Bronwyn Sell finds the natural wonders of the West Coast can match the Big Five of any safari.

When someone asked my 8-year-old what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, "David Attenborough". While his friends are reading Zac Power, he and his little brother are comparing vital stats in dinosaur and animal encyclopaedias, and asking questions like: "Mapusaurus versus Diplodocus, Mum - who do you think will win?" Their fantasy holiday is less Disneyland and more Greenland.

So when we decided to go on a family trip, we were thinking Our World rather than Dreamworld. What was the New Zealand equivalent of an African safari?

We settled on the West Coast. Not the easily accessible west coast of Auckland - pshaw! - but that windswept sliver of the South Island shearing off from the Southern Alps, where seals sprawl on rocks, kotuku sweep through primeval forest, and glaciers tumble. Forget lions and leopards - here's our Big Five of New Zealand's wild west.

1. KIWI
In the very south of Westland, the rarest of all kiwi clings to life: the rowi. Fewer than 400 survive in the wild, restricted to the Okarito Forest, north of the Franz Josef glacier. The best place to meet one is at the West Coast Wildlife Centre. We go on a VIP Backstage Pass to see the hatchery, where the kids crouch behind glass to view two fluffy hatchlings pecking and snoozing, and hear about the incubation and hatching programme. (Piece of trivia: kiwi stink.) If everything goes well, these precious chicks will one day live among about 180 birds the centre has bred and released into the wild.
West Coast Wildlife Centre, (03) 752 0600.
2. KOTUKU
Every New Zealander has seen these angelic white birds on the $2 coin, but few have spotted them in real life. Historically, they've occupied near-mythical status among Maori because of their rarity and striking appearance, and have come a few nests away from extinction. That's because they're limited to one isolated breeding colony at Whataroa, South Westland, where about 100 birds nest for only a few months of the year.

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Searching for kotuku with White Heron Sanctuary Tours. Photo / Bronwyn Sell
Searching for kotuku with White Heron Sanctuary Tours. Photo / Bronwyn Sell

It's only accessible by water through the DoC-approved White Heron Sanctuary Tours, so our pilgrimage begins with a drizzly jetboat ride upriver and a walk through kahikatea forest to a riverside hide. We watch through binoculars as the adult birds glide, swoop and build nests, and little balls of white fluff peep out from twigs. Our guide quotes a Maori saying that translates as: "A kotuku is seen but once." We feel a bit special, too.
White Heron Sanctuary Tours, 0800 523 456.
3. HOKITIKA GORGE
We Kiwis can get blase about jaw-dropping scenery. "You must go to Hokitika Gorge," said, well, everyone. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, we'll try to fit it in," said we. So one afternoon we navigate through farmland behind Hokitika to a boardwalk track through rimu and podocarp forest. Soon we're catching glimpses through the trees of a river such a vivid shade of milky turquoise that it seems to glow with its own light. After a few minutes of walking, we come to a swing bridge across the granite-walled gorge and even the kids fall silent, in reverence at the beauty of it all. Right now I'll swear it's singularly the prettiest view in New Zealand. Clouds of sandflies dissuade us from lingering on the boulders along the bank, but it's one of those mental snapshots that stays in your head. I'll tell you now: you must go to Hokitika Gorge.

4. PANCAKE ROCKS

Remember that old TV campaign: Don't leave town until you've seen the country? We-ell, I've been to the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, and I thought the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks near Greymouth would be just a flat and placid formation of middling interest to geologists. Turns out they're a fortress of spectacular rock towers, through which enormous waves surge, suck and boom. The kind of place that makes you want to grip the handrails - and your kids. Okay, so I get it now.

5. SEALS

There's something human-like in these barking, squabbling, lounging, diving creatures that makes them hypnotic to watch. One of the best places in New Zealand to see them is Tauranga Bay, 16km south of Westport. There's a viewing platform along the cliff a short walk north of the beach, and in spring, when we're there, the big fighting bull seals are in residence, along with plenty of playful pups. It's an action-packed show. You can continue walking up the dramatic coastline of soaring cliffs towards the Cape Foulwind lighthouse.

The writer travelled with the help of West Coast Tourism.