Extending more than 500 kilometres along the western side of the South Island, the West Coast is the longest region in New Zealand (from latitude 40°50’ to 44°15’ south). Its length is almost the same as the distance between Auckland and Wellington. Hemmed in between the mountains and the sea, only a narrow strip of land is inhabitable.
One of the wettest parts of New Zealand, the West Coast has a great extent of native forest. With spectacular scenery, including glaciers that reach down to near sea level, it has the feel of isolated, frontier country.
Although the West Coast region covers 8.7% of the land area of New Zealand, it has only 0.75% of the people. Most of the small population lives in towns near the mouths of major rivers, and the rest of the region is sparsely settled.
The West Coast is one of the few parts of New Zealand where the population has been declining – from a high of 40,136 in 1936 down to 30,300 in 2001. The population grew slightly in the early 21st century and reached 32,148 in 2013.
Traditionally, young people have left to seek jobs and adventure ‘over the hill’ in Christchurch and further afield. However, in 2013 the unemployment rate (4.7%) was lower than the national rate (7.1%).
The right name
The term West Coast is widely understood to refer to the western side of the South Island – and the locals call themselves West Coasters (or just Coasters). Westland is sometimes used in the same sense, but it officially refers to the southern part of the region. Somewhere north of Greymouth the careless speaker is likely to be admonished, ‘You’re not in Westland now; this is the Buller.’
West Coast people
Most West Coasters believe that they belong to a distinct group of New Zealanders. One travel writer says: ‘Nowhere in the country does the pioneer past lie so close to the surface of contemporary life. Making a living here has always been hard. Mining, timber milling, farming, fishing … They’re all hard yakker [work] and they breed hard people. Individualists, self reliant, self-contained, and like all pioneering folk, wonderfully hospitable.’ 1
Traditionally, the West Coast has a frontier male identity, based on industries such as mining and forestry. Many of the tourist attractions on the West Coast hark back to a romantic vision of gold-rush days, when miners tried to extract a living from the wild countryside.
By the 21st century the reality was a little different. Tourism and outdoor recreation had become a major part of the economy, and there was growing local support for protecting the spectacular scenery and historic heritage.
Gold town beer
Established in Reefton in 1868, Monteith’s Brewing Company is the only remaining brewery dating back to gold-rush days. Although it is now owned by DB Breweries, and most of the beer is brewed outside the West Coast, a Monteith’s brewery in Greymouth still survives, partly as a tourist attraction.
Pubs and workingmen’s clubs have long been local gathering places on the West Coast, especially in smaller communities. Hotels officially closed at 6 p.m. from 1919 to 1967, but there was only nominal observance on the West Coast – the front door would be closed, and a coded knock would get entry through the back door. It was part of a tradition of ignoring rules or laws made in Wellington that had little local support.
A negative view
Those living outside the region often perceive West Coasters as a vocal and determined pressure group. Most of the land on the West Coast is owned by the Crown. Local residents have protested regularly against government decisions about the use of native forests and other natural resources in their region.
As a consequence, West Coasters have gained the reputation of being dissatisfied with life. This gained some support from the results of a 2008 UMR poll which found that people living in the region were the least happy group in New Zealand.