The West Coast is one of the administrative regions of New Zealand, located on the west coast of the South Island and is one of the more remote and most sparsely populated areas of the country.
The West Coast is made up of three districts: Buller, Grey and Westland. Local towns are Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika. To New Zealanders, the West Coast of the South Island is known as “The Coast” and the people who are born there are known as “Coasters”. The term Westland is used by some New Zealanders to refer to the whole of the West Coast, including Grey District, Buller District, and Fiordland. Fiordland is geographically on the west coast of New Zealand but has no road connection and is in the Southland administrative region. The term West Coast generally refers to the narrow strip of land between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. It is the longest region in New Zealand. The region reaches from Kahurangi Point in the north to Awarua Point in the south, a distance of 600 km. To the west is the Tasman Sea which like the Southern Ocean is known to be very rough, with four-metre swells being common), and to the east are the Southern Alps. Much of the land is rugged, although there are coastal plains around which much of the population resides. The region has a very high rainfall due to the prevailing northwesterly winds and the location of the Southern Alps - these two elements giving rise to heavy rains. The flip side to this is the rain shadow effect which is responsible for the relatively arid climate of the Canterbury Plains on the other side of the Southern Alps.
The West Coast is being known more and more for eco-tourism and its rugged coast has been used in the filming of movies such as Jane Campion’s “The Piano’’. Industries on the West Coast include mining for coal and alluvial gold, forestry and wood processing, and also fishing (including a favourite New Zealand pastime - white baiting), tourism and farming. There are cafes and restaurants in all the major towns and plenty of work available in most in the seasons, even in winter. Dairy farming has grown strongly and the local dairy co-operative, Westland Milk Products, remained independent when most others merged to form dairy giant Fonterra in 2001. Other industries are involved in the manufacturing and sale of greenstone jewellery, sphagnum moss-gathering (the moss is used in plant propagation) and stone collection for garden landscaping. The West Coast also has one of the strongest growing regional economies of New Zealand, as of 2007, though from a rather small base. Scenically the West Coast has been listed by Lonely Planet as one of the "Top 10 Coastal Drives of the World".
Population: 32,600 June 2009 estimate.
With a population of only 32,600 people, the West Coast retains the feeling of a pioneer frontier like the old Wild West. It's a wild place, known for rivers and rainforests; glaciers and geological treasures and rugged and rough coastline. Legends and stories from the past cling to every feature of the landscape. The region is particularly sparsely populated in the south, with the 2006 census recording 31,326 inhabitants, up from 30,303 in 2001, although not as high as the 1996 figure. Major towns on the West Coast are Greymouth, Westport, and Hokitika. At one time, during the gold rush days, Hokitika had a population of more than 25,000 and boasted more than 100 pubs. A recreation of an early New Zealand settlement can be found at Shantytown, near Greymouth. The locals still retain the virtue of looking after one and another and still have good old-fashioned values.
Land area: 23,000 km².
Main Centres: Greymouth, Hokitika, Westport, Reefton, Karamea, Kumara, Fox Glacier, Haast, Okuru, Jackson Bay
Māori were the first to discover this wonderful region and they valued it for the taonga (treasure) of greenstone (pounamu), which was found there in abundance. In 1860 gold fever brought Europeans, many of whom stayed on to start farming, forestry and businesses. The West Coast was only occasionally visited by early Europeans until the discovery of gold near the Taramakau River in 1864 by two Māori, Ihaia Tainui and Haimona Taukau. By the end of that year there were an estimated 1800 prospectors on the West Coast, many of them around the Hokitika area, which, in 1866, became briefly the most populous settlement in New Zealand.
A major gold rush took place between 1864 and 1867, creating numerous gold rush towns such as Okarito which became at one point the largest town on the West Coast but then quickly almost vanished as miners moved on. After that time, the population of the West Coast dwindled, but the main towns that still exist on the Coast had become established. After pounamu (greenstone or jade) and gold, the next mineral to make the West Coast valuable was coal. Coal was discovered near the Buller River in the mid-1840s and mining began in earnest during the 1860s. By the 1880s, coal had become the region’s main industry, with mines throughout the northern half of the region, especially around Westport. Many of these continued in operation until the mid-20th century and several survive today. Timber has also long been a major industry in the region, although in recent years there has been an uneasy balance between milling and conservation.
Activities: What to do there?
From walks in pristine bush to climbing a glacier, the opportunities for physical activity on the West Coast are certainly different. The land is extremely scenic, with wild coastlines, mountains, and a high proportion of native bush, much of it temperate rainforest. The West Coast is the only part of New Zealand where significant tracts of lowland forest remain and the region is also famous for being the only New Zealand nesting place of the rare white heron (kotuku), which nests near the Okarito Lagoon and can be visited from tours operating out of the small farming township of Whataroa. This rare bird appears on the New Zealand $2 coin. The West Coast is memorable for its mountain peaks, massive glaciers, bizarre limestone landscapes, mysterious lakes, raging rivers, lush rainforest and magnificent, wild coastline. In addition, the residents - Coasters - are interesting, entertaining, outdoorsy people who can spin an interesting story or two if you have time to listen, or they might invite you in for a cup of tea and a freshly made scone. Scenic areas include the Haast Pass, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and the Heaphy Track. You can raft an underground cave, hike over a glacier, kayak a stunning lake, or pan for gold - there is so much to do here and don’t forget to try the traditional West Coast delicacy, whitebait, in a sammie (sandwich to most people). The local beer is also definitely worth a try.
The West Coast is a fascinating area for entertainment or the arts as much of it is tucked away, almost as if to protect it from prying eyes. You might be lucky enough to sit in a local pub and hear a wonderful tale or two from one of the world’s best story tellers; or listen to a jam season and later find out they are top musicians from well-known bands - the Coast is like that! There are several well-known artists who live and paint or photograph on the Coast. The West Coast has the largest area of protected land of any region in New Zealand and provides access to five of the country’s 13 national parks, so it’s not hard to see why it has featured in several films and been photographed countless times. The southern West Coast area has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site for its unique qualities and in recognition of its special place in the world. To this amazing natural landscape you can add good accommodation, fine foods, festivals and first class local guides.. In the townships of Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika, you can learn about the West Coast's colourful past and shop for pounamu, the local treasure that's only significant source within New Zealand is in the West Coast's raging mountain rivers.
Airport: The Hokitika Airport offers flights five times per day and links with other national airlines in Christchurch. Westport Airport is currently serviced seven days a week by an Air New Zealand link flight direct from Wellington. A weekday service is provided Monday to Friday by independent operator, Air West Coast.
Roads: One of the top coastal drives in the world, according to Lonely Planet.
Buses: Intercity buses are available seven days a week and cover the length of the West Coast.
Jet boating: Haast River Safaris offers jet boat tours in fully enclosed boats.
Train: The TranzAlpine offers daily train excursions from Christchurch to the West Coast and vice versa, giving visitors a chance to enjoy the fantastic alpine scenery in comfort on one of the world’s most renowned rail journeys.
Cycling: All the cycling information you need to get you started.