Highlights of the West Coast of NZ’s South Island

West Coast

The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a magical place for me. Crossing the the island from my home town Christchurch, I feel the pressure and stress of work dissipate quickly as I cross the Southern Alps. Descending from Arthur’s Pass onto the West Coast you pass through a mountain valley clad with Rata forest. Between November and January the Rata are in bloom, their flowers a brilliant crimson red colour that lights up the valley.
Most visitors to New Zealand make the sin of not spending enough time to explore the South Island. You need a minimum of 8 days to see the main sights, and 2 weeks would be better. The South island’s tourist “mecca” may be Queenstown but I wouldn’t stay there more than a day there if you only have a week in the SI.

The West Coast has a wild exotic feel to it which I adore. The forest comes down to the sea and cliff tops tower above you. The coastal trees are shaped by the prevailing westerly wind and that same wind whips up the ocean and makes the waves grand and fierce.

Towards the south are the two glaciers Fox and Franz Josef. They are unusual glaciers in that their ice comes down to near sea level. It is fun to visit both but if you are really on a tight schedule I would opt for Fox and I would definitely stay for a whole day.

Fox Glacier

As well as the glacier a visit to Lake Matheson is a must. If you go first thing in the morning you are more likely to get the amazing views of the mountains before the cloud tends to cover them mid morning.

View of Mt Cook from Lake Matheson Cafe
View of Mt Cook from Lake Matheson Cafe

Lake Matheson
Lake Matheson

My personal favourite place and “spiritual home” on the West Coast is Punakaiki. Most tour bus stop only briefly for their passengers to visit the famed Pancake Rocks. They are truly magnificent rock formations and you really do get to appreciate the power of the sea.

Pancake Rocks
Pancake Rocks

Pancake Rocks two


But there is so much more to see and do in Punakaiki so recommend you have 1-2 days there. I love to walk up and down the beach, marvelling at the powerful waves thundering in and collecting colourful small rocks that have been polished by them. Another highlight is going for a walk along the Pororari River Track. This must be one of the most beautiful walks in the world. Walking through NZ native bush beside a pristine river with limestone cliffs towering above – Bliss! On a sunny day it is also fun to rent a kayak and paddle up the river.

Pororari River track
Pororari River Track. See the red blush of the Rata in flower.

Pororari River two
Pororari River

Another walk I would highly recommend is Truman’s Track, a 10-15 minute walk that takes you down through native bush to what seems like your own personal beach.

Truman's Beach
Truman’s Beach

2.5 hours drive north of Punakaiki is Karamea, which is the gateway to both the Oparara Valley and the beginning of the Heaphy Track. Most tourists don’t visit Karamea because they don’t have time on their itinerary but the area is truly magnificent. The Heaphy track is one of NZ’s great walkways. The whole track takes 3 days but you walk one to several hours, as much or as little as you choose, along the southern end. The track takes you along the coast, through native bush including beautiful groves of Nikau palms. From memory it takes under an hour to get to Scott’s beach which is paradise on a sunny day.

It is worth the 25 km drive, mostly on a windy gravel road through the Kahurangi National Park, to get to the Oparara Arch. The Oparara Arch is a stunning natural limestone cathedral-like structure formed by the river that ran through it. 43m high and 219m long, you get to it via a 25 min walk through moss-covered rainforest from the car park. You’ll probably see friendly Weka (flight-less native bird) along the way. There are other limestone formations in the park and some good tours you can do.

Last two pieces of advice. This is the West Coast of the South Island.

2. Don’t swim on West Coast beaches. It is too dangerous.

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