The West Coast

The Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea define and isolate the West Coast of New Zealand, a 240 mile long, narrow (18 mile wide) strip of land inhabited by just over 30,000 people.  It is the wettest part of NZ, getting 12-30 feet of rain a year (yep, that’s feet), often at tropical intensity for days.  The inhabitants are called “Coasters”; many are descended from gold and coal miners, and with those industries gone, along with timber, there isn’t much left.  Coasters are known for their independent thinking (often at odds with environmentalists) and their intemperate drinking.  There is some tourism – a jade carving (jewelry) industry in the middle and glacier climbing at the end – but it’s mostly people like us driving through with jaws dropping, looking at 240 miles of drop-dead-gorgeous (and empty) beaches.  You’ll see.


After making it over Andrew’s Pass, we stopped at one of the three largest cities on the West Coast, Hokitika (population about 3,000).  It’s one of the two main cities for buying “greenstone” jewelry and art, and therefore firmly on the tourist agenda.  Tourist magnetGreenstone, what the Maori call pounamu, is a hard nephrite jade, usually containing a variety of green shades within it.  It is beautiful, and often carved in traditional Maori designs.  The Maori practically worshiped the stone – it took the place of durable metals – and the Maori word for the South Island is Te Wahi Pounamou – “the place of greenstone”.  It is still highly valued.  Mineral claims are jealously guarded (and coveted), and because the Maori retain rights to much of the source, there is some friction.  The export of greenstone is prohibited,  and illegal extraction has stiff penalties – fines up to $200,000 and 2 years in jail.

GreenstoneLooking at the jewelry is a treat!  Each piece is small-scale sculpture, with whirls and curls and twists and cut-outs and negative space.  The picture to the left shows an example of greenstone with its many veins and shades of marbling.  We think it’s beautiful.

In addition to its craft scene, Hokitika has a very nice beach.  The first two pictures below are from our hotel balcony, where we are serenaded by the crashing breakers; the lower right picture from a walk on the beach.

BYO what?Yes, it is a tourist town, but we are impressed by some of the innovation being shown, such as this novel concept at a bar.  We order a pizza to go from down the street, carry it to the WC, order a good bottle of NZ wine from their retail shop, and settle into one of their tables.  How cool is that!

We decide to take a side-trip to the Hokitika Gorge and its acclaimed turquoise Hokitika River.  It’s a scenic drive through farmland and nearby mountains.  A short walk through pretty bush leads to what is indeed a very very turquoise river!  It looks more like someone spilled a whole lot of paint upstream than

real water flowing by.  The color is formed by glacier water entering the river with a load of  ground powder from schist and greywacke rock (major rock of NZ).  Judging by the color, that’s a hard-working glacier!


Well, in this segment I’m going to “beach you to death” with these pictures.  I am always mesmerized by the ocean – the infinite horizon, the parade of waves slowly moving in, unstoppable, the cresting breakers ominously rearing, the crash as they bash themselves on shore, the sucking retreat.  It’s nature’s slow ballet, danced with power.  To that, add beauty and color, black rock and white spray, wheeling birds and stately headlands, a salty smell and breeze; every sense of your body experiences the ocean.

The West Coast highway runs close to the shore, and around every curve there is another striking and atmospheric beach that beckons.  I stop so frequently to take pictures that Ginger starts to laugh at me.  I am making a big effort to limit the number of photos I’m going to jam into this post, but I’m not being very successful.  Let’s start with just a few pictures of the ocean itself, near and far.

Now I’ll show you a few beach shots.  They’re beautiful, many of them miles and miles long, and there really is practically nobody on them.


This is a bus-tour tourist destination within the Paparoa National Park – a stop-n-go place.  There is a large parking lot,  a souvenir shop, a cafe, a few cabins and cottages to rent on the surrounding hills, and not much else here!  Except, of course, the dark layered and weathered limestone rocks and a pounding surf.  It’s a pretty place.  We were impressed.   Pictures below.

WekaOh, and there in the parking lot we spot a couple of Weka!  They’re chicken-size flightless birds, and we haven’t seen them before.  They must be on vacation, catching the tourist sights like we are.


Well, believe it or not, there is more amazing coast to see as we head further north.  Ho hum.  More beaches.  Dime a dozen.  I’m stopping a lot less, partly because we have in fact seen so many, and partly because we have a ways to travel yet before arriving in Nelson, and Ginger is no longer laughing at me for stopping so much.  Rather the opposite, really.  Luckily, she did not pack the riding crop, but I get the message.  Pictures below.

Ruby Bay, here we come!  Wait ’till you see that pretty part of the world!

2 comments on “The West Coast

  1. Bobbi says:

    Ron – I just read this post. Well done, man!!! You are making me want to return to NZ even more. Your writing is engaging and your facts are fun and take photos – well – I like them all. I’m bookmarking your blog so I can read more.

    • Hi Bobbi! Thanks for the encouragement! You should see the place we are now – Mt Cook. My goodness, it puts everything else we’ve seen to shame. Hope you saw it when you were here! If you would like, I can send you an invite and you would get a notice from the blog whenever I post something new.

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