West Coast: Wild, free and untamed

Siobhan Downes
June 19, 2016

                                                                              Siobhan Downes/STUFF.CO.NZ


"You really need to be tucking your pants into your socks," she says sympathetically.

My feet are wrapped in cold flannels. They have swollen to twice their size, after being repeatedly munched on by sandflies, those fanged beasts that colonise New Zealand's most scenic spots. The itch is maddening, but I'm delighted. I've had an authentic West Coast experience.


Take a wild ride on the Buller Canyon Jet.

The attack occurred just 24 hours earlier, when I was having too much fun to notice my lifeblood was being sucked from my feet.

I had been roaring down the river on the Buller Canyon Jet, which previous visitors declare in the guest book to be anywhere from three to 100 times better than its Queenstown-based rival, the Shotover.

Our driver, Mark Allen, is a madman – in the best possible way. We've been on the water for less than five minutes when he makes the signal for a 360 turn, ensuring we are soaked from head to toe for the rest of the ride.

Tourism West Coast

The mighty Buller Gorge.

"That was a hoot," he says, with a devilish glint in his eye.

Mark has us squealing as he darts around corners at high speed, dodging low-hanging rocks and treating us to a few more of his sickening spins.

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The Buller Gorge swingbridge is the longest in the country.

"The river is just like us Coasters," he tells us as we recover from another drenching.

"Wild, free and untamed."

Mark knows the river like the veins on the back of his hand, pointing out earthquake faults, flood lines and bits of 45 million-year-old rock as we rip through the gorge.

While a few daring diggers tried their luck in the Buller, there was never a gold rush, mainly because it was too difficult to get to. But Mark tells us how he once struck a layer on the river bed that was inches thick.

"The Buller is so full of gold it's like lifting the lid off a treasure chest," he says impressively, passing around a vial of dazzling gold flakes.

Siobhan Downes

Doug from the Buller Gorge Adventure and Heritage Park demonstrates the art of gold panning.

That's all it takes for us to catch gold fever.

We cruise back to the Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park, where beginners are able to try their hand at gold panning in a trough. Or if you know what you're doing, you can head straight down to the river with a pan – and keep whatever you find.

Gold panning expert Doug is standing by to show us the ropes. He teaches me how to swirl the pan, allowing the sand and gravel to wash away, revealing the shiny stuff.

I squawk with triumph when a nugget appears before me, but Doug chuckles. "That's fool's gold," he says kindly, referring to the mineral that looks tantalisingly like the real deal. By the time I've sloshed all the water from my pan, I'm left with just a few gold slithers. But it's not bad for a first attempt, Doug tells me.

"I've been panning for gold since 1965 and I'm still not a rich man."

From the heritage park, there are two ways to get back across the Buller River. You can inch your way along New Zealand's longest swingbridge, or take the high-speed option – the Comet Line, a thrilling 160-metre flying fox.


Siobhan Downes tries out the "Supaman" harness.

You have a choice of riding with a friend in the tandem seat, or dangling precariously above the gorge in the "Supaman" harness.

It goes against everything my body believes in, launching myself face-first into the air, zooming over wild waters and sharp granite rocks. But for a few seconds, I am flying.

A dramatic halt (courtesy of a special braking system – apparently the only one in the country like it) brings me back down to earth, where I am joined on the grass by a curious weka, the flightless brown bird which can be found on the upper West Coast. As I am released from my flying harness, he gives me a look as if to say, "join the club".

Some relaxation is in order after our adrenaline-filled afternoon, so we head to Maruia Hot Springs for the night, about an hour's drive away in the Lewis Pass.

This secluded spot must be one of the South Island's best-kept secrets. The thermal resort was owned by Japanese for more than 20 years, and designed with the traditional onsen in mind. Staff used to walk around in colourful kimono, and some of the rooms are Japanese-style, complete with paper shoji screens.


Maruia Hot Springs, near Lewis Pass.

You could be forgiven for looking out your window and expecting to see Mount Fuji instead of the Southern Alps.

Maruia Hot Springs is now in the hands of Cantabrian James White, a spa expert who travelled to 140 health resorts in 21 countries exploring different bathing cultures, looking at how he might be able to incorporate them.

Once the resort's makeover is complete, it will have more of a Kiwi flavour, James says, and will be marketed as a "pure New Zealand" bathing and wellbeing experience.

The resort is nestled in a pristine valley, tucked beneath bush-clad slopes and blanketed in mountain mist. There are no TVs or phones in the rooms, and you'll be doing well to get mobile signal (though if you're desperate, you can purchase some wi-fi).

The focus is entirely on soaking your worries away, which you can do in a large indoor bathhouse, private bathing pavilions, or open-air rock pools.


The outdoor rock pools at Maruia Hot Springs are the perfect place for a soak.

We decide to take a dip in the outdoor pools before dinner, when the stars are out (and the sandflies are in). Stepping into the steaming hot, sapphire waters feels like magic.

The blissfulness continues through the night, when we head to the restaurant and chug down a glass of lip-smackingly sweet plum wine. The menu is Japanese-influenced, and we choose pork dumplings and fresh seared tuna as our entree.

For the main, James recommends the Yose-Nabe, or traditional hot-pot, which can be shared between two. A gas cooker is set up at the table, and a hearty broth is left to simmer in front of us, filled with prawns, scallops, mussels, tofu and vegetables. When we've devoured all of those bits, a packet of noodles is thrown in to slurp up the remaining broth. It's fun, tasty, and warms you right through.

As I stuff myself to capacity with dessert (green tea creme brulee with vanilla icecream and brown sugar sauce), James explains how the hot pools act as a social equaliser, bringing together everyone from "hippies travelling in campervans" to repeat visitors who come all the way from the United States.

Up to your neck in water, everybody is on the same level, whether you're a wealthy businessman … or a less wealthy journalist.

The next morning we're up early to enjoy another sensational meal from the restaurant – an enormous serving of banana cinnamon pancakes – before hitting the road.

The West Coast is best known for its Great Coast Road, which takes you past the famous Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. But I'm equally fascinated as we wind through the inland route towards Greymouth.


Reefton was the first town in the southern hemisphere to receive electricity.

We stop at Reefton, a small town with a rich history. It blazed to life in 1870 with the discovery of gold-bearing quartz reefs, and for a time, boasted the glitzy nickname of "Quartzopolis".

You would never guess it today, but in 1888 Reefton became the first town in the southern hemisphere to receive electricity – even beating suburbs in London and New York.

We carry on down the road to Blackball, an even smaller town which once had a reputation as a hotbed of militant trade unionism. The 1908 Blackball miners' strike, which lasted for 11 weeks, led to the birth of the New Zealand Labour Party.

These days Blackball is probably most famous for its sausages, courtesy of the Blackball Salami Company. What started as a family-run butchery in 1992 has grown to become one of the West Coast's greatest success stories, with the iconic Blackball label found in supermarkets all over the country.


The Blackball Salami Company is one of the West Coast's greatest success stories.

By the time we reach Greymouth, I notice my feet are resembling something not entirely dissimilar to Blackball Salami.

It turns out I've had an allergic reaction to my sandfly bites. It's not on the itinerary, but I spend three hours contemplating the walls of A&E at Greymouth Hospital.

They send me off with some steroids and cream, which soothes my feet just enough so I can hobble around our final destination, Hokitika.

The dreaded sandfly bites.

We stop by the Hokitika Gorge, taking a short walk through a fairy grove of rimu and podocarp. There, peeking through a curtain of native fern, are some of the most otherworldly blue waters you will ever see. 

As we stand on the rocks, drinking in the view, it starts to rain. The raindrops falling into the milky river somehow make it even more magical, like a bubbling witch's potion.

Back in town – somewhat ironically, considering the state of my feet – we pay a visit to Sock World Hokitika. It's part sock shop, part vintage sock knitting machine museum.


Hokitika Gorge is one of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand.

It's weird and wonderful and worth a look. Owner Jacquie Grant, with her tough-as-boots 'tude, is yet another West Coast treasure.

"I'm legendary for being grumpy," she tells me proudly. "It's something I've cultivated."

I purchase a pair of Jacquie's beautiful hand-cranked socks to take home, and we set off down to the beach – where driftwood letters spell the word "Hokitika" in the sand.

As we watch the frothy grey sea crash against the rocks, my feet start to itch.

This time, it's not the sandflies. They're already itching to come back and explore more of the West Coast.


By plane: Jetstar has daily Auckland-Christchurch flights from $59 and Wellington-Christchurch from $49 (one-way, checked baggage not included). Visit Jetstar.com to book and use Jetstar's Price Radar service to alert you to low fares.

By train: From Christchurch, take the scenic TranzAlpine train to Greymouth – a great base for exploring the West Coast. For more information visit www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz/tranzalpine.


Maruia Hot Springs offers accommodation, dining and bathing packages. Its most popular is the Maruia Immersion for Two, which includes unlimited access to rock pools and bath house, a 45-minute private bathing pavilion session, three-course dinner, and one night's stay with a cooked breakfast in the morning. Priced from $339. For more information visit maruiahotsprings.nz.


For more information on the Buller Canyon Jet visit www.bullercanyonjet.co.nz. For the Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park, visit www.bullergorge.co.nz.


In Greymouth, be sure to pop into the Nimmo Gallery, a beautiful store owned by local photographers and father-daughter duo Stewart and Lydia Nimmo. It's the perfect place to pick up a unique gift or souvenir, or some stunning South Island landscapes for your own walls.

The writer was hosted by Tourism West Coast with the support of Jetstar.

 - Stuff