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.
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.
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.
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.
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.