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Greymouth and Westport: The Heart of the Coast

Published
March 30, 2021
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The area around Greymouth and Westport. Background map data ©2021 Google. North at top.

THE population heartland of the South Island's West Coast lies in the area around Greymouth and Westport, where mines in the hills are joined with a comparative aboundance of flat land by West Coast standards.

The plain sits west of the South Island's gigantic Alpine Fault: a crack in the earth's crust that runs southwest like a ruler to Fiordland, in a way that is very striking on a topopgraphical map. The coastal plain to the west of the fault is nowhere else as wide as it is in the vicinity of Greymouth. Which is, therefore, the biggest town on the South Island's West Coast, with its base hospital and other facilities.

Centred on Greymouth, the Grey District, also known as Māwhera, calls itself 'The Heart of the Coast'. However, that slogan could be extended to include Westport and also Hokitika, a little further south of Greymouth. Very few people on the West Coast live outside this area, though the Coast stretches for hundreds of kilometres.

I say quite a lot about the Hokitika area in my earlier West Coast blog post called 'Green Jungles and Waters of Jade', so I don't need to talk about Hokitika in this post.

Between Westport and Greymouth, there is also the isolated finger of mountains known as the Paparoa: these days, Paparoa National Park. I'll do a post on those mountains shortly, and separately.

In this post, I'll describe a road trip from north to south, starting at Westport and travelling southward past the incredible coastal wonders of Fox River and Punakaiki, to Greymouth and then on to Lake Brunner/Moana and the former Brunner coal mine.

Westport

I heard someone say that Westport was 'the new Queenstown', its tourism booming 80 per cent as more and more people discover the attractions of the northern part of the West Coast, including the nearby Paparoa National Park.

Westport has a very classy-looking town hall dating back to 1940, the year of the Battle of Britain and also of the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, the subject of massive official commemorations which helped to take people's minds off World War II. The opening of the town hall was probably tied into these centennial commemorations, I wouldn't be surprised.

While I was in Westport, I stayed at the Trip Inn Hostel. Check out its website!

Westport's very close to the old Denniston mine and village, atop a nearby mountain. I talk about Denniston in a couple of other posts, 'Green Jungles and Waters of Jade', and 'Karamea: A Road Trip to the top of the South Island's West Coast'. The Coaltown Museum celebrates Westport's mining heritage.

The Westport Railway Society is also developing a railway museum that might run rail excursions to such places as the Buller Gorge in the future, though it's early days yet.

The Kawatiri Coastal Trail will eventually run thrugh Westport and Charleston for a distance of 55 km, via Cape Foulwind, the projecting headland west of Westport.

A sign showing the Kawatiri Beach Trail and other river walks, at Westport

There is a camping area by the town beach:

Which is, I have to say, pretty wild.

And speaking of the wild western shore, that brings me to:

Cape Foulwind/Tauranga

Cape Foulwind, known in Māori as Tauranga, projects out into the Tasman Sea west of Westport. The name Cape Foulwind was bestowed by Captain Cook, and is by general agreement one of his better ones, in the sense of being dead accurate as a description and not merely honouring some lord.

The Māori name Tauranga means a resting place for canoes, either because they are ashore or because they are fishing. A place on the cape known today as Tauranga Bay has two natural breakwaters and was a good place for old-time Māori voyagers to pull in and hide from the cape's foul winds. To this day, seals haul ashore there as well.

The Cape Foulwind Walkway is a popular, bracing experience, and it will soon be integrated into the Kawatiri Coastal Trail.

Fox River

Travelling down the coast you come to Fox River, where freedom camping is permitted, and from where, the Fox River Caves Track and the subsequent Ballroom Overhang Track lead into the limestone country of the Paparoa.

Punakaiki

No trip down this section of the coast would be complete without taking in the wonderland of Punakaiki and its limestone 'pancake rocks'. This is also about the southernmost spot where extensive forests of nīkau palms, themselves the southernmost palm trees in the world, still grow.

There is a really good tourism website for Punakaiki, with video: punakaiki.co.nz.

The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park. Photograph by Nicolas Lair, CC BY 2.0 via the DOC webpage on Paparoa National Park.

Punakaiki comes from puna, meaning spring, or ocean blowhole in this context, and kaiki, meaning 'in a heap': a reference to the heavily layered rocks that are now also known as the pancake rocks.

In addition to enjoying Punakaiki itself, there is a whole range of walks and tramps into the hills and down to the sea that you can do from this spot. They are listed here on a page of the Punakaiki.co.nz website:

punakaiki.co.nz/walks.

Barrytown

A little further south is the township of Barrytown, where you can pop in for another coffee.

A little further south there is the monument to the Strongman Mine disaster, on a headland above the sea, and also, just north of Greymouth, the Point Elizabeth Lookout with distinctive rock stacks.

Greymouth

Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast. You can get here either by driving along the coast or from Arthur's Pass, either by road or by the TranzAlpine scenic excursion train from Christchurch. The TranzAlpine journey from Christchurch ends in Mackay Street, in downtown Greymouth, which is very handy.

In stark contrast to some other localities, Greymouth encourages freedom camping and has been recognised as the South Island's "first official Motorhome-Friendly Town."There's freedom camping sites at Cobden Beach and elsewhere.

Cobden Beach, with the Point Elizabeth Lookout in the distance

Here are some photos I took downtown. The first one is of the clocktower on Māwhera Quay, the main street of Greymouth, which is protected from the Grey River by a high flood wall.

Māwhera Quay in 1919, from the Boundary Street corner. Photograph by Frederick George Radcliffe, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Reference Reference: 1/4-005868-G.

Māwhera is the traditional Māori name for the area and the site of downtown Greymouth was a Māori Pa, or fortified village, named Māwhera. To this day, much of the urban land in Greymouth is still owned by Māori via the Māwhera Incorporation, established in 1882. This is one of the few instances where Māori retained possession of a traditional settlement site that was also sought by European settlers.

Here's a photo of the Miners' Memorial on Māwhera Quay, from when I was there in February 2021. It's right on the riverbank, where there is now a high flood wall protecting the town.

The following photo was taken from the Miners' Memorial, looking across Māwhera Quay and down Waite Street. It shows the Railway Hotel (pub), the Countdown supermarket and the DP1 café. The railway station where the TranzAlpine terminates is just out of shot to the left. So you can see how handy is the location where the TranzAlpine terminates and departs from!

Here's a more modern looking shared street, Tainui Street, which joins Māwhera Quay at the clocktower, behind me in this shot.

In Greymouth, I stayed at the Noah's Ark Backpackers (their website linked here as well).

Greymouth's not a really big town by the standards of other parts of New Zealand, with only a bit over 8,000 inhabitants: but the 'coasters' seem to think it is the 'big smoke'! Of course, Greymouth is very historic, strategically located at the end of the road/rail link through Arthur's Pass, serves the whole region with hospital facilities and so on – and is also quite touristy these days. So, it seems bigger than it is.

There's a popular re-created goldfields town nearby, called Shanty Town.

Greymouth also has a number of outdoor recreation tracks surrounding it, such as the Croesus Track. Some are shown on this signboard that I photographed at the site of the Brunner Mine (next section).

Here's a closer view of the map:

The following rather dramatic photograph shows the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps, viewed under a rain cloud, from the Greymouth beach suburb of Blaketown.

Blaketown, Greymouth, looking toward the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. Photo by Stewart Nimmo of nimmophoto.co.nz, 8 August 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At another beach suburb called Cobden, there is a further freedom camping spot.

A 1908 miners' strike at the nearby town of Blackball helped to accelerate the rise of the New Zealand trade union movement, which was very powerful at one time but has now strangely faded away.

Close to Blackball, you also come to the Brunner Mine Site. This is a sort of museum, and also the site of a historical coal-mining disaster, one of several in New Zealand and indeed on the West Coast alone. The site is fairly overgrown now, but at one time it held a thriving township as well, called Tyneside.

Here's a shed covering more museum-type exhibits.

And a monument to the miners.

Here's something that also caught my eye, at the fairly new (2018) Dobson-Brunnerton Heritage Park, in the nearby settlement of Dobson.

From Greymouth, heading southward, you can also do the West Coast Wilderness Trail, which continues past Hokitika, the third-largest town on the West Coast, to the small settlement of Ross. As I mentioned above, though Hokitika could also be regarded as part of the West Coast's population heartland, I've covered Hokitika in my earlier West Coast blog post called 'Green Jungles and Waters of Jade'.

The West Coast Wilderness Trail. Google Maps control icons blurred out for this book, as they are not active in the screenshot. Background map data ©2020 Google.

Lake Brunner/Moana

South-east of Greymouth, I spent some time beside Lake Brunner, also known as Moana, a Māori word that means 'sea'.

A track that leads up to the top of a mountain overlooking the lake by some 900 metres or more than two thousand feet, called Te Kinga. That would be good for a scenic view! Here's part of an information panel at Moana, the small township by the lake, which shares the lake's  Māori name.

Near Moana, I met a retired couple with a small van very well set up for travel, including little cubby hole for boots and an foldable electric scooter for excursions.

They are well-organised!

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.

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