Fritter away the days on the coast

By Monique Devereux

When someone says "West Coast" two things often spring to mind - whitebait and rain. And after a week on the Coast I can tell you that would be a fair assessment.

I ate so much whitebait I don't know if I'll ever be able to eat it again, and got rather wet in what the locals called "the odd downpour" but what seemed to be days of continuous rain.

But a little rain never hurt anyone and if eating whitebait every day is a local bylaw, who am I to argue?

My trip began on the TranzAlpine train in Christchurch, a meandering four-and-a-half-hour journey - rail works slowed us a bit - during which the dulcet tones of a TranzScenic staffer soothed us with geographical information and the odd bit of trivia.

Did you know, for example, that the only resident in the village of Cass - between Christchurch and Arthurs Pass - is a man called Rambo who can bend railway lines with his bare hands?

Or that there are 16 tunnels en route to Greymouth and all of them are dark inside? Yes, really.

The trip is beautiful in spring but probably more so in winter, when the Southern Alps are covered in snow.

It did get a little tiresome near the end - or maybe I have a four-hour travel limit - so by the time we rolled into Greymouth I was ready for a stretch and a feed. Of whitebait.

Greymouth isn't grey. It's quiet and a little bit slow compared to Auckland, but the shops are plentiful, and colourful, and their staffers are tourist-savvy.

This is pure West Coast. Hardened characters at the pub, all the greenstone you'd ever want and plenty of yarns about the good old days of gold mining.

For luxury accommodation head to Punakaiki, where the pancake rock formations awe the tourists who wander the well-developed track to see them. Here you can stay almost on the water's edge but if you prefer more modest digs the local pub has rooms, too.

But if it's a newer coast experience you're after, head north to Buller. The region that begins just south of Westport, stretches inland to Reefton and up country to Karamea.

My cousin Aaron has lived in Westport for a long time and often told me not to visit because his town is the best-kept secret in New Zealand and he didn't want it swamped with Aucklanders.

Sorry cuz. I'm on to you now. He was joking (mostly) of course. If there is one thing the Buller district needs, it's visitors.

You'll remember the furore when the Government shut down the logging industry - a move that left thousands of West Coast people suddenly out of work. The resurrection of the area is a slow burner, but a quietly lucrative one.

In the 90s the Government handed over millions in compensation for taking away the livelihoods of the people. Some of it was well spent, some of it has disappeared down the drainpipe of silly council decisions.

But most of it has ended in the hands of the West Coast Development Trust, which now has a healthy bank balance of more than $100 million.

In the past few years the trust has played a key role in pushing the development of businesses on the Coast by coasters. It hands out thousands in grants every year and offers low-cost loans for start-up companies.

The concept is well supported by new Buller mayor Martin Sawyers, a young guy with six kids and lots of energy who knocked the former mayor of some 20 years off his perch last election with a large majority.

"Buller has to find a way forward. Logging isn't coming back, mining has its limitations. Tourism is an area we can offer new and different and fantastic experiences in, and we fully intend to develop it as much as we can," he says.

It's not that the raw Buller has nothing to offer. It may rain but that's why the ferns and punga and other gorgeous natives are so green and vibrant all over the place. And when it's hot here, it's hot. I'm talking swimming at the beach in October.

Stop a local to talk weather for five minutes and you'll be told it's because the region has a micro-climate that is never mentioned on the television weather reports.

Argue all you want, but take a good look at the map and see how much closer to Nelson Westport is than to Christchurch, then try to tell the locals they're kidding themselves.

And they tell me it's this micro-climate that apparently breeds the big fat whitebait I ate all week. It sounded good to me. Serve me another fritter, thanks.

In Westport you can take an exhilarating jetski tour up the Buller River, jumping the rapids and waving to the traffic driving on SH6 beside you.

You can visit coal mines and seal colonies. You can sit in a Westport cafe for coffee and feel like you're "somewhere in Lygon St", or so said the food-loving Melbourne-born photographer travelling in our group. He wasn't too keen on the whitebait though, so I'm not entirely sure about his credentials.

Westport is also where you can walk along a semi-deserted beach and watch the most gorgeous sunsets and wonder where all the people are.

That's what Holland's Bart and Maartje Mulders were wondering during their stroll one quiet Sunday night. The couple chose New Zealand for their honeymoon and could not believe they had the West Coast all to themselves.

But even the Mulders might be stunned by the quiet get-away-from-it-all holiday Karamea can offer.

It is certainly a hike to get this far north and it won't be a holiday destination I'll visit again for a while. But there is no denying it's worth the effort.

Accommodation options range from a luxurious bed and breakfast right on the Tasman Sea, to an extremely colourful weatherboard backpackers' house, and a motel correctly known as the Last Resort.

Here they will feed you whitebait. Big fat juicy whitebait in fritters or salads or however you want it. But I digress.

Karamea is probably best known for being the start, or the end, of the Heaphy Track, depending on your direction.

But if you stay in this tiny village go on a tour of the Oparara Valley Caves. Like anything in this part of the West Coast, it takes a long time to get there but when you do it's well worth the effort.

Inside are the remains of 1000-year-old moa and hundreds of gorgeous glow worms.

You can also learn more than you thought you might like to about cave formation. And it doesn't rain underground.

You'll be wowed by the trip, but for sheer beauty you won't better the view on your way out when you look up to the cave exit and see the light streaming through a gap surrounded by bright green ferns and grasses.

It was enough to silence our chatty group of journalists for several minutes - until someone asked someone else to pass the whitebait fritter sandwiches.

Then we all donned our hoods and headed up to the surface of the earth and into the rain.



West Coast

For information about the West Coast talk to the local information offices:

Dulcie McNabb at the Karamea Information Centre, (03) 782 6652;

Lynn Taylor at the Westport Information Centre, (03) 789 6658;

Debbie Collings at the Greymouth Information Centre, (03) 768 5101;

or on the West Coast website (see link below).

* Monique Devereux visited the Buller District courtesy of the West Coast Development Trust.

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