Opurara Basin Caves are a highlight on this tour

A Guide’s Perspective – Karamea & Wild West Coast Trails

I was lucky to be given the opportunity to guide MoaTours Karamea & Wild West Coast Trails 7 day tour. 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, and here is my perspective on this tour, from the point of view of the guide.

Find out more about the Karamea & Wild West Coast Trails tour here. 

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. I’ve guided many quick trips through the Coast over the last few years, this time it was going to be a real treat having six nights to slow down, get off the beaten track, and dive much deeper into the stories and history of the area.

Secondly (and the reason I was a little nervous), all but one of the travellers 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. On the advice of some of our most experienced guides, 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. 

Day 1 Auckland – Nelson – Karamea

Day One of a tour is always busy, especially the South Island tours which involve flights. 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 our group 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 up “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 would 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 Denniston 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 with photos and stories of life in Denniston, which we all took in to a chorus of bellbirds in the background. There were up to 1,400 people living there at its peak in 1910, with schools, stores, churches but no graveyard. The soil was too rocky.

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 The Last Resort in Karamea 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. 

Day 2 Karamea – Oparara Basin – Kohaihai Beach – Nikau Walk, Heaphy Track

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.

For many of the group who came from Auckland the previous day, stepping out onto the pristine Oparara Basin in the Kahurangi National Park and strolling along the track through the rainforest with our local guide to see the Moira Gate Arch was a special moment of arrival for us. There was no-one else around and we all felt lucky to enjoy this pristine corner of the country in such great weather

After our picnic lunch we returned to the coast to explore Kohaihai Beach and take a short stroll on the Nikau Walk section, among a forest of palms, at the start of the Heaphy Track.

Our dinner this evening at the Karamea Hotel included the obligatory Whitebait Fritters and all of us will remember the friendly locals. 

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.

We all loved Reefton, 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 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. He worked as a surveyor but he was also an entertainer, and was well known on the Coast for playing at various theatres and venues. A newspaper from February 1912 shows an 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. 

Day 4 Punakaiki – Charleston – Nile River – Cape Foulwind – Punakaiki

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 on our 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 swing bridge 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. 

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.

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 to Lake Kaniere where 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 realise how huge they are.

After lunch we headed out to the stunning Hokitika Gorge – the milky, aqua Hokitika River and rocky cliffs are every bit as beautiful as the photographs and it’s just a four minute easy walk to the viewing platform or 10 minutes to the swing bridge.

We returned to Hokitika in time to check out the Pounamu and artisan galleries which were not far from our Beachfront Hokitika Hotel. And we wandered the beach too which, of course, was just across the road. 

Day 6 Hokitika – Ross – Okarito – Franz Josef – 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.

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.

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 Donovan’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. Donovan’s Store is the community centre and has been lovingly restored and contains dozens of old photos and mementos from days gone by.

If there’s a single moment that captures Okarito for me, it’s being out on the lagoon with Swade, watching the Kotuku (White Heron) gracefully catching its lunch to a backdrop of the Southern Alps. It’s times like this I feel lucky to be a Kiwi!

Our travellers agree – it is a highlight among many highlights. The amazing reflections and silent stillness out on the lagoon give it an “other worldly” feel. And as well as Kotuku, Royal Spoonbills can often to be spotted perched among the trees and wading along the shoreline.

Franz Josef is close by so, before returning to Hokitika, we stop by as there are always some travellers who are keen take the 30 minute return Forest Walk for a view of Franz Josef Glacier. 

Day 7 – Hokitika – Kumara – Arthur’s Pass – Christchurch

Our last day dawned an absolute stunner. 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 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.

We arrived in 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.

From Kumara we headed eastwards up the Otira Viaduct, a spectacular cantilevered road, stopping to admire the panoramic views at the summit. We strolled in Arthur’s Pass Village to the Kea Kiosk and the waterfall behind the church. Continuing through the alpine beech forests, surrounded by mountains, with the Waimakariri River glistening below, this seventh and final day on tour felt like we had entered “the hall of the mountain king”.

There was time for just one more stroll to the massive limestone rocks at Castle Hill / Kura Tawhiti before we descended Porters Pass and across the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch Airport. 

So ended our wonderful Wild West Coast Trail.

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 to our wonderful travellers, who made it all so special and were such a happy and positive bunch every single day.

He aha te mea nui o te Ao, he Tangata, he Tangata, he Tangata.

You can see more about the Karamea & Wild West Coast Trails 7 day tour here. 

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