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THE WILD WEST

Overseas tourists arrive in Aotearoa believing they can do the South Island in two weeks. The likelihood of them ever even reaching areas we travelled to is remote. We're weirdly grateful our plans coincided with a worldwide pandemic. It meant hardly any overseas tourists. What a brilliant time to explore this spectacular country.

We'd arrived in Picton at the end of January on a one-way ferry ticket. Our only fixed itinerary was a planned week on Stewart Island at the end of the February. That gave us just over three weeks on the West Coast. Plenty of time we imagined. How wrong we were.

A little like the sunny East Coast, one doesn't arrive on the West Coast “by accident”, but by intention. Travelling through Westport, Barry got terribly excited to see a weka for the first time in years. He told me the Poverty Bay Rugby Team used to have a weka as their mascot. “Willie Weka” he thought he was called. Little did he realise we'd be meeting heaps of these cheeky birds in the weeks to come.

We continued to a sparsely-populated, quaint place called Hector, located at the Ngakawau River mouth. One of many historic coal mining towns in the region, it still has a functioning coal mine in Stockton. Notices were prominent, warning of the dangers of swimming in the sea near river mouths. The West Coast can be a wild place to live. Tides change swiftly, and rogue waves appear unexpectedly.

A nearby walk called the Charming Creek Walkway sounded interesting. I took the chance to practise carrying my backpack half-full, walking in my new boots — practice for the Great Walk of the Rakiura Track we were booked on. Barry chose jandals, his “go to” footwear for most occasions. We meandered for an hour through some breathtaking scenery and relics of the area's past.

Barry investigated local history at the Northern Buller Museum, run by energetic volunteers. Discovering information about a nearby abandoned rail incline, we drove a short way to Millerton and found it hidden among native bush. In 1963 when the incline link was suddenly stopped, coal carriages on the ascent were left empty and are now full of water. On the descent side, we found them still filled with coal — along with growing vegetation.

We decided to drive as far as we could to the top of the West Coast. The terrain was high, with breathtaking views. Friends had recommended visiting nearby Operara Basin and Arches. However, the approach is unsealed, narrow and steep and not suitable for campervans like ours.  

We continued on the road to stunning Kōhaihai, also mostly unsealed but safe. Here the Department of Conservation campground charges just $8 each per night. Naively we parked adjacent to the inlet and were soon covered in voracious, insatiable sandflies! Itchy pimples covered our feet and ankles. Thankfully insect repellent reduced further bites once we realised we'd been attacked. The views overcame the irritation.

We enjoyed visits by lots of inquisitive wekas. Barry made friends with them, letting them peck his fingers and toes. Similar to his antics with the ducks and swans on the UK canals — they have no teeth, so they really can't ‘bite' you.

While there, we relished a one-hour return walk to Scott's Beach on the Heaphy Track, which has its start (or end) nearby. We had to cross a swing bridge — not my favourite thing. The views though were unbelievable. What a beautiful untouched, remote, wild place. The prolific nikau forests are eye-catching and a tiny taste of things to come.

West Coast sunsets are another splendid sight. We're used to spectacular sunrises in Gisborne but watching sunsets over the Tasman Sea was magical. Mother Nature put on a splendid show for us at Kōhaihai. Barry captured it marvellously.

People ask how we're enjoying our “holiday”. While Barry is now officially retired, for me this is normal life and work. I work online wherever we are, so long as there's internet. Even in this unlikely place, we had signal. Incredible!

Our usual life in the UK is travelling along canals and rivers by narrowboat. In New Zealand it's travelling roads and byways by campervan . . . for the foreseeable future.

Sandra on the Charming Creek Walkway.
Coal carriages on the Millerton Incline.
Right, Barry and Sandra's campervan NZAreandare parked adjacent to the inlet at Kōhaihai.
Towering nikau palms (above) on the Heaphy Track.
An inquisitive weka at Kohaihai.
The sun sets slowly over the Tasman Sea. Pictures by Barry Teutenberg Story by Sandra Walsh
Crossing the swing bridge on the Heaphy Track.
A tramper rests a while by the tempestuous sea at Scott's Beach