Karamea: A Road Trip to the top of the South Island's West Coast

March 29, 2021
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The South Island's West Coast from Charleston north to Karamea and the start of the Heaphy Track. Map data ©2021 Google, contrast enhanced. North at top.

THE WEST COAST north of Westport is booming at the moment, with visitors up eighty per cent. Which is a good thing, as it's an area that's easy to overlook. For the road to Karamea and the Heaphy Track is ultimately a dead end. So, I've compiled some photos and a video of some things to see and some places to eat at and to stay at, plus guides to local walks.

Walks like the ones shown in this brochure which shows the things to see outside of Karamea. the largest West Coast town north of Westport. These include the incredible Ōpārara arches and Mirror Tarn, which I'll be showing at the end of this post. Even these are accessible by way of McCallums Mill Road: you can see a lot in this area, without having to go on any epic hikes!

Starting out from Westport, the first place you'll want to make a turnoff to see is the historic mining community of Denniston, on top of a low mountain some 600 metres or two thousand feet above the coast. There are see-through interpretive panels that have sketches of the town as it was around 1900 drawn on them, as you would have seen it from that spot in the day.

Denniston Collage

View of a Hill near Denniston, from Denniston

View from the Denniston Hill

I have some more about Denniston, including a 1967 film, in my West Coast blog post 'Green Jungles and Waters of Jade'.

From there, you head on to Granity, a town with a name that suggests another kind of mining. This whole area was essentially a mining community. But it was never hugely profitable once you got away from Westport and Denniston, and that's one of the reasons the promised loop roads that would have really opened up the area were never completed. The planned routes of these roads are today known as the Heaphy Track and the Old Ghost Road.

Beach Scenes at Granity

Art for Art Sake, at Granity

The Ghost Lodge at Granity – Lovely in the sunshine, of course

A few kilometres up the coast you come to Ngakawau and, across the Ngakawau River, to Hector. While I was at the Hector campground, a freedom camping area (free, for self-contained vans), I saw a very useful map of all the campsites in the district.

There's also a more upscale place you can stay at Hector called the Old Slaughterhouse Travellers' Lodge, which sounds picturesque!

Carrying on up the main road, you get to Mōkihinui and, a short way inland on a side road, to Seddonville. Nicknamed Soddenville by some, as it rains quite a lot in these parts and especially once you go inland, Seddonville is the gateway to the northern end of the Old Ghost Road.

Mōkihinui Pub n Grub: outwardly unprepossessing but highly recommended

Sign to Gentle Annie Beach

Gentle Annie Beach is worth visiting for the Gentle Annia Point Maze and Lookout. The coast is uninhabited and without roads for some distance north from here, until you get to Little Wanganui (the main road curves inland over that stretch). There's also the Gentle Annie Seaside Accommodation & Camping Ground, where you can go to sleep to the sound of wild waves or sit and drink coffee under a rain shield, beside a pizza stove that seems to have been made of clay.

Under a rain canopy, at Gentle Annie Seaside Accommodation & Camping Ground

Top 10 things to do, listed at the Gentle Annie

The Gentle Annie has a terrific website by the way, linked in the last sentence. Do come back and check it out!

Slightly inland from Mōkihinui and the beach is Seddonville, gateway to the Old Ghost Road.

The turnoff to Seddonville, 2 km inland from the main road and the northern terminus of the Old Ghost Road, among other things

The Seddonville Hotel (i.e., pub), for sale when I was there

Seddonville Holiday Park

The Mōkihinui River, near the start of the old Ghost Road outside Seddonville

Start of the Old Ghost Road, outside Seddonville

Scenes in and around Granity, Mōkihinui and Seddonville, including a fireplace in the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge at bottom left

After a main-road detour inland past the most rugged section of the coast and a track that leads to a small, scenic lake called Lake Hanlon, you come back to the coast at a town called Little Wanganui. It's from Little Wanganui that the Wangapeka Track over to Nelson leaves, via the Wangapeka Road.

Scenes to do with Little Wanganui, including the Wangapeka Backpapers and Farmstay (next two photos as well)

The Wangapeka Road is the one leading to the Wangapeka Track, and the Farmstay is 4.8 km along it

And so to Karamea. Here is a beautiful wetland on the coast near Karamea.

It's part of an amazing, silted up estuary.

I talk about the estuary in the first clip of this video, made originally for a post on the Heaphy Track. The Karamea estuary is "just stunning":

(So stunning I mis-spoke. It's not in the north-east of New Zealand of course, I meant the northern part of the South Island!)

But the estuary wasn't always like that. It used to be a busy working port until the great Murchison Earthquake of 1929, which filled the harbour with silt washed down from huge landslides in the hills.

The Murchison Earthquake killed 17 people, mostly from landslides, and the silting-up of Karamea's port created further difficulties for a struggling regional economy. There is one bright spot, and that is that international seismographic records of the Murchison quake, which was detected all around the world, helped a pioneering female scientist in Denmark, named Inge Lehmann, to show that the earth has a solid inner core.

Inge Lehmann in 1932. Image courtesy The Royal Library, National Libary of Denmark and University of Copenhagen University Library, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It just goes to show that everything is connected, in the most remarkable ways!

Here's a sign on the way into town.

I took photos of signs for the Last Resort and the Karamea Holiday Park:

Vinnie's, a very highly recommended cafe in Karamea:

Vinnie's, Bridge St Karamea

And the general store:

Karamea, the General Store

Both the general store and VInnie's are on opposite sides of the Four-Square Supermarket. You can't miss it.

This is an interesting statue, erected just recently in Karamea by local Māori iwi (tribes), depicting an ancestor named Te Maia who was said to have flown on the back of a hōkioi or giant semi-mythical eagle. The sculpture is called Te Maia Kahurangi and reflects the tale that Te Maia flew over Whakatū (Nelson), Karamea, and Farewell Spit, which is to say, largely over the area traditionally known as Kahurangi, including Kahurangi National Park. A small plaque describes how the spot on which the statue was erected was also a way-station on traditional pounamu (greenstone, New Zealand jade)-gathering expeditions.


The hōkioi is only semi-mythical, for in fact one of the world's largest eagles, much heavier than any eagle living today and with claws as big as a tiger's, used to live in New Zealand until about seven hundred years ago. After which, it died out due to interaction with humans: something that has often happened to large creatures in regions colonised by humans for the very first time.

This giant eagle, known to scientists as Haast's eagle, was the only eagle to achieve the status of the top predator in a large terrestrial ecoystem. Its favourite food consisted of the several species of flightless bird called moa, which weighed up to 200 kg each. Extinction of Haast's eagle was hastened by the fact the moa were also wiped out by early Māori. The first Māori may also have deliberately tried to destroy the nests of the eagle in order to reduce its numbers further. For, Māori lore also speaks of terrible birds that would attack children. Modern science supports the idea that Haast's eagle probably was, indeed, quite dangerous to small people.

Though its likely real-life inspiration was fearsome enough, the hōkioi of legend only grew more marvellous until it became the Māori equivalent of the phoenix or Sinbad's Roc.

And so onto Ōpārara, which gets six metres of rain a year. You get to this area by way of McCallums Mill Road, a road put in by loggers of the ancient rainforest back in the days when that was also a mainstay of the local economy, alongside mining. These days, the road now serves the purpose of eco-tourism.

As an ecological tourist destination, the area is famous for its limestone fossil caves and natural arches, all dissolved out by the continual rain. One of the most famous, and accessible, is Moria Gate Arch, which is on a short loop walk from McCallums Mill Road, a loop that also takes in a reflecting lake called the Mirror Tarn.

Local signboard at Ōpārara

Ōpārara: yellow SUV,and shelters

The Moria Gate Arch at Ōpārara

Semi-dissolved Limestone

One end of Moria Gate arch from inside

The author inside Moria Gate arch

A back-lit scene

Outside, above the stream

Reflections in the Mirror Tarn

Some video I took, of the Moria Gate Arch, a rare whio or blue duck which only lives in streams and refuses stagnant ponds, and the Mirror Tarn

There are lots of historical and scientific displays, such as this one of the fossil caves, which have yielded many intact skeletons of Haast's eagle among other things. The large flightless birds depicted here are moa, of which the bones of six species have been found in the local cave complex of Honeycomb Hill.

Ōpārara Collage

More distant, by way of tracks, are the Fenian Caves and the former Fenian Gold Workings. Fenians were nineteenth-century Irish revolutionaries, some of whom were hanged for incidents that included a misjudged attempt to blow open the walls of a prison in an English town called Clerkenwell, which accidentally killed twelve locals and injured ten times as many more (apart from that, it worked). The men who went to the gallows came to be venerated as martyrs, though not so much in Clerkenwell I suspect.

The Fenian Caves and Workings fit a pattern I've noticed elsewhere, of some quite subversive place names in the South Island. In a recent blog post on central Otago, I asked:

By the way,what’s with names like Cromwell and Naseby? The latter bears the same name as the site of the greatest victory of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army against the cavaliers of King Charles I. Do names like this imply that some of the miners were less than fulsomely loyal to Queen Victoria? Come to think of it, down by Ophir there’s the Daniel O’Connell Bridge, after the Irish nationalist of the same name. I wonder if any royal tour’s ever gone through these parts.

Finally, at the very end of the main road north out of Karamea, you get to Kōhaihai with its nīkau palm forest, estuary and bluff, the gateway to the Heaphy Track. There is an excellent aerial view of the road end, camp ground, estuary and bluff by Lloyd Homer, of GNS Science, on this webpage. Kōhaihai definitely is the end of the line for road-trippers!

Note: This post may be revised shortly, with some additional information.

For more, see

New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) guide to Kōhaihai area short walks:

DOC brochure on Karamea area walks:

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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