Squeezed in between the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps on the South Island is the area known as New Zealand’s West Coast. Once an inhospitable land where sand flies swarmed and suitable farmland was sparse, it was originally considered a write off following early European exploration, it just wasn’t worth the effort. With its furious coastline offering no safe harbour and the remainder of the island out of reach with no road access through the mountains, there was little interest in it until two wandering Māori happened upon some gold in 1864, when suddenly the interest perked up a little. Funny that. Almost overnight the barren landscape boomed into life, with prospectors arriving in droves and towns popping up from nothing, the West Coast as we know it was born.
150 years on, we made our journey west in search of our own gold. From late August until November it’s Whitebait season, and we wanted in on the action. The entire West Coast comes alive in the hunt; whole communities appear on river banks, New Zealanders take up their whole annual leave for the cause and every stretch of water is crammed with nets and nervous looking Kiwis. It’s a massive business here – prices can reach well over $100 a kilo – and everyone wants their share. First though we had to negotiate the infamous Haast Pass, where a ferocious river charges its way through a deep gorge onto which a road was slowly and rather arduously placed, including a crossing of the terrifying Gates of Haast. As anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to visit the town of Haast will confirm, this could be a direct translation to the Gates of Hell; so with our minds on lunch we emerged out of the pass, went straight through Haast, and let a fishy wind guide us onto the Whitebaiting village of Jackson Bay.
A tiny, isolated community which grew on and still lives off the sea; saltcrusted, sea hardened fisherman types are all you’ll find here. Views of the mountains stretch back over the bay, a handful of resident penguins and a battered coastline of rock pools ripe for exploring make this a worthwhile visit regardless of the seafood, something which turned out to be fortunate as we managed to find the place in the middle of a power cut, which meant no Whitebait was to be found. Resisting the temptation to spend our entire weekly food budget on a kilo of frozen fish instead, we eventually found some roadside stalls serving up fresh Whitebait patties and with stomachs full, finally, we took the coast road north.
Some witty soul once nicknamed the West Coast of New Zealand as ‘The Wet Coast’. Now due to the fact that all coasts generally have some kind of sea next to them and are therefore will be at least slightly damp, the sharp minded joker in this case was in fact alluding to how much rain it gets. Which is a great deal. So it was with no great surprise that our arrival in glacier country coincided with bloated clouds and anoraks at the ready. The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers dominate everything in sight up here; stretching down from the Southern Alps into temperate rainforest, hordes of tourists swarm ant like over the ice, pick axes at hand and illusions of Scott & Shackleton at heart. Having walked on Franz Josef during our visit four years back and with ominous looking skies above, we were delighted to find there was an option to keep out of the elements whilst exploring some abandoned mines nearby. Informed that it was all under cover but the floor may be “a little wet”, we took to the mines armed with a torch each and a sense of adventure for some, and I quote, “good, dry fun”. An hour later as we inched bare foot through shin deep frozen water in the pitch black while repeatedly cracking heads on jagged wet rock, I must admit I did once or twice ponder over the exact accuracy of the information leaflet. Luckily for us we soon found our saving grace and reason for coming, Glow Worms. Looking like it had been coated by the sneeze of a Chernobyl victim, tiny luminous green specks of light scattered across the cave roof above us and led the way, suddenly the numb feet and aching heads were so very worth it.
The rain kept on. The smell of our van turned from unwashed human to soggy dog as wet clothing hung limply from steering wheel to seat tops, from dashboard to curtain rails. We took refuge at the sodden campground of desolate Okarito, where finally the rains temporarily cleared for a breathtaking sunrise inland on the Southern Alps, before pressing on with no great enthusiasm to Greymouth. This is one of those towns which you’re pleased to leave, it’s as dull as it sounds, but here the pleasure of leaving is increased tenfold by the somewhat stunning route north. Taking a steep, winding coastal road which you don’t drive so much as cling for dear life to, ancient rocks the size of houses litter the shoreline as the coastline becomes more splintered around each corner. Most famously here are the Punakaiki Rocks – a geological freak show which has earned them the better known name of the Pancake Rocks – where huge waves crash down to fuel blow holes for added effect.
The Buller Gorge then took us inland to our DOC campsite for the night on what appeared to be an uninhabited and lonely hillside. It was only on a short walk from the campsite and the discovery of an overgrown and long forgotten cemetery full of foreign graves, that we realised a gold mining town had once stood here. The settlement of Lyall had vanished as quickly as its reams of gold were found and then exhausted, leaving nothing but moss covered ruins and an eerie sense of what once was. A conversation with a fellow camper and amateur gold digger brought to our attention that not all the gold had actually gone yet, and so off to the river bed we went. A quick pan handling did indeed show tiny specks of gold twinkling back at us; and as our heads filled with thoughts fortunes about to be made, it merely confirmed that in every sense of the word, the wild West Coast is as rich as they come.