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Image Credit: Rob Suisted

West Coast & The Glaciers

Sitting midway up the west coast of the South Island can be found Glacier Country. Away from the tourist hubs of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier this region is mostly untouched, remote and wild. Although there is plenty to keep visitors busy, most are headed here for one reason alone and that is the glaciers.

Sitting midway up the west coast of the South Island can be found Glacier Country. Away from the tourist hubs of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier this region is mostly untouched, remote and wild. Although there is plenty to keep visitors busy, most are headed here for one reason alone and that is the glaciers. Icy adventure awaits and includes glacier-hikes, ice-climbing and skydiving over the entire beautiful landscape.

This area is also home to one of the most loved characters in all of the country – the cheeky, noisy and highly destructive mountain parrot known as the kea; the world’s only Alpine species of parrot. 

Heading north from the glaciers you will find a vast area known collectively as the West Coast. Within this geographical expanse you will find such gems as the majestic Pancake Rocks, national parks aplenty for total natural immersion while hiking, biking and kayaking, luxuriant rainforests and a history which weaves stories of a gold rush era and a mining heritage featuring both precious metal and coal.

Beaches are typically wild and dramatic and inhabited by heaps of wildlife. Beneath the surface another world with tons of adventure potential awaits because this area is packed to the rafters with an elaborate system of caves. There are cathedral-like caverns to be gawped at, hidden corners full of the bones of extinct giant birds to be discovered and underground waterways to be floated along underneath a canopy of tiny lights which are actually glow worms.

From horse trekking to heli-hikes and from quad biking to questing for gold – the things to see and do here offer some great adventure and recreation options for all tastes.

Un-missable THINGS TO DO in the West Coast and Glacier Country Regions

  1. Head out to the spectacular Pancake Rocks on a stormy day and watch the blow holes put on a display
  2. Have your breath taken away at every turn in the road on the Haast Pass Drive
  3. Wander through the gold-mining ghost town of Waiuta
  4. Hike a glacier or skydive over beautiful landscapes at Fox or Franz Josef Glacier 
  5. Abseil into a black-water rafting adventure or go for a DIY cave exploration
  6. Explore the almost totally overlooked Karamea region and paddle through Moria Gate
  7. Take a ride across the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine train
  8. Explore rock-pools and beach comb for greenstone along the coast 
Punakaki Rocks (Image Credit: Julian Apse)
Punakaki Rocks (Image Credit: Julian Apse)

1. Pancake/ Punakaiki Rocks

To dose yourself up with the spectacular head to the Pancake Rocks where Mother Nature has seen fit to carve, sculpt, layer and otherwise mould the land into huge rock columns. If you happen to be

here when the weather has whipped up the seas you will also get to witness the natural spectacle which comes courtesy of the blow-holes here. The views in general here are pretty stunning too – reaching as far as Aoraki/Mt Cook if the skies are clear.

2. The Haast Pass Scenic Drive

Turbulent racing rivers, cascading waterfalls, lakes in every blue known to man from icy aqua to deep sapphire and a natural backdrop which hits you afresh and leaves you breathless at every turn of a corner – this is the Haast Pass drive. Even by New Zealand’s standards, as scenic drives go, this

is truly something else. Along the route there are any number of stop off points for an easy access jaunt to some real gems such as the impossibly beautiful and totally un-missable Blue Pools and several waterfalls including Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls and Roaring Billy.

3. Reefton and the Gold Rush

Exploring the Reefton area will reward you with any amount of pristine nature. The lovely Victoria Conservation Park is a landscape of river, lake and mountains dotted about with natural swimming holes and pools of the idyllic kind and a seemingly endless network of walking and biking tracks.

However, nestled within the park's embrace are also a host of leftovers from Reefton's gold-mining glory days which reached their most frenzied level in 1870. Waiuta was the region's second wealthiest mine back then – today it is a ghost town which makes for an eerie wander around its buildings which nature is trying her hardest to reclaim. Other interesting gold-mining relics in the area include the 'Golden Lead Stamper Battery' (and in case you're wondering that is a large piece of equipment which crushes rock to extract the gold) and the well-preserved 'Lord Bassey Stamper Battery'.

Quite how you explore this area and its mining heritage is up to you but some fun options are a 4WD adventure and the chance to pan for gold yourself. If you'd like to discover a little more, head to Reefton's Blacks Point Museum where the story of the pioneering miners and how they lived and worked is told in a series of photos, books, records and memorabilia.

Franz Josef Glacier (Image Credit: Gareth Eyres)
Franz Josef Glacier (Image Credit: Gareth Eyres)

4. The Glaciers

Although there are many many things in the region to keep the visitor happy there is no denying that one draw attracts more visitors than perhaps all the rest put together – the glaciers. There are actually well over 100 glaciers which start their inexorably slow creep from the Southern Alps but only 2 of these have arrived at the rainforest level - Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.

Both are huge tourist attractions although Fox Glacier receives by far the least tourist traffic of the two. This is a country which does outdoor experiences and extreme adventures by the bucket-load but what you can do here is truly different and of the once-in-a-lifetime category over and again (not least of all because the glaciers won’t be around forever). Both glaciers can be viewed for free if you are prepared to do a little walking but otherwise there are 101 ways to enjoy them although admittedly some cost a pretty penny. ]

Quite how extreme you want to go is up to you too. You can go down the little-effort-required route with a short hike or a helicopter ice landing or you can embrace your inner Rambo with a spot of ice-climbing or overnight trekking. For the best glacier views of all, sign up for one of the skydives in the region – leaping out of an aeroplane doesn't get more breathtaking than this.

Away from the glaciers the adventure menu continues with hiking, horse-trekking, quad-biking, rafting, helicopter flights, kayaking and cruising of lake, lagoon and coast.

5. The Region's Caves

The West Coast area hides some of its premier gems out of sight....or underground to be more exact. In several places beneath the surface of this area – including the Karamea already mentioned - can be found a labyrinthine subterranean wonderland where adventures can be as scenic and sedate or extreme as you care to make them.

You can do a spot of DIY cave exploration at such places as the Crazy Paving and Box Canyon Caves to unearth a world of fascinating limestone formations (don't forget your torch) or you can hook up with a guided tour to watch an underground sky twinkling (which is actually no such thing but rather a glow worm display).

Wildlife is also a big feature of this coastline. Keep your eyes peeled for the tiny and rare Hector's dolphin which may treat you to a surf display or check out the fur seal colony at Tauranga, a few kilometres south from Westport. There is a 2 hour return walk from here which will lead you to Cape Foulwind lighthouse with a range of information boards on the way which relate tales of sea voyaging, early exploration and timber-mills.

Honeycombe Hills Cave (Image Credit: Julian Apse)
Honeycombe Hills Cave (Image Credit: Julian Apse)

6. Karamea Area

We're not sure why so few people head out to these parts but that spells good news for all those in search of solitude among nature and escape from the travelling hordes. Sitting at the extreme northern extremity of this region, the Karamea shares both the Great Walk known as the Heaphy Track and the Kahunrangi National Park with the Nelson Tasman region which it borders.

The bit of the park which belongs to the Karamea is full of some dramatic and natural spectacles especially around the Oparara Valley and Basin where wind, water and time, have all lent a hand to create such stunners as Moria Gate. Tolkien/LOTR fans will recognise this name and it is no coincidence. So fantasy-like is this river-spanning rock arch it was named accordingly. You can explore all of this on foot, bike or by kayak.

The Karamea is also home to the 13 kilometres of passages of the World Heritage listed Honeycomb Cave Systems. So highly protected is this treasure, access is only possible with guides but you will be rewarded with glimpses at the collection of moa and other long-since extinct bird bones here.

Otherwise, take your pick from scenic flights, fishing, guided eco-tours, mountain biking and bush-walking- both guided and independent.

7. The TranzAlpine Train Journey

Train journeys don't come more scenic than this 3 ½ journey from Greymouth to Christchurch which takes you across the mighty Southern Alps. Backdrops and scenery treats include sheer-sided gorges, ice-blue rivers, broad-leaf forests and mighty mountains as well as the sweeping Canterbury Plains. Those travelling from Christchurch can do a there-and-back journey in one day but this isn't possible from Greymouth as it is technically the return leg of the once-a-day journey from Christchurch. The train leaves Greymouth just after 2 pm (timetables are slightly different at different times of year). There are 7 stops between Greymouth and Christchurch – including Lake Brunner and Arthur's Pass - for those who want to hop on or off elsewhere.

Piha Beach (Image Credit: Scott Venning)
Piha Beach (Image Credit: Scott Venning)

8. Wild Beaches

The wilderness factor and dramatic wildness of the West Coast's beaches are a delight in themselves but if you are the kind who needs to find things to do there are heaps of choice.

Although many of the driftwood-strewn swathes of beach you will find here are not really for swimming you will also find teeny coves and sheltered bays if you really want a salt-water dip.

What you will find plenty of though are rock pools teeming with all kinds of fascinating and colourful sea-life to explore while a spot of beach-combing can also be rewarding. Semi-precious gems and the jade known as greenstone – the material so prized by Maori and traditionally used for their weapons – are commonly found here. 

At the adrenalin-fuelled end of things are the black-water rafting and caving adventures. Quite what you might experience will depend on which company you opt to get your thrills with.

But might include one or all of the following – abseiling, wriggling through tight holes, swimming across subterranean lakes, floating down underground streams on inner tubes through glow worm lit caverns, whizzing down rock-slides, climbing through crevices and dangling by fingertips or rope with complete absence of all natural light. 

Find out more...

Official Tourism Website - Everything you need to know about the area!
Glacier Visitor Guide - Everything you need to know about visiting the Glaciers!
TranzAlpine Train - Train journeys don't come more scenic than this!
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