Archaeological investigations show that pounamu (greenstone or jade) from the West Coast was traded throughout New Zealand by early Māori. Most of the main passes across the Southern Alps were known to trading parties. The amount of pounamu that was transported was limited to what could be carried.
The West Coast gold rushes led to a huge influx of miners and traders in 1865–67. Many arrived by sea, either directly from the Victorian goldfields in Australia, or by small coastal ships from Christchurch, Dunedin or Nelson. River ports developed at Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport.
Being closest to the goldfields, Hokitika boomed initially. It proved a treacherous port, with many shipwrecks.
A coach road across Arthur’s Pass was opened in 1866, after a search for an overland route to Christchurch. A telegraph line gave rapid communication from Christchurch to Greymouth and Hokitika.
Ports and harbours
Because of the number of shipwrecks, Hokitika’s port was eventually abandoned. The port of Karamea silted up after the 1929 Murchison earthquake. Only the river ports of Greymouth and Westport are still in use, mainly by fishing boats. These ports can only handle relatively small ships, with limited cargo capacity.
Railways were the only feasible way to move bulk commodities such as coal and timber. By 1876 a line had been constructed from Brunner to Greymouth, so bituminous coal could be exported by sea. In 1879 a steep cable railway was built to transport coal from Denniston, 600 metres above sea level, to Waimangaroa. From there it was taken to the port of Westport.
Over the succeeding decades railways were gradually extended throughout the region. The Ōtira tunnel, through the Southern Alps near Arthur’s Pass, was completed in 1923, allowing connection to the national rail network. A difficult section through the lower Buller Gorge was completed in 1944, allowing the Westport line to be connected to the rail network. However, the planned section through the upper Buller Gorge, to link up with Nelson, was never started.
Since the opening of the Ōtira tunnel, the rail system has been mainly used to export raw or partly processed materials from the West Coast. In 2007 the main cargo was coal from the Buller and Grey coalfields, being transported to the port of Lyttelton for export. Substantial amounts of cement from Westport and milk powder from Hokitika were also transported.
Roads to nowhere
Before mining could start in remote areas, it was necessary to build a dray road capable of transporting heavy machinery. Several companies blew all their investors’ money (and often money from local bodies) on building an access road, and then found that they couldn’t make a profit from mining. The Croesus Track near Blackball, the Mount Greenland track near Ross, and the Kirwans Track near Reefton are all relics of unsuccessful mining ventures.
From the gold rush onwards, horse tracks were gradually converted to dray roads, capable of transporting people and goods. The road through the upper Buller Gorge was opened in 1882, providing a direct route to Nelson, and the Lewis Pass route was completed in the 1930s.
South Westland remained relatively isolated until the Haast Pass road to Wanaka was opened in 1965. That road is now part of a popular tourist circuit around the South Island.
Because of the isolation of the West Coast, aeroplanes have been used for transporting people and cargo since the 1930s. The first scheduled commercial air service in New Zealand started in 1934 between Hokitika and Franz Josef.
Regional airports at Westport and Hokitika have regular flights to other parts of New Zealand. There are smaller airfields at other centres.