Embrace the elements and savour the astonishing array of rugged and ancient natural attractions wrapped around Westport, writes Mike Yardley.
Roused by the meditative soundtrack of the gentle pitter-patter of a pre-dawn shower in Westport, I was up with the seals, to strike out along the coastal trail at Cape Foulwind. Cape Foulwind lighthouse faithfully stands sentinel on the headland, just as it has since it was first built in 1926. The foundations of its 1876 predecessor stand alongside it – built in rimu, which suffered from rot. History runs deep here, as it was where Abel Tasman first dropped anchorage in New Zealand in 1642 and the cape earned its name from the operatically howling weather that greeted James Cook on his voyage in 1770.
It’s also the closest point to Australia. The sweeping panoramas are stupendous. I gazed north along the coastline to the strikingly sculpted cliff-backed beaches at the northern end of the cape. Omau Cliffs, where hard granite intersects with softer mudstone, glow a golden hue in the sunshine. They were previously nicknamed the Scarborough of New Zealand and remain a favourite shoreline haunt in the summer. To the east, the inland ancient marine terraces rise up to the Paparoa Ranges, while patches of pakihi were readily identifiable. This widely adopted Maori name in Buller denotes stunted vegetation on swampy ground. On a clear day, Mt. Cook serrates the southern skyline, while the Kahurangi National Park towers to the north.
Scores of weka were nonchalantly grazing in the trackside scrub. Unlike most of New Zealand, Buller is one of the few places where you’ll regularly encounter them. Friendly and flightless, they are fleet-footed and highly opportunistic. One of them ventured out on to the road just as I was bearing down. I have never seen a bird scramble so frantically, on foot, in a mad mercy dash. Thankfully, he made it. Beyond the lighthouse, a 90 minute coastal walk from Cape Foulwind south to Tauranga Bay passes along the edge of an escarpment, undulating grazing pasture, a sandy beach and granite bluffs, serving up monster views of the rugged coastline.
I cheated and drove around to beautiful golden sweep of Tauranga Bay, a surfies haven, taking the shorter track from the car park to the seal colony. The 10 minute walk up to the headland leads to the lookout points of the seal colony, draped across the wave-battered rocks, below. Beyond the shoreline, a rocky outcrop called Wall Island is like a satellite town to seal city, and the thoughtfully mounted free-to-use binoculars, provide magical glimpses of the playful fur seals enjoying some island time.
Tauranga Bay is one of New Zealand’s most accessible fur seal colonies and the place hits fever pitch over summer it’s teeming with frolicking pups. The ice-cream van in the Tauranga Bay carpark was doing a roaring trade.
Heading south along the Great Coast Road, four seasons in one day theatrically framed my journey, with forbidding storm clouds yielding to bright spring sunshine along the gloriously carved coastline. We popped into Charleston, named after Charley Bonner, which during the 1860s gold rush, groaned with 80 hotels, quenching the thirst of the hordes of gold-diggers labouring along the Nile River. 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 1866. His business expanded, and he eventually became New Zealand’s largest shoe manufacturer and retailer – Hannahs.
New Zealand’s first toll bridge was erected across the river by Constant Bay, just one gem in a necklace of stunning little bays off the tourist trail. A paddle steamer formerly plied the river and Constant Bay was once used as a harbour, with ships squeezing through a narrow gap between the bay’s rocky headlands. Todd Heller has a gorgeous holiday home, overlooking Constant Bay. There’s clearly money in sausages. I marvelled over the quaint old harbour master’s house overlooking the Nile River where an old wharf stood, and the smooth quartz stones, sparkling on the shoreline of the Nile River mouth, spilling into the Tasman Sea. Further south, the kaarst-strewn landscape of Punakaiki soon shuffled into view.
Just north of those striking rock formations, Truman Track is a banger of a bush walk, a short 30 minute return saunter to the ocean through untamed subtropical forest where podocarp and rātā trees tower above thickets of vine and nīkau palms. The track was extensively upgraded three years ago, with a climactic viewing platform elevated above the booming ocean, as waves smash onto the rock-strewn beach with unbridled fury.
This stretch of coastline boasts a riot of rock formations with precipitous cliffs, caverns, blowholes and a plummeting waterfall. Hello, sensory overload. It’s one of my favourite West Coast walks. The track is named in honour of Jim Truman who ran Truman’s Department Store in Greymouth. He had a bach opposite the original track which he substantially enhanced. The caves along the beach is where Bob Semple and Paddy Webb hid, as these conscientious objectors did not want to go to war.
Westport is a great base from where to launch your exploratory from of the Northern West Coast. Located inside the iSite, Coaltown is a fantastic heritage museum experience, taking you on a journey through gold rush days to the settling of the district and the early development of the mining industry. You’ll glean insights on the horrendous living conditions, the geology of coal, extraction and transport systems, and shipping developments.
The museum artfully traces the rise and rise of Buller’s booming coal industry, from the pioneering glory days to the tragedies that have pockmarked the industry. Highlights include the rusty mining artefacts, vintage photographic displays, an operational steam dredge and an interactive walk-through of a replica mine. Add your trip down memory lane by take a drive up to the storied mining mountain village of Denniston, just north of town.
One of New Zealand’s latest multi-day walking and cycling trails is set to be completed later this year and is already wowing the crowds on its completed sections. Primarily funded by the Provinicial Growth Fund, the Kawatiri Coastal Trail is a 55 km heritage trail which will eventually connect Westport to Charleston, via Carters Beach, Cape Foulwind and Tauranga Bay. The spectacular all seasons trail can be ridden in either direction, or split into shorter chunks, for leisurely strolls and rides. The four sections between Westport and Tauranga Bay are open. The southern end’s five sections through to Charleston remain a work in progress, steadily opening up throughout the year. The just completed suspension bridge over the Nile River at Joyce Bay looks superb.
This Grade 2 (Easy) Trail is suitable for all ages, fitness levels and cycling abilities. The trail is predominantly wide, flat and smooth, with a gentle gradient. At the Westport trail head, there’s also the Kawatiri River Trail which starts just below the Buller River Bridge, linking the town with North Beach. The brainchild of the Buller Cycling Club and crafted by 100 volunteers, the well-formed dual-use trail incorporates beautiful remnant native bush, wetlands and sterling views of the old wharves of Westport, on the river’s edge. It’s a joy to explore.
Right across the road, Buller Bridge Motels is a winning West Coast roost, boasting self-contained accommodation with free Wi-Fi, flat-screen satellite TV and a DVD player. It’s a family favourite with a BBQ garden area, kids playground and it’s also pet-friendly. Ideally positioned to soak up the coastal gems, you accommodation is fully equipped with kitchen facilities, so you can cook up a storm after a power-packed day of sightseeing.
Remarkably, when I stayed in mid-January, the motel owner told me that they have been booked out every night since July! A minor miracle in the Covid age. I locked in my stay with Booking.com who have the West Coast covered, with exceptional accommodation options spanning all tastes. No matter where you are travelling, nor your budget or accommodation taste, bag a great rate, with total flexibility and convenience. www.booking.com