 46 km east of Westport. The name is derived from īnanga (a native fish), for which the Īnangahua River was noted.


An abandoned gold-mining town, 18 km north-east of Īnangahua Junction. The township occupied a tiny strip of flat land near the mouth of Lyell Creek, named after Scottish geologist Charles Lyell. After mining ceased, a hotel remained and a small number of people continued to live at Lyell until the 1960s. The town site is now a Department of Conservation camping ground and the start of several walking tracks in the Lyell Creek valley.



2013 population: 1,026

Town on the banks of the Īnangahua River, 79 km from both Greymouth and Westport. Reefton is the only place on the West Coast where quartz reefs (after which it is named) have been successfully mined apart from Lyell. Originally called Reeftown, the name was shortened to Reefton (and sometimes nicknamed Quartzopolis). Broadway, the main street, was named after Charles Broad, an early magistrate and warden.

The saviour of Reefton

David Ziman, a Polish investor with South African experience, visited Reefton in 1895 at the suggestion of Premier Richard Seddon. Realising the potential of the then-depressed mining industry, he formed a new company, Consolidated Goldfields of New Zealand, with the assistance of the Rothschild family. Booming times in Reefton in the first decade of the 20th century were largely due to his energy and foresight.

Although Reefton is traditionally associated with gold mining, all of the mines had closed by 1951, and coal mining and forestry became more significant. Reefton also serves the farming community in the Īnangahua valley. Tourism is important in summer months. In 2007 Oceana Gold opened a large opencast gold mine, and gold again made an important contribution to the local economy.

Gold mining

Alluvial gold had been discovered in the Īnangahua valley in 1866, but returns were consistently lower than in the Kumara–Hokitika area to the south. The first gold-bearing quartz reefs near Reefton were discovered in 1870, and gold was extracted by 1872. There were further discoveries during the 1870s, leading to the formation of a number of mining companies. Although returns to shareholders were high at first, there was a slump in the 1880s as money to develop deeper mines was not available. With the formation of Consolidated Goldfields New Zealand in 1896, leases were amalgamated and modern technology was used to successfully mine the quartz reefs for the next 55 years.

From 1872 to 1951 over 4 million tonnes of quartz were mined in the Reefton area, producing 64,700 kilograms of gold. Although there were 59 mines, only 11 produced more than half a tonne.


Walter Prince, an English electrical engineer, installed a 1-kilowatt electrical plant to light Dawson’s Hotel in 1886. By 1888 a hydroelectric plant was installed to provide lighting in Reefton – said to be the first town in the southern hemisphere to be lit by electricity.

Picturing Waiuta

Moravian immigrant Joseph (Jos) Divis worked in the Blackwater mine at Waiuta for many years. A keen photographer, he recorded mining life around Reefton, including some of the few photographs taken underground. A trademark feature is that Divis often appears in his own photographs. He stayed in Waiuta until his death in 1967, and photographed the gradual decline of the town after the mine closed in 1951.


An almost abandoned gold mining town, 38 km south-east of Reefton. Waiuta grew up to provide accommodation for miners who worked at the nearby Blackwater mine. A gold-bearing quartz reef was discovered by a prospecting party in 1905, and acquired by Consolidated Goldfields who developed the mine. From 1908 to 1951 this mine steadily produced gold from a steep, narrow quartz reef, providing 36% of the gold produced from the Reefton area. The town is now designated a protected area, under the care of the Department of Conservation, the few local residents and a volunteer society, the Friends of Waiuta.

Blacks Point

A settlement about 2 km east of Reefton on the Lewis Pass highway. It is the start of the Murray Creek walkway. Blacks Point Museum has an interesting collection related to local mining history.

Victoria Conservation Park

The largest conservation park in New Zealand, Victoria Conservation Park covers more than 200,000 hectares, including the Brunner and Victoria ranges. A network of tracks, some dating back to mining days, gives access to many parts of the park, including old mining settlements. Deer hunting and trout fishing are possible in many places.

Maruia valley

Maruia valley

Maruia means sheltered or shady in Māori. From its source in the Southern Alps, the Maruia River flows south-west, then gradually turns almost 180 degrees to flow north to join the Buller River near Murchison (in the adjacent Nelson region).

Maruia Declaration

Concerned about the proposed clearfelling of native timber, a group of 40 conservationists signed a petition to save lowland forests around a campfire on the snow-covered banks of the Maruia River near Lewis Pass on 4 July 1975. This became known as the Maruia Declaration. When circulated around New Zealand it attracted over 340,000 signatures. Although not accepted by the government of the day, it eventually became a blueprint for the conservation of native forest.

Cannibal country

The steep gorge of the Maruia River, leading up to the Lewis Pass has the Māori name of Kopi o Kaitangata, often translated as Cannibal Gorge. On long trips this was traditionally a place where one or more slaves were slaughtered to provide food for the rest of the party.

Lewis Pass

The Lewis Pass (864 m) links the West Coast with North Canterbury. It was known to Māori travellers as a trading route for the transport of pounamu (greenstone or jade). The first Europeans recorded to cross the pass were Nelson surveyors Henry Lewis (after whom it is named) and C. Maling in the early 1860s. The pass was used by early Pakēhā travellers, but was regarded as too far north to give useful access to the goldfields. A road across the pass (State Highway 7) was completed in 1938, and is used by travellers from Canterbury to the northern part of the West Coast and to Nelson.

Maruia Springs

Warm volcanic springs occur naturally on the north bank of the Maruia River, about 5 km west of Lewis Pass. The water is piped across the river for use in warm pools at the Maruia Springs thermal resort, where there is sex-segregated bathing in a Japanese-style bathhouse, as well as outdoor rock pools.

Earthquakes past

In 1950 geologist Harold Wellman discovered evidence for several past ruptures on the Alpine Fault at the Marble Hill picnic area. He showed that the highest terraces were more offset than the lower ones, which could only be explained by multiple movements, each of which would have been accompanied by a large earthquake. It is possible to walk along the line of the fault – from the concrete wall as a starting place – and estimate how much each terrace has been offset.

Marble Hill picnic area

The Maruia River opens out near the junction with the Alfred River, where there are wide river flats, recreational facilities and several short walks. A longer track leads to a hut at Lake Daniells. This is also one of the few accessible sites where the Alpine Fault – the largest fault in New Zealand – can be seen. A concrete wall was built across the fault line in the 1960s to check whether it was moving very gradually, but by 2015 there had been no sign of movement.

Springs Junction

A small settlement near the junction of State Highway 7 (to Reefton) and State Highway 65 (to Murchison). The name is misleading because Maruia Springs is 16 km to the east.

Close to the settlement, the Maruia River swings to the north, and State Highway 65 follows it for 65 km to the junction with the Buller River. State Highway 7 continues through beech forest over the Rahu Saddle towards Reefton.

Coast road

State Highway 6 between the Buller Gorge junction and Greymouth provides views of beaches, coastal cliffs and the Paparoa Range. Known locally as the coast road, it is one of the most spectacular routes on the West Coast.

Terrace country

From the junction of the Buller Gorge road southwards to Charleston, the road passes over a series of flat terraces. These flat areas were originally under the sea, and have gradually been uplifted over thousands of years. Concentrations of fine gold accumulated with black sand along ancient beaches. The area was swarming with gold prospectors in the 1860s and 1870s, and original forest was cleared. There is now little sign of mining activity except at Mitchell Gully mine, open as a tourist attraction, where old tunnels and mining machinery can be seen.

Shoe baron

The rugged country meant that shoes and boots constantly needed repair or replacement, and even small towns had a shoe shop. Robert Hannah opened his first shoe shop at Charleston in 1868. His business expanded, and he eventually became New Zealand’s largest shoe manufacturer and retailer. Hannahs was still a major nationwide shoe retailer in the 2010s.


Founded as a gold-mining settlement, Charleston exploded to a population of about 2,200 in early 1868. Constant Bay was the official port of entry for small sailing ships. The iron rings used to guide ships into port can still be seen on either side of the bay.

It is believed that the town is named after Captain Charles Bonner, master of the ketch Constant, which brought supplies to the settlement. In the 2010s there are few reminders of gold mining, and Charleston is a small seaside settlement.

Coal is seen on the roadside at several places near Charleston, and has been locally mined for domestic use. It is much lower quality than the coal north of Westport or near Greymouth, and there is little commercial market for it.

Nile caves

The limestone cliffs in the Nile valley, behind Charleston, contain a spectacular cave system, which is only accessible on guided tours. A variety of underground experiences are available, including black-water rafting and adventure caving.

Unique birds

Following his 1945 radio talk about petrels, biologist Robert Falla was contacted by pupils from the Barrytown School to say that the birds in a nearby colony laid their eggs several months earlier than he had described. This led to the discovery of the unique Westland petrel, Procellaria westlandica, which is only known to nest in a small area between Punakaiki and Barrytown.


Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki are one of the main tourist attractions on the West Coast, an easy 15-minute loop walk from the car park and visitor centre. Composed of the same limestone that forms the towering cliffs in nearby valleys, they have been sculpted into pancake-like layers by the sea and the wind. At high tide the sea surges into caverns, and is explosively forced upwards though blowholes.

Paparoa National Park

Established in 1987, Paparoa National Park was one of the first to contain a large area of lowland conifer– broadleaf forest, including distinctive nīkau palms close to the coast. Limestone underlies much of the park, and is responsible for many of the distinctive karst landforms, ranging from steep bluffs to caverns and caves. The rugged peaks of the Paparoa Range (the highest point, Mt Uriah, is 1,525 m) are not included in the park, but much of the range has been designated as a wilderness area.

The headquarters of the park is at Punakaiki, where there is a visitor centre close to the entrance to the Pancake Rocks reserve. There are a number of walking tracks that start in or near Punakaiki.

South of Punakaiki

After Punakaiki the road passes through varying country – flat or undulating to Barrytown, then winding around steep coastal cliffs. The road widens after Rapahoe, where it passes through softer mudstone, then onto the open river flats of the lower Grey Valley near Greymouth.

Grey Valley

Grey Valley

The middle reaches of the Grey Valley and its tributary valleys are one of the largest areas of flat farmland on the West Coast. In the rain shadow of the Paparoa Range, the western side of the valley has lower rainfall than the surrounding area, and has traditionally been regarded as good sheep country, although dairying is increasing.

The main settlements in the Grey Valley are small farming centres, from north to south:

  • Ikamatua
  • Tōtara Flat
  • Ahaura
  • Ngahere.

The flat farming land is surrounded by dissected hill country, formed mainly of brown gravel and sand. Much of it has been cleared of native vegetation and planted in exotic trees, mainly radiata pine for forestry.

During past ice ages, glaciers extended down most of the eastern tributaries of the Grey. The furthest extent of the glaciers is marked by terminal moraines (a hummocky belt of gravel and mud) that now hold in lakes such as Brunner (Moana), Hochstetter and Haupiri.

Gold mining

The gravels in the Grey Valley contain concentrations of gold, but in low quantities. In the 1870s and 1880s there were many gold workings by individuals and small parties, and evidence for past working can be seen in the recreation area near Nelson Creek. The most profitable way to work low-grade gravels is by dredging, and there were many dredges in the area from the 1890s onwards. In the late 20th century a large dredge worked an area in the central part of the Grey Valley around Ngahere.


Downstream from Stillwater the Grey River/Māwheranui flows through a narrow gorge. Stillwater is a rail and road junction, with routes going north (to Reefton), south (through the gorge to Greymouth) and east (to Lake Brunner (Moana) and Arthur’s Pass). The nearby Kōkiri meat works is the central abattoir and packing works for the whole region.

Lake Brunner (Moana)

This lake’s full Māori name is Moana Kōtuku, meaning the sea of white herons. The nearby farming settlement of Kōtuku has a historic school and oil seeps – evidence of the petroleum potential of the West Coast.

A popular recreational lake, it is used for boating, kayaking and trout fishing. The settlement of Moana on the north side of the lake is a weekend resort, often referred to as an outlying suburb of Christchurch as it can be easily reached by rail or in less than three hours by road.


Gloriavale is a conservative Christian community near Lake Haupiri. The sect’s members live, work and worship together, and do not individually own property. They run one of the largest dairy farms on the West Coast, with 1,200 cows, as well as deer, ostriches and a few sheep. Other business ventures include aircraft maintenance (Avkair), sphagnum moss processing and oil exploration. The community runs its own school and early childhood centres. In 2015 there were around 500 people in the community. That year families leaving Gloriavale attracted widespread media attention.

Grey coal towns

High-quality bituminous coal is found in a number of places at the southern end of the Paparoa Range, forming the Greymouth coalfield. As mines were developed in the later part of the 19th century, coalfield towns grew up to provide housing for miners. The mining communities were self-contained and relatively isolated, so there was minimal contact with other West Coast communities except on the sports field. Even that was limited, as miners favoured rugby league while most others played rugby union.


Thomas Brunner discovered a coal seam on the north side of the Brunner gorge in 1847, and mining started there in 1864. As coal mining expanded, the mining settlement spread across the hillside opposite the mine, with other communities at Wallsend, Taylorville and Dobson, a few kilometres downstream where there was more space. The mine steadily produced coal for over 40 years.

The Brunner mine explosion in 1896 was New Zealand’s worst mining disaster, causing the death of 65 men and boys. The impact on the population was enormous: 186 children were left fatherless, 37 women were widowed, and 14 elderly parents were deprived of their sole financial support.

The main Brunner mine was closed in 1906, but other mines started nearby. After the Dobson mine closed in 1968 there was no further mining in the area. The site of Brunnerton is almost abandoned, although the coke ovens and other features are preserved as a historic site. Most of those who live in Dobson and Taylorville now work in Greymouth.

Fighting family

The Frickleton family (five brothers and their widowed mother) emigrated to Blackball from Stirlingshire, Scotland, in 1912–13. Remembered as the ‘fighting Frickletons’, they were an unruly group in the mining community. All five brothers enlisted to fight in the First World War. William was killed, and Samuel was awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle for Messines.


The Blackball Shipping Company of England was a major shareholder in the company that started producing coal near the present site of Blackball in 1893. In the same year the township of Blackball (named after the company) was laid out, and sections were auctioned.

After a successful strike in 1908, Blackball miners gained a reputation for being highly unionised and active socialists. A number of the leading strikers subsequently became leaders in the labour movement.

The mine workings were nationalised in 1941, becoming the Blackball State Mine. Because of its high sulfur content, the coal was hard to sell, and the mine finally closed in 1964, though nearby mines stayed open. Although the population fell, in 2013 Blackball had a population of 291, but few were now miners.

Croesus Track

Originally constructed as a bullock road, the Croesus Track (starting at the northern end of Blackball) gives access to the main ridge of the Paparoa Range.

Rūnanga runner

Rūnanga long-distance runner Dave McKenzie won the Boston Marathon in 1967 in what was then a record time. In the 1960s and 1970s red-haired McKenzie was a familiar figure training on the roads around Rūnanga.


When the Seddon government formed State Coal Mines in 1901, a model town for miners was planned near the Point Elizabeth mine. The name Rūnanga was agreed in discussion between Premier Richard Seddon and Poutini Ngāi Tahu leader Tahuru, apparently commemorating a past meeting place in the area. The land was subdivided into leasehold sites in 1903–4, and timber was milled locally to build houses. A miners’ hall, which acted as the centre for union activity, was opened in 1906.

Rūnanga has provided housing for miners in state-owned mines for over a century. The Point Elizabeth mine was followed by the Rewanui, Liverpool and Strongman state mines, and in the 2010s many miners employed by Solid Energy in the Spring Creek mine live there.



2013 population: 9,654

The largest town and administrative centre of the West Coast, near the mouth of the Grey River/Māwheranui, and 233 km west of Christchurch. Squeezed between the hills, the river and the sea, as the population increased the town gradually expanded to the south. The main suburban areas are Blaketown, Boddytown, Coal Creek, Cobden, Karoro and South Beach.


A Māori settlement at Māwhera was long established on the south bank of the Māwheranui river. When the first European explorers, Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy, arrived in 1846, they stayed at the pā, and were given food. Two years later Brunner travelled up the river, which he renamed after Governor George Grey.

James Mackay negotiated with local Māori chiefs for purchase of the West Coast region by the government, and the agreement was signed at Māwhera pā on 21 May 1860. One of the few Māori reserves was the land around the pā, now forming the main business district in Greymouth, and most of this still remains in Māori ownership.

Beer boycott

In October 1947 hotels on the West Coast increased the price of a 10-ounce glass of beer from 6 to 7 pence (which was then the standard price elsewhere in New Zealand). Following widespread protests, the West Coast Trades Council (representing the major unions) called for a boycott of hotels selling beer at the higher price. The only hotel in Greymouth to sell beer at the old price did a roaring business while others were deserted.

Union solidarity triumphed after several weeks, and beer returned to its old price.

The boundary between Nelson and Canterbury provinces was drawn along the Grey River/Māwheranui. Separate settlements grew up on opposite sides of the river in the early 1860s – Cobden on the north, and Greymouth on the south. Both were laid out by surveyor John Rochfort. With the discovery of gold in the Taramakau valley to the south in 1864–65 and subsequent gold rushes the settlements grew, but it was soon obvious that Greymouth was better sited for a port than Cobden.

Gradual development

Coal was exported from the port of Greymouth from the 1870s, followed by timber. These provided the foundation for the local economy as the boom days of gold passed. By 1881 the population of Greymouth was greater than Hokitika’s, and since then it has been the largest centre on the West Coast.

Activity at the port of Greymouth gradually declined through the 20th century, especially after the opening of the Ōtira railway tunnel in 1923, and it is now mainly used by fishermen. Bulk commodities such as coal are transported to Christchurch by rail. But the decline of the port has been largely offset by growth in the tourism and farming sectors.

Vicious wind

A notorious, chilly wind streams down the Grey Valley in the morning, funnelled through the Grey River/Māwheranui gap, and marked by a trail of white mist. It is locally known as ‘the barber’, reputedly because it cuts you to the bone.

The central part of Greymouth was regularly flooded when a high tide coincided with a flood in the Grey River/Māwheranui. A flood wall (locally known as ‘the great wall of Greymouth’) now protects the town, and provides a pleasant walk along the south side of the river.


A replica West Coast gold-mining town, about 10 km south of Greymouth. Constructed as a community effort in the early 1970s, Shantytown includes a number of historic buildings that were moved to the site. It illustrates the early life of the West Coast, and includes gold panning, a steam train, a sawmill, and Chinatown.

Taramakau valley

The most direct route by road from Canterbury to the central part of the West Coast is over Arthur’s Pass (920 m), and down the Ōtira and Taramakau valleys to the sea. The Canterbury side is a relatively easy road, but on the western side of the pass the upper section of the Ōtira valley is a steep gorge, prone to landslides and rockfalls. Keeping the road open, especially for larger vehicles such as buses and milk tankers, is a continuing engineering challenge. The scenery is spectacular, and the Ōtira gorge has often been painted and photographed.

Arthur’s apostrophe

Arthur’s Pass was discovered by – and named after – Arthur Dobson in 1864, when there was a search to find a navigable pass across the Southern Alps. Years later the New Zealand Geographic Board decided that place names in New Zealand would not have apostrophes. Because the spelling of Arthur’s Pass was long established, the apostrophe has been retained, making it the only geographic feature on the West Coast officially spelt with an apostrophe.

The railway from Canterbury to the West Coast generally follows the same route as the road, but a tunnel was required between Arthur’s Pass and Ōtira. The 8.5-km tunnel was an ambitious undertaking when started in 1907, as it would then have been one of the longest tunnels in the world. Plagued by problems, it was not finally opened until August 1923. Since then the railway has carried raw materials from the West Coast to Canterbury, with much smaller amounts of freight going in the opposite direction. In the 2010s the railway mainly transported coal to be exported from Lyttelton. There is also a daily passenger train, the TranzAlpine, from Christchurch to Greymouth and back to Christchurch, which attracts many tourists.


Locality on the western side of Arthur’s Pass, 82 km south-east of Greymouth. Originally founded for construction workers on the Ōtira tunnel, it became a settlement for railway workers. The town was sold by the railways in 1999, and in the 2010s only a few dozen residents remain. It is mainly a base for tramping and mountaineering.


Locality on State Highway 73, 68 km south-east of Hokitika. Adam Jackson built the first accommodation house here, and a number of hotels have been built at this locality. The only bridge across the Taramakau River near Jacksons is found 1 km west, at the junction of a road to Lake Brunner (Moana) and the Grey Valley.


Township on the west side of the Taramakau River, 25 km south of Greymouth, with a 2013 population of 309. It was named in 1863 by surveyor Arthur Dobson after a distortion of kohimara, the Māori word for the spectacular flowers of the bush lawyer.

Seddon country

One of the first people to move to Kumara after gold was discovered in 1876 was shopkeeper Richard Seddon, who opened a hotel and became mayor. He moved into national politics and became premier from 1893 to 1906, but never forgot his roots in Kumara. For many years one of his favourite topics, on which he would speak at length, was the Waimea sludge channel.

The area around Kumara was overlooked in the 1860s gold rushes, but in 1876 coarse gold was found in glacial gravels, leading to the West Coast’s last major gold rush. There was considerable overburden (a gravel layer above the gold), so hydraulic sluicing was the only feasible way to recover the gold. In the next 20 years huge water races and sludge channels were constructed, and much of the country behind Kumara (including the adjacent settlement of Dillmanstown) was sluiced away into the Taramakau River. Mining declined in the late 1890s, but dredging continued in the Taramakau valley until the 1960s.

The Kumara Racing Club held its first meeting in 1887. In the 2010s its annual meeting on the second Saturday in January is the largest event in the town, with many of the traditional features of country races that have disappeared from larger clubs.

Kumara Junction is 7 km north-west, at the intersection of State Highway 6 with State Highway 73. It is close to the start of the annual Coast to Coast race, held in early February, which crosses the South Island, and includes cycling, mountain running and kayaking.



Town on the north side of the Hokitika River, near its mouth. Although only 39 km south of Greymouth, Hokitika has a distinct identity as a major tourist destination, as well as the centre for dairy processing on the West Coast. The 2013 population was 3,447.


After the discovery of gold in the Taramakau valley in 1864, prospectors started arriving at the Hokitika River mouth, the closest anchorage to the diggings. At that time Hokitika was part of Canterbury province. The town was laid out by surveyor John Rochfort, and the street names mainly commemorate Canterbury politicians.

During 1865 a flood of gold prospectors and traders arrived, and the town was occupied and booming within less than a year. While most miners lived close to the diggings where they worked, Hokitika was the town they went to for supplies, recreation and to sell gold. For a short period, Hokitika had a population of over 4,000. As gold mining declined it dropped to 2,000 by the end of the 19th century. The river port at Hokitika was hazardous, and was little used after the main gold rushes.

Royal road

When Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the West Coast in January 1954, they flew from Nelson to Westport, and then on to Hokitika. It was planned that they would travel by road from Hokitika to Greymouth. To make sure that the royal journey was as smooth as possible, the road was sealed – but, to save money, only the side on which the car would travel. For several years, before the whole road was sealed, this was known by locals as ‘Lizzie’s side’.

Changing directions

In the first part of the 20th century, Hokitika was a service town for forestry and farming. The opening of State Highway 6 through South Westland and over Haast Pass in 1965 gradually led to an expansion in the number of tourists. Hokitika is the only West Coast town seen by many tourists, who follow a route over Arthur’s Pass, through Hokitika to the glaciers, and then cross back to the east coast over Haast Pass. With the growth of accommodation and outdoor recreation, it has become an important tourist centre, with particular emphasis on the carving of pounamu (greenstone or jade). The population of Hokitika gradually increased through the 20th century.

Westland Milk Products, on the outskirts of Hokitika, has the only milk processing plant on the West Coast. Tankers daily collect milk from farms between Karamea and Fox Glacier.


The main source of pounamu in the South Island is boulders in the Arahura River, a few kilometres north of Hokitika, and there has long been a Māori settlement at Arahura. The ownership of all pounamu in the Arahura valley is now vested in the Māwhera Incorporation.

Local supplies of pounamu cannot meet the demand from carvers, so some shops in Hokitika sell nephrite or jade that has been imported from overseas. Even if they are carved locally, such objects are not genuine pounamu.

Lake Kaniere

Lake Kaniere, 18 kilometres east of Hokitika, is a glacial lake, used for boating, kayaking and fishing. A road goes round the eastern side (to join up with the Hokitika valley), and there are several walking tracks along the shore and in the forest.

Hokitika valley

The river flats in the Hokitika valley are fertile dairy farming land. In a tragic incident in 1941, deranged Kōwhitirangi farmer Stanley Graham shot seven men. There is a large memorial to those who were killed opposite the Kōwhitirangi hall.

Further upstream, at the Hokitika gorge scenic reserve, there is a spectacular swing bridge across the turquoise waters of the Hokitika River.

Ross to Ōkārito

South of Hokitika, State Highway 6 passes through areas of cleared river flats interspersed with forest-covered hills. The area was heavily glaciated during past ice ages, and much of the hilly country is glacial moraine (rock) containing large boulders. The river flats are gravel terraces formed after the glaciers melted. Dairy farming is the main industry, supplemented by a growing tourism sector.

Gigantic gold

New Zealand’s largest gold nugget, weighing 99 ounces and 12 pennyweight (2.807 kilograms) was discovered at Ross by two prospectors in 1909. Nicknamed the Honourable Roddy after the minister of mines (Roderick McKenzie), it was purchased by the government and presented to King George V as a coronation present in 1911. Sadly it no longer exists – it was melted down for a royal tea service.


A small historic town with a 2013 population of 297, 31 km south-west of Hokitika.

Ross was the centre of one of New Zealand’s richest alluvial goldfields in the late 19th century, with extensive underground mining and sluicing claims. The town sprang up after discoveries in 1864–65, and was named after the Canterbury provincial treasurer, George Ross. Surface gravels were rapidly worked out, but gold was found beneath Ross flat. Companies were formed to develop underground mines. Although profitable, underground mining had ceased by 1915, defeated by drainage problems. A large opencast pit was opened in the 1990s to recover gold from previously inaccessible areas, and is now filled by a lake at the southern end of the township.

There are several walking tracks around old mining areas in Ross, as well as a museum and visitor centre.

A Harihari landing

Australian Guy Menzies completed the first solo trans-Tasman flight on 7 January 1931, landing upside down in a swamp at Harihari. The flight took 11 hours 45 minutes, and is commemorated in a memorial at Harihari. On the 75th anniversary, in 2006, Dick Smith undertook a similar flight, but decided to land upright.


A farming township with a 2013 population of 330, on the Wanganui River flats, 73 km south of Hokitika. The river flats were originally forest-covered. For much of the 20th century the town was a forestry centre, supporting several sawmills. The flat land has been progressively cleared, drained and converted to pasture.

South Westland Area School, based in Harihari, provides education for pupils from years 1–13 from the surrounding region.


A small rural locality on the south side of the Whataroa River, 103 km south-west of Hokitika. Whataroa is a base for guided nature tours over summer months. The only New Zealand breeding colony of kōtuku (white herons) is on the banks of the Waitangiroto River. They arrive about September each year and, after breeding, leave around January. The colony is a nature reserve, requiring an entry permit.


A coastal settlement on the edge of Ōkārito Lagoon, 135 km south-west of Hokitika. The name is related to the raupō (bulrushes) around the lagoon – kārito means young raupō shoots. Ōkārito grew up as a gold-rush town in 1865–66, with a population of 1,250 in May 1866. In the 2010s a small community remains, and there is motel and backpacker accommodation as well as a camping ground.

Ōkārito Lagoon

Covering more than 2,000 hectares of shallow open water and tidal flats, Ōkārito Lagoon is the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand. On the landward site it is surrounded by conifer–broadleaf forest, including stands of huge kahikatea and rimu. The lagoon is well known as a bird-watchers’ paradise, and over 70 native species have been identified.

In recognition of the importance of Ōkārito Lagoon to local Māori, Ngāi Tahu were granted statutory acknowledgement over the lagoon as part of their 1998 Treaty of Waitangi settlement, including designation of a nohoanga (coastal occupation site).


Extending from high in the mountains down towards lowland forest, the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are both reasonably accessible. For many people, these are the only glaciers they will ever visit.

Glacial fishing

Lakes Paringa and Moeraki are glacial lakes, marking the position of former tongues of ice. Both lakes were stocked with trout in the 20th century, and are now favoured for fishing.

Rivers of ice

The glaciers originate in the highest part of the Southern Alps. A large area of snow, converted into ice as it is buried, is funnelled into two steep, narrow valleys. Under pressure from the weight above, the ice flows down to lower altitudes before it melts. By world standards, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers move very fast – rates of up to 4 metres a day have been recorded. It takes about five to six years for changes in snowfall in the mountains to affect the glaciers down the valley.

The position of the terminus (front) of the glacier closely reflects past snowfall. From first records in the 1860s to 1934 the terminus of the Franz Josef Glacier was close to Sentinel Rock. From 1934 to 1984 both glaciers retreated several kilometres, but from 1984 to 2008 both gradually advanced. In the 2010s, both retreated rapidly.

Farming salmon

Abundant fresh water provides potential for aquaculture, but by 2008 the only example on the West Coast was a salmon farm at Paringa. Salmon are raised in ponds using water from the bush-fed Waituna Stream. The fish are sold at a shop and café beside the ponds.


Franz Josef Glacier’s Māori name is Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere (the tears of Hine Hukatere), and Fox’s is Te Moeka o Tuawe (the bed of Tuawe). They record the tradition of Tuawe who fell to his death while exploring. The snow and ice that replenishes the glaciers are believed to be the icy tears of his lover, Hine Hukatere.

Julius Haast was the first European visitor to describe the glaciers in 1864. He named the northern glacier Franz Josef, after the Emperor of Austria. The southern glacier was named after Premier William Fox, who visited the area in 1872.

Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Although the glaciers are the best-known feature of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the park extends from the highest peaks of the Southern Alps to the sea. It is possible to visit both glaciers (with guided tours on to the ice), and flights are available over the spectacular glacial scenery. Lake Matheson, where the mountains can be seen reflected on the lake surface on a calm morning, is well known. The park has many walking tracks, and there are Department of Conservation visitor centres in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier townships.

Franz Josef

Township on the north side of the Waiho River, 136 km south-west of Hokitika. One of the busiest and fastest-growing tourist centres on the West Coast, it has up to 3,000 tourists a night, and many more during the day.

Although in a good location for tourism, the town site is subject to natural hazards. It crosses the Alpine Fault, and would be affected by any future surface rupture. There is an ever-present danger of flooding and erosion from the Waiho River.

Fox Glacier

Tourist town on the north bank of the Fox River, 161 km south-west of Hokitika. Smaller and quieter than Franz Josef, it provides accommodation and facilities for visitors to the southern part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park.

Bruce Bay

A small coastal settlement near the mouth of the Mahitahi River, 46 km south of Fox Glacier. In 2005 Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio opened their new marae at Bruce Bay – a landmark, as there had been no marae in the West Coast region for many years.

The far south

Haast district

The Haast district (which had a 2013 population of 240) has always been the most isolated part of the West Coast. Until the middle of the 20th century there were only bush tracks connecting the roads to Hokitika (240 km away) and Wānaka (145 km). The opening of the Paringa–Haast section of State Highway 6 in 1965 provided an all-weather road link with the rest of the West Coast.


The flat, heavily forested lowland area between the Haast River and Jackson Bay seemed to have potential for forestry and agriculture, and was identified for a government-funded special settlement. Four hundred settlers landed at Jackson Bay in 1875, many from non-English speaking parts of Europe. With poor soils and heavy rain, it was difficult to make a living, and most people had moved away within three years. A small number of settlers remained, including the ancestors of the now long-established Cron, Eggeling, Nolan and Heveldt families.

Most farming was at subsistence level because products were difficult to transport out of the district. Cattle were grazed on the river flats, and driven to market once a year. A dairy factory produced a small amount of butter and cheese. In the 2010s whitebait and other high-value products such as crayfish can be frozen and transported from remote areas by helicopter.

Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area

The lowland forests of South Westland have long been recognised as one of the last untouched areas of conifer–broadleaf forest. From the early 20th century most of the forested areas became state forest, and were protected as a future source of timber.

Finding names

The inaccessible valleys of South Westland were mapped by explorer Charles Douglas, who gave hundreds of names to streams and peaks. He said: ‘I must confess that it is not easy to give good names in a new country, especially when a number are required. After exhausting all the Jacks & Jills, the Buggins and Biffins in the district, I had at last to fall back on Milton’s list of the Fiends and Homer’s catalogue of the Ships.’ 1

In 1990, 2.6 million hectares were designated as a world heritage area. It includes four national parks (Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland), as well as the land beside and in between them.

Apart from farmed river flats, most of the land in the Haast district is included in Te Wāhipounamu. At first many local residents were concerned about what was seen as the loss of future logging industry, but in recent years the world heritage status has brought a growth in tourism and outdoor recreation.

Haast Pass

An important pass across the Southern Alps, 56 km east of Haast township. At 563 m, it is the lowest of the alpine passes, and is crossed by State Highway 6 from Otago to the West Coast. It is named after Julius Haast, geologist and explorer, whose party travelled across the pass and downstream to the sea in early 1863. Although there was a packhorse track over the pass within a few years, it was not until 1960 that a modern road was opened between the pass and Haast township.


A group of settlements (Haast township, Haast junction and Haast Beach) beside or near State Highway 6, on the south bank of the Haast River. A large Department of Conservation visitor and information centre is at Haast junction.

No exit

At Haast junction a side road leads southwards. On the south side of the Arawhata bridge, 32 km south of Haast, the road forks. Straight ahead, the unsealed road leads to Martyr Saddle, where there is a viewpoint overlooking the Cascade valley. The right fork leads on to the settlement of Jackson Bay, the only sheltered open-sea anchorage on the West Coast. There is a wharf, mainly used by fishermen, as well as information on the 19th-century settlement of the area.

Acknowledgements to Warren Inwood, Judith Nathan, Brian Wood and Les Wright

    • Quoted in John Pascoe, ed., Mr explorer Douglas. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1957. › Back

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More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Simon Nathan, 'West Coast places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 September 2021)

Story by Simon Nathan, published 23 Feb 2009