Occupying the northern end of the South Island's West Coast, tap into the heart of Buller with local tour operator Out West Tours.

It runs a variety of off-road tours in superbly reconditioned Unimogs, to the likes of the Denniston Plateau, Warren Stratford's astonishing John Deere Museum and deep into the heartland.

Owned and operated by Mickey and Doreen Ryan, their newest offering is a six-hour tour, called Johnny's Journey, mixing an assortment of coastal gems with the wilderness.

Cowpiddle Bluff, a limestone cliff gushing with a water spout
Cowpiddle Bluff, a limestone cliff gushing with a water spout

Mickey is the quintessential nuggety Coaster, who regaled me with an unfurling spool of vivid stories and unvarnished insights, in disarmingly honest fashion.

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We admired lancewood trees growing on the roadside, which as Mickey explained, evolved so that their leaves were protected against the roaming moa.

We popped into Charleston, which during the 1860s gold rush, groaned with 80 hotels, quenching the thirst of the gold-diggers labouring along the Nile River.

Mike and friend explore water-chiselled limestone outcrops
Mike and friend explore water-chiselled limestone outcrops

New Zealand's first toll bridge was erected across the river by Constant Bay, just one gem in a necklace of stunning little bays off the tourist trail. A paddle steamer formerly plied the river and Constant Bay was once used as a harbour, with ships squeezing through a narrow gap between the bay's rocky headlands.

I marvelled over the quaint old harbourmaster's house at Joyce Bay, and collected smooth quartz stones, like readymade jewellery, from the shoreline of Ladies Bay.

Then we headed inland into Madmans Valley, where Mickey led me to the most dramatic limestone cliff gushing with a water spout, which has been nicknamed Cowpiddle Bluff.

Mickey recently built a magnificent flight of wooden steps to reach this striking formation. Heading even deeper into the heartland, we forded some streams and headed over a saddle into the gob-smacking bucolic splendour of Awakari Valley, a sprawling rainforest valley neighbouring Paparoa National Park.

Johnny's tin shack.
Johnny's tin shack.

The panoramic ridgeline lookout is mouth-watering, like casting your eyes over a frozen-in-time lost world. It's the world's biggest privately owned rimu forest, under the purview of a true living West Coast legend, Johnny Currie.

He's 76, as fit as a buck rat with the mind of a steel trap, and a bit like a cross between the Wizard of Christchurch and Barry Crump. He's done it all. Farming, logging, deerstalking, mining, caving and tour guiding. He's the bushman's bushman.

And the 1800 hectares of this valley is his realm. An immense Garden of Eden previously owned by a timber company, who sold it to Johnny in 1980, for $26,000.

Johnny's family connection with the Awakari Valley, reaches back more than a century, and he lives in a 50-year-old bush hut, not dissimilar to what his forebears sheltered in.

 Johnny Currie has set up a reserve for red deer.
Johnny Currie has set up a reserve for red deer.

What he holds deer

Before descending into the base of the valley, Mickey pinpointed some of the scores of wild red deer, free-roaming across the terrain.

Thirty years ago, Johnny prohibited deer hunting from the valley, dedicating his kingdom of regenerating native forest and tinkling gin-clear streams as a wild deer reserve.

Johnny Currie lives completely off the grid. No power. No running water, although the pristine Awakari River runs right outside his tin hut.

I chatted to Johnny alongside his cracking wood fireplace, about his poacher-turned-game-keeper conversion from clear-felling logger to forest protector, the surprises kept coming.

We strolled through radiant green valley glades, to admire an ancient Maori cave bordering the river.

The cave was used by moa hunters, centuries ago, where they set up camp for their food gathering. Did you know that there are Pancake Rocks beyond the feted formations at Punakaiki? I certainly didn't.

Johnny's got a towering chain of Pancake Rock formations, rising up from the valley bed.

He's cleaned a lot of them, so they shimmer like vast ivory-coloured stacks of limestone.

The only way you can access the Awakari Valley, meet Johnny and marvel over his bewitching paradise is with Out West Tours.

They are the sole operator and Mickey's team are gearing up for their first summer sharing the Awakari with the world. It's an irresistibly unique celebration of Kiwi heritage and culture, swathed in paradise.

Sampling Johnny's world is like savouring spectacular, larger-than-life version of Country Calendar in 3D. It's an incomparable encounter. www.outwest.co.nz
TOP TIPS

After a day of riveting heartland discovery, I was lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the ocean at Omau Settlers Lodge Motel, Cape Foulwind. Swathed in lush, manicured grounds, all rooms at this tranquil coastal roost boast a private balcony with stirring ocean or mountain views.

Accentuate the blissfulness of the surrounds by enjoying a soak in the outdoor hot tub, or relax by the fireplace in the shared lounge area.

You'll enjoy free Wi-Fi and a complimentary continental breakfast with homemade breads, preserves and jams, cereal and fresh fruit. Accommodations are well appointed with en-suite bathrooms, quality New Zealand timber furnishings, flat-screen TV and cloud-comfortable beds. omausettlerslodge.com