A Guide's Perspective - Wild West Coast Trails
At the end of March this year, I was lucky to be given the opportunity to guide 18 guests on a brand new MoaTours trip, the Karamea & Wild West Coast Trails 7 day tour. In late March with a merry band of travellers we set off on our adventure to explore the northern end of the South Island's West Coast. I'm Andrew Wells, a Kiwi Guide with MoaTours and here is my perspective on this tour, from the point of view of the guide.
A personal journey of discovery for the guide
I was very excited, and a little nervous, to guide this tour for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, family connections. Like many European New Zealanders I have family connections to the West Coast and thanks to my mother’s pre-internet genealogy research there was one family member I was particularly interested in on this trip, but more on that later. Having guided many quick trips through the Coast over the last few years, this time round with 6 nights to really go off the beaten track was going to be a real treat.
Secondly (and the reason I was a little nervous), all but one of the guests on the trip would be New Zealanders discovering their own country. From talking to other MoaTours guides I knew that we would have people with their own experiences and connections to the area, something we don’t usually have when we’re guiding overseas visitors. But I also knew this meant I would have to do a bit of extra homework, the normal commentary topics and talking points would be standard knowledge for these guests, many of them would know a lot more than me! Again, on the advice of some of our most experienced guides Matt and Em, I dug deep into some stories of the Coast that I didn’t know much about - the “Great Journey” of Thomas Brunner and his guide Kehu, I read the Denniston Rose to learn about life on “the Hill” at Denniston and of course revisited the Luminaries which is set in and around Hokitika and many of the places we would be exploring.
This was a real chance to dive much deeper into the stories and history of an area visited on a trip than we usually got the chance to.
Day 1 Auckland - Nelson - Karamea
Day one of a tour is always busy, especially the South Island tours which involve early morning home pickups and flights down to South. This was the week the Franz Josef Glacier bridge was washed out and all over the news, so naturally there were plenty of people sending messages to us asking if our trip was going to be affected. But our luck was incredible, after a very wet and windy arrival into Nelson we headed away and by our lunch break in Murchison the skies had cleared and we didn’t see rain again until Day 6 of the tour!
Our highlight today was going up the to the Denniston Plateau, several of the guests had mentioned that the opportunity to go up to Denniston was one of the main reasons they’d come on the tour and I assured them that if the weather was good we would be going “the Hill”.
By the time we hit the coast in Westport all we could see was blue sky and everyone was very keen to get up there, even though it meant we wouldn’t be arriving into Karamea later than planned. A fair trade off we all agreed.
There’s a passage from Jenny Pattrick’s novel the Denniston Rose which describes the weather at Dennistion like this “The storm roared inland, over the town, over the flat coastal strip, straight up the gully towards the mountains”, so we all felt lucky that this was not the way we would experience it. We made our way up the short but steep and winding road to Denniston and out to the Brakehead and Incline. There are some excellent historical panels up there with photos and stories of life at Denniston, which we all took in to a chorus of bellbirds in the background. There were up to 1400 people living up there at its peak in 1910, with schools, stores, churches but no graveyard. The soil was too rocky they couldn’t even bury their deceased at home!
Standing right at the top of the railhead at “Brakehead” looking down the include to the plains and Tasman Sea is a sight that none of us will forget. You get a real sense of the scale of the operation that was there, there are still railway and mining relics everywhere and the historical photos and notes are excellent.
We were very grateful to our hosts at our Karamea accommodation, who took our late arrival in their stride and served us dinner with a smile. It was a great welcome from the people on the Coast.
Scroll through the images below to see how Denniston looks today and 100 years ago:
Day 2 Karamea - Kohaihai Beach - The Heaphy Track - Oparara Basin
With two nights in Karamea we had the luxury of exploring Karamea area, the true “end of the road” at the top of the West Coast.
The day started with a guided history talk at the Karamea Museum, by our wonderful friendly hosts Dulcie and May, both with long family connections to the area.
Before heading up to the Heaphy Track we took in a short estuary walk where a few of the team had the luck to see a beautiful Kotoku (White Heron) wading in the Karamea River. Another West Coast Road (gravel but in great condition) and we were at the end of the road at Kohaihai Beach and the start of the Heaphy Track.
Arriving here “at the end of the road” was exciting for all of us and we took some time to recollect some of the exploits of the early explorers Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy and their guide Kehu. We tried to imagine what it would be like to head off into this country without knowing what was round the next valley and how long they would be away. Those early explorers were amazing, we all agreed on that.
For many of the group who came from Auckland the previous day, stepping out onto that pristine West Coast beach with no-one else around was a special moment of arrival for us. After exploring the beach and a short stroll on the Nikau Walk section of the Heaphy Track it was time for our picnic lunch. Our luck continued as it was warm and even with a light breeze to keep the sandflies away. We all felt lucky to enjoy this pristine corner of the country in such great weather with no-one else around!
Our dinner this evening at the Karamea Hotel included the obligatory Whitebait Fritters and all of us will remember the friendly locals, but Glenis seemed to make friends with one chap in particular.
Scroll through our images from Day 2 below:
Day 3 Karamea - Westport - Reefton - Blackball - Punakaiki
This was another of the real joys of this trip, having the time to literally take the long way between A & B, the Grey Valley, Blackball and the Brunner Mine site are places many New Zealanders don’t get the chance to visit.
The two “town” stops we made were in Westport and Reefton, both under beautiful skies and with time to explore. After our visit to Denniston, some guests made the trip in to the Coaltown Museum while others supported the local economy with some shopping, I told them all they had to uphold the reputation of Aucklanders so go and spend lots of money!
Reefton was one town we passed through we all loved, the main street was looking amazing with so many refurbished historic buildings in use by local businesses, including the wonderful cafe where we enjoyed lunch and the Reefton Distillery Company who were pleased to see us all too and now have a few new fans and customers in Auckland.
For me it was a spot of historical note as I found the spot where my Great Grandfather performed on his 1912 tour. The theatre was no longer standing but there was a historical plaque and photos at the site. My Great Grandfather (mother’s side) is someone I’ve always been interested in as he lived in Hokitika (where my Grandfather was born) and worked as a Surveyor. But it seems he was also an entertainer, and was well known on the Coast for playing at various theatres and venues. After moving to Wellington in 1911, he used his Coast connections to organize a tour in 1912 of the “Wellington Entertainers” and took a route very similar to the one we were on now. The newspaper from Feb 1912 shows their itinerary: Nelson, Greymouth, Kumara, Ross, Hokitika, Reefton and Westport - every single place they played was also in our itinerary 107 years later.
After lunch we travelled through the Grey Valley and visited Blackball and the Brunner Mine Memorial, which was excellent. The local council have done a wonderful job preserving and commemorating this site where 65 miners lost their lives in 1896. Blackball was also very interesting with their historical displays on the birth of unionism in New Zealand.
Our beachside accommodation at Punakaiki was very welcome, with ocean views and the hotel almost to ourselves which is another great reason for travelling at this time of year.
Scroll through our Day 3 pictures below, including some historical photos of the Brunner mine disaster:
Day 4 Punakaiki - Charleston - Nile River - Cape Foulwind
Another relaxing two night stay at Punakaiki meant for a full day exploring the Pancake Rocks, Nile River Valley, Paparoa National Park and Cape Foulwind, again in beautiful sunshine.
The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki are a natural phenomenon and we enjoyed a short walk around the “Rocks” lookout to start the day with hardly anyone there. It’s the little details that make all the difference on tours like this, the fact that we were staying nearby and weren’t travelling in high visitor season meant we could enjoy the Rocks in peace and quiet, which is still how most Kiwis prefer to do it!
From Punakaiki we headed North to Charleston, a tiny settlement on the West Coast Road that many Kiwis probably haven’t even heard of, but a favourite stop of ours on tours in recent years.
Charleston is home to Underworld Adventures, good friends of ours who run caving and rafting tours and hosts today for our trip into the bush on their rainforest railway. One of the owners, Ray, was our guide and train driver, but the real star of the show was 85 year old Graeme, who we met up the valley doing track work, happily whistling and working away with his shovel. After our short walk through the rainforest to the swingbridge Graeme joined us on the train for the return journey where he made some new friends and got a few offers to accompany us back to Auckland!
Another beautiful evening was celebrated with a bonfire on the beach before enjoying sunset over dinner. By now everyone was getting to know each other pretty well and these evening dinners, with all the guests and guide dining together, become real fun affairs.
Scroll through our favourite images from today below:
Day 5 Punakaiki - The Blue Spur - Lake Kaniere - Hokitika Gorge - Hokitika
A day like today is such an interesting one for a guide and one of the real reasons I was so excited about this trip. The drive from Punakaiki to Hokitika normally takes around an hour, so to take the whole day to travel 100km as the crow flies and go off the beaten track into places like Lake Kaniere and the Hokitika Gorge is a real treat.
So off we went, again with great weather, which we all knew was not what our friends and family back in the North Island were expecting us to be experiencing. We were all swapping notes about the messages and calls we were getting from people who saw the news about the weather on the Coast. We laughed as we told them yes, the weather was rough, we were overheating yesterday in Reefton, we’ve run out of sunblock, we could use a bit more wind to help keep the sandflies away!
But our travels weren’t entirely unaffected by all this weather, heading up the Blue Spur route inland from Hokitika we encountered a closed road, but luckily there was another alternative route right there and a friendly local to help us on our way so we proceeded on to Lake Kaniere.
On our way into the lake we encountered our first “emergency” of the trip. A few of the group had asked about the location of the next toilet and as a guide, when you hear that a kind of internal clock starts ticking. We were about 20 minutes from Lake Kaniere and arriving at the lake road everyone was relieved to see a big sign showing a left turn to the toilets. Five minutes later we were pulling up outside the toilets and everyone was happy… except that the toilets were boarded up and closed, oh no. There was another toilet sign pointing up towards the campground, up we went in the bus but there were no toilets to be seen. Some small changing rooms held potential, but no. Driving past the boat club I saw two toilets on the outside but when I ran over to check the doors they were locked too! This was getting past funny now. We decided to try any of the houses we could see people in, but couldn’t see anyone except for a couple putting a boat our on the lake. They advised us that the toilets were on the other side of the turnoff, a right turn at the sign instead of a left.
So we made as quick a trip as we could back to the turnoff and in the opposite direction of the sign pointing to the toilets, and yes, a few minutes down the road was a beautifully appointed toilet block nestled under a stand of Kahikatea trees with beautiful views of Lake Kaniere.
I must remember next time I’m on the coast that an arrow pointing to the left for toilets actually means right. Silly me.
After our much appreciated comfort stop we enjoyed a short walk on the boardwalk through the beautiful stand of Kahikatea trees. This is our tallest native tree and it’s only when you stand back and look up from a distance you actually realize how huge they are. For many of our guests who live in Auckland, the chance to get out in native forest like this is so special and I know everyone enjoyed this walk a lot (or maybe it was just the relief of getting to those toilets!).
Anyone who has organized travel for any size group (or family) will know that you have to be flexible and that proved true for us today. Another road closure due to the weather meant we couldn’t continue on the Lake Kaniere road but had to track back a little way. Another small change to our plans was when our hosts at the Kokotahi Hotel for lunch had unexpectedly come down ill that morning and it was serious enough that they couldn’t provide lunch for our group that day. This is one of the things about organizing travel to these wonderful off the beaten track places you have to be prepared for, so at 8am on this Sunday morning Ena from our office was on the phone finding a last minute replacement for our lunch, which turned out to be one of the best lunches on the trip, funny how these things work out.
After lunch we headed out to the Hokitika Gorge, with a few opting to stay in Hokitika to explore and check out the Pounamu and galleries. On the way we made a stop at the Kowhitirangi Memorial, at the site of a shooting in 1941 which led to New Zealand’s largest ever manhunt. As this was only a few weeks after the Christchurch tragedy this stop had extra poignance for all of us as we paused to remember.
Scroll through our favourite photos from today:
Day 6 Hokitika - Ross - Okarito - Hokitika
To visit the West Coast for 7 days and only see rain one day is pretty good and today was our day to experience the famous West Coast weather. It was a classic Coast day with periods of heavy driving rain as well as plenty of sunshine too.
Our original plan today was to travel South to see Franz Josef Glacier and Okarito, with a wildlife cruise out on the lagoon. The huge storms just the week before our trip had wiped out the entire bridge across the Waiho River, which is the one we needed to cross to go up to the glacier valley, so we knew we couldn’t do that, but we still would go to Okarito for sure.
We experienced some wonderful West Coast hospitality from the Ross Goldfields Heritage Centre and Museum, I called ahead and told them we were coming through with a group and had a little more time than usual due to the glacier road closure. They couldn’t have been more welcoming the manager said she’d open up the museum especially and they were so grateful to see people coming through as the entire West Coast road was now closed due to the bridge washout meaning their usual busy through traffic had slowed to a trickle.
It was a great little stop and we even met a real Gold Miner (who confirmed that no-one ever told anyone if they found any gold). There are still active mines and claims around Ross, the last estimate of the value of gold under the town was put at $700 million!
Okarito is one of those “off the beaten track” places that many New Zealanders won’t get to in their lifetimes, but if you’ve been you’ll know it’s one of those real gems that make a trip to the Coast very special. It’s 12 km off the main West Coast highway, we even had a royal welcome as we arrived up at the estuary with two Kotoku (White Heron) flying right alongside our coach, it felt like they were welcoming us to their home!
At Okarito we always meet locals Paula and Swade, who host us for lunch in the historic Donnovan’s Store and then take us out on the lagoon in Swade’s boat. Lunch was a real treat, 100% home made soup and served by the locals themselves. Donnovan’s Store is like the community centre at Okarito and has been lovingly restored and contains dozens of old photos and mementos from days gone by. Just like we did at Karamea, to visit these places with no-one around and take our time to soak up the history and meet the locals was a real treat.
We were all looking forward to the cruise but unfortunately the West Coast weather had the final say, there was a strong Southwesterly wind blowing which, combined with the outgoing tide, meant the boat trip wouldn’t be safe so the right decision was made to not go out. Disappointing for sure but safety is always our first consideration. We could all feel it was the right decision when we went for a walk out on the beach and were almost blown off our feet!
There was a little bonus here for literary fans, as Okarito was the home of Keri Hulme for many years, including when she wrote her Booker Prize winning novel The Bone People, and Paula confirmed she used to take many long walks on the very beach we were now on. If you’ve read the book you’ll know the story of an artist living on a remote West Coast beach and now that we were standing there it was easy to see where the inspiration came from.
On our return to Hokitika we made a stop in at Lake Mahinapua, a beautiful little West Coast lake just off the main road at the site of the pub used in the Mainland Cheese TV commercial (Good things take time!). Lake Mahinapua had special significance to me as in our family research we’d discovered that my Great Great Grandfather’s young daughter had died in an accident there on a family outing on Dec 27, 1901.
Scroll through our favourite pictures from today:
Day 7 - Hokitika - The Stafford Loop - Kumara - Greymouth - Christchurch
Our last day dawned an absolute stunner. With the rain of the previous day having passed through overnight, it was a perfect post storm West Coast day with blue skies, no wind and warm temperatures. As we were heading out of town I glanced South and could see all the way to the Southern Alps, so we made a short detour right to the banks of the Hokitika River at the Southern End of town where there is the perfect spot for (distant) views of Aoraki Mt Cook. One of our group even said that was the very first time she’d seen Aoraki Mt Cook, which made it extra special for her.
Today was another “off the beaten track” day and one we had some great insight for as another MoaTours guide Matt (who was on the same itinerary as us just two days ahead) knew this area like the back of his hand from his many years as a teacher in Greymouth.
He’d shared a couple of special spots today and they really made for some memories we will never forget. First was the Stafford Cemetery, a small but very scenic little cemetery about 30 minutes inland from the main road, mostly the resting place of families of miners from the Gold Rush days of the 1860s and 1870s. It’s up a little back road, off another little back road, but this is what we love doing so after unhooking the trailer we made the short cimb in and were well rewarded. What struck us immediately was how many young people, including very young children, were at rest here.
One of the first graves we saw was the infant daughters of Richard John Seddon, both with exactly the same names as was the custom back then. We could only imagine how it must have felt to lose two infant daughters in the space of 3 years. There were many other families with similar stories in this graveyard too.
We continued on our way and after a lovely little short bushwalk at the tunnel loop track we completed the loop around to Kumara, just in time for morning tea. Kumara is a (very small) town which has really embraced its history and is doing a wonderful job of keeping it alive. The Theatre Royal Cafe is like a museum in itself and right across the road are restored original buildings now used for accommodation and a great set of interpretive historical panels which we all enjoyed in the sunshine.
Here again for me was another family connection I had discovered. My Great Great Great Grandfather had arrived in Hokitika in 1864 and opened one of the first bakeries there. He had moved to Kumara and opened a bakery there in 1877 (we’d found the original records along with his naturalization certificate, he’d come from Germany). Richard John Seddon arrived in Hokitika in 1866 and was first elected mayor of Kumara in 1877. Safe bet to say that Seddon would have walked into my GG Grandfather Carl’s bakery one day with the politician’s twinkle in his eye and outstretched hand.
From Kumara we headed back to the Coast for lunch in the Monteiths brewery in Greymouth, where they welcomed (and fed!) us with the usual West Coast friendly style. From here we made the short trip to the Greymouth Railway Station for our journey back over the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine. Quite a few people had told me that this was one of the things they were looking forward to most of all and with the perfect weather after the rain it was going to be a wonderful trip.
In fact everyone was so lucky that they got to enjoy the TranzAlpine even longer than expected as it was a little behind schedule arriving into Springfield just outside Christchurch. But all was well as we made our trip into Christchurch Airport, with Air New Zealand helping us get everyone checked in and even reassuring us that there was space on the next flight back to Auckland if we didn’t make our original. It’s times like this I really feel working in tourism here in New Zealand is part of one big family, even a big corporate like Air New Zealand comes to the party to make sure our trip goes as well as planned. And I’m happy to report even the guide made his flight home too.
Scroll through our favourite pictures from today:
So ended our wonderful Wild West Coast Trail, with all of us back home now we’ve heard from a few people on the trip and seen the photos and are exchanging some fond memories of the times we had.
For me, as the lucky guide, I’d just like to say how grateful we were for the clear skies clear but most of all thanks our wonderful guests on this trip, who made it all so special and were such a happy and positive bunch every single day. After many years guiding around our beautiful country what I love most about doing this is the people we meet as guides who make it a privilege to do this, so thanks to you all again.
He aha te mea nui o te Ao, he Tangata, he Tangata, he Tangata.