Spring has officially sprung and it’s time to plan this year’s road trips. The South Island’s West Coast is easily one of the best in the world. Every Kiwi should discover what all the fuss is about, writes Petrina Darrah.
A single highway connects the river estuaries and empty beaches of Karamea with the misty rainforests of glacier country. Driving through New Zealand’s wettest and least populated region, you’ll often have rocky beaches lashed by waves roaring out of the Tasman on one side, and hulking mountains on the other. Driving the West Coast is pure drama.
It takes about eight hours to drive the coast in a campervan. These are some of the best places to park up, hike, and enjoy the wilderness. As we get closer to summer, now’s the time to plan your trip.
There’s something about reaching the end of the road. Kohaihai is the last stop on the West Coast road heading north. The campsite here is bordered by a tannin-dark lagoon and a beach of creamy sand. This is the start/end point of the Heaphy Track. You can walk the first section of the track to reach deserted beaches fringed by nīkau palms, enjoying a stretch of coast that feels truly untouched.
Detour off the main road into Kahurangi National Park to see the impressive Ōpārara Arches, grand limestone formations sculpted by the river. Getting there involves a gravel road which might not suit bigger campervans. The walk to reach the main arch follows the Ōpārara River through luscious West Coast beech forest. As well as the Ōpārara Arch walk, the Moria Gate and Mirror Tarn loop is beautiful.
Gentle Annie Campground
Gentle Annie’s Campground is a beautiful, sprawling green space set where the Mokihinui River meets the sea. The beach here is strewn with driftwood, occasionally scraped together for sculptures or bonfires. Sunsets are spectacular, and if you walk down the beach to Gentle Annie Point you’ll find a clever maze crafted out of trees. If you can find your way through, you’ll emerge to a stunning sunset lookout point.
Despite its less-than-attractive name, Cape Foulwind is a beautiful stop. The coastal walkway here takes around two hours return, so it’s the ideal spot to break up a drive. You’ll see seals, a lighthouse, and brilliant views of the coastline.
The Ballroom Overhang walk
A half-day walk starting from the mouth of Fox River, the Ballroom Overhang is one of Paparoa National Park’s natural highlights. From Fox River, it follows the Inland Pack Track along a limestone gorge. The last part of the track follows the river – there is no formed trail and you’ll be wading and hopping up 500 metres of river bed to reach the overhang. The water pouring through the West Coast limestone is filtered to a clear bottle green and it’s impossible to resist jumping into the deeper pools for a swim.
The Pancake Rocks and Blowholes walk is the main draw at Punakaiki, but the village itself is a beautiful place to spend time, sheltered under a limestone bluff and bordered by rivers.
The Porari River Track follows the boulder-studded river through thick nīkau forest. The track eventually reaches the Inland Pack Track, and you can either turn around and head back or make a loop by following the Inland Pack Track around to where it exits by the Punakaiki River.
Stay at the Punakaiki Beach Camp to make the most of exploring. The section of highway north of Punakaiki is the most epic on the whole coast, so you might want to drive back and forth to Fox River a few times.
Franz Josef makes a great base for exploring glacier country. I stayed at the Orange Sheep Campervan Park, tucked into lush native bush, and sought out epic glacier views via the Roberts Point and Alex Knob tracks. Depending on the weather and your experience, the Mount Fox route gives epic views across Fox Glacier.
Lake Matheson and Gillespies Beach Campground
Lake Matheson is a classic West Coast pit stop. The walk around the lake is stunning, even if breezes ripple the surface and you can’t see the mirror reflections of the mountains.
Keep on driving past Lake Matheson to reach Gillespies Beach Campground. This DOC site is small and remote, set just back from the beach. Walks lead down the coast to the remains of an old gold mining settlement, and further to quiet lagoons.
The sunsets from the pebbled beach are beautiful, but the best part is standing on the beach, looking back toward the mountains, and seeing Fox Glacier flowing from the Alps.
Welcome Flat Hut
The entire West Coast is peppered with epic huts and tracks, but if you’re going to pick one for an overnight trip, you can’t get much better than Welcome Flat Hut. The Copland Track to the hut is a gentle, six to seven-hour climb through the river valley. The hut itself is huge and comfortable, and next to it are stunning natural hot pools. Soaking in the thermal waters is the best remedy after a day of hiking.
For more things to do on the West Coast, see westcoast.co.nz/visit