Get lost in the wild beauty, elemental forces and fascinating history of the South Island’s rugged West Coast.
The West Coast of the South Island (“the Coast” to locals) is enigmatically beautiful. Bordered by the Southern Alps on one side and the merciless Tasman Sea on the other, silver waterfalls punctuate the dark forests, spilling into glacial lakes, and mist clings to the hilltops. As fate would have it, some of the best methods for immersing yourself in all this beauty start with the letter “G”: the town of Greymouth, the treasure that is greenstone and the region’s majestic glaciers.
Greymouth: working-class hero
You could drive to Greymouth, but why miss the opportunity to travel on the TranzAlpine – named by National Geographic as one of the 10 most scenic train journeys in the world. Departing from Christchurch, the train climbs the foothills of the Southern Alps, crossing the enormous viaducts that bridge the braided rivers, and then rolls downhill towards Greymouth. As the train slows, remnants of the Brunner Mine come into view – the first reminder of this proudly working-class town’s association with mining.
Mining is thirsty work, and Greymouth has a special place in the history of New Zealand beer. Monteith’s Brewing Company dates back to 1868 and is one of the oldest breweries in the country. You don’t need to book a tour of Monteith’s to have a taste of its delicious product: it has what’s called an “open door policy” so it’s easy to get a taste of the 10 different beers on tap. But a tour is recommended – it’ll help you get a better understanding of what this special drop means to this special place.
Arrive on the TranzAlpine then hire a car: there are a multitude of nearby attractions, from the historic town of Blackball, where the New Zealand Labour Party was born, to the Shantytown Heritage Park, where you can experience what life was like for those colonial gold miners.
Greenstone: a national treasure
Greenstone (New Zealand jade) is so important to Māori culture that the only place in the world it is found – the South Island of New Zealand – is named for it: Te Wai Pounamu (“pounamu” being the Māori name for this precious stone). For pre-European Māori, securing greenstone meant dangerous and gruelling journeys across the Southern Alps, and battles fought for control of the rivers rich in this resource.
The Arahura River is one such spot, but today exploring its beauty is as easy as booking a tour with Arahura Greenstone Tours. With the blessings of the local Māori tribe, follow the river – the snow-capped Alps looming beyond, native birds singing in the bush – and learn how to spot greenstone in its native environment, as you discover the legends of the local Māori. Then memorialise this stunning experience by carving your own motif onto a piece of greenstone.
Arahura Greenstone Tours depart near Hokitika, a historic town worth visiting in itself. Time your trip to coincide with the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival (early March) and join the thousands who flock to try the delicious local venison and whitebait, as well as the dubious “mountain oysters” and huhu grubs.
Glaciers: force of nature
If you head south from Hokitika on State Highway 6, across icy-looking rivers spanned by one-lane bridges, with the deep green of Westland Tai Poutini National Park looming up on your left, you reach glacier country. Both the Franz Josef – the first you reach as you travel south – and the Fox glaciers are some of the world’s most accessible: a relatively easy walk will get to you to within a few hundred metres for a good view of each glacier face. But to really get a sense of the wonder of these rivers of ice, you’re going to want to hop in a chopper.
A heli-hike with Fox Glacier Guiding, which offers a range of glacier experiences, will, after a short ride, deposit you some 800m above sea level, the picturesque Victoria Falls tumbling from a nearby cliff-top. Crampons applied to boots, you’ll experience the best the glacier has to offer: crevasses that glow a beautiful deep blue in their depths, ice caves you can slide through, and pools of the clearest sweetest water you’re likely to ever taste. The only thing that makes you happy about leaving is the fun of, once again, bouncing through the air in the helicopter.
Franz Josef village is the spot to stay in glacier country. The Glacier Hot Pools are a must-visit after a cold day on the glacier, while the West Coast Wildlife Centre lets you get up close with New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi.