From pounamu to whitebait, and rare wildlife like the endangered rowi kiwi and kōtuku white heron, there are some things that you can only find, see and do on New Zealand’s West Coast.
For a real adventure that goes to the top of the bucket list, the West Coast’s majestic mountains to sea landscape offers the unique opportunity to hike on a glacier, walk through a rainforest and picnic on the beach all in one day. You won’t find that anywhere else in Aotearoa New Zealand, and nowhere else in the world.
Not found anywhere else in New Zealand, precious pounamu — New Zealand greenstone or jade — washes down from the mountains carried by the waters of just a handful of West Coast rivers. While it’s not permitted to just rock up and take greenstone from these rivers, you may pick up a precious pebble or two on a wild West Coast beach.
In Māori legend, pounamu has a treasured spiritual significance. The South Island was originally named Te Wāhi Pounamu (the place of pounamu), but over time this name evolved into Te Wai Pounamu (the greenstone waters). Today, natural reserves of the precious stone are under Māori tribal protection.
If you find a nice piece, you could turn it into a precious keepsake with some help from a local artist or master carver. Bonz N Stonz, in Hokitika, and Te Koha Aotearoa, at Franz Josef, are artist galleries offering hands-on carving classes. Learn about the significance of carving and pounamu in Māori culture, then design and carve your own piece to take home.
Critically endangered, surviving populations of the rowi and Haast tokoeka kiwi are only found on the West Coast, both in South Westland. The only natural population of rowi (pop: 450) — the rarest of New Zealand’s five kiwi species — inhabits the Ōkārito forest, while the Haast tokoeka (pop: fewer than 400) lives in the mountainous Haast ranges.
The best chance of seeing one of these incredible survivors is at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef — the largest kiwi captive rearing facility in the South Island works in partnership with Department of Conservation and local iwi to save these rare birds. Visit the nocturnal bush house or take the backstage pass for a close-up experience of the breeding programme (September to March is breeding season).
For a wild bird spotting experience, it’s hard to beat nearby Ōkārito where the elegant kōtuku (white heron) can be found feeding in the waters of Ōkārito Lagoon. Take a kayak tour through the still waters, or a night tour with Okarito Kiwi Tours to spot the elusive rowi.
Walk with the dinosaurs back into prehistory on a guided tour into Honeycomb Hill, a 13 km cave system where prehistoric creatures once roamed, and now home to the largest, most varied collection of sub fossil bird bones ever found in New Zealand.
This unique corner of Kahurangi National Park, near Karamea on the West Coast’s northern corner, lay undisturbed for a million years until cavers rediscovered the complex honeycomb of limestone passages and caverns. Among the secrets revealed in the dark passages are the skeletal remains of nine species of extinct moa and the giant Haast’s eagle (hokioi) that were trapped inside in ancient times and fossilized over time.
Access into this DOC-designated Specially Protected Area is limited to approved guided tours (book at the Karamea Information Centre). The 16 km 4WD expedition takes about 2.5 hours to complete but it’s suitable for anyone of moderate fitness who doesn’t mind some easy scrambling around the rocks in the dark. Highlights on the guided experience include glowworm caverns, a walk through the rainforest (often accompanied by inquisitive South Island robins) and home-baked refreshments.
Just about anything and everything is on the table for the annual Wildfoods Festival, New Zealand’s premier opportunity to taste indigenous wild foods. The 34th edition is scheduled for March 2024, promising another tasty feast of sometimes outrageous, gastronomic delights.
The West Coast’s biggest day out is the place to be if you’ve ever hankered to try huhu grubs served ‘au naturel’ or grilled, Westcargots (yes, that’s West Coast garden snails), wasp larvae ice cream and gorse flower wine — to name just a few of the odd gourmet delicacies from past festivals.
With around 50 stall holders on the job, there’s always something to keep everyone fed and watered, including the more traditional offerings — whitebait patties, seafood, venison, wine and beer, along with vegetarian, vegan and dishes inspired by foraged ingredients.
If you want to try TripAdvisor’s #1 ‘World’s Best Out of the Ordinary Experience’, then head to the glaciers and Fox Glacier Guiding will give you an experience to remember — one of the most accessible ice experiences outside of the Himalayas.
Out of more than 60 glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, Franz Josef and Fox are the easiest to get to and the most accessible because they extend almost to sea level and close to the small tourist towns of the same names. It’s not surprising then that this region has New Zealand’s most thrilling selection of helicopter flights and landings on the ice.
Along with all the appropriate gear which is supplied by the guiding company, you’ll just need moderate fitness and agility to enjoy the hike across the glacier, an exhilarating alpine experience exploring the luminous blues of the ice caves, deep crevasses and impressive pinnacles of ice. No glacier or day on a glacier is ever the same — check in with Franz Josef Glacier Guides if you’re in Franz.
Gold was first discovered on the West Coast in 1864, starting a gold rush that saw Hokitika become a boom town with 72 pubs. They moved on when the easy pickings were gone but modern fortune seekers equipped with the appropriate tools can still try their luck in nine golden locations designated for recreational gold fossicking.
For complete amateurs there’s the opportunity to get in some gold-panning lessons while learning about the Coast’s gold mining heritage with the Bearded Miners — a trio of ex-miners and blacksmiths — in Reefton. Hear about the prospecting life of old, and try your hand at gold panning.
You can also roll up your sleeves at the sluice line in Shantytown Heritage Park, near Greymouth. It’s cold, wet work but typically rewarded with some golden flakes of the genuine stuff.
The Ross Goldfields Information & Heritage Centre is a one-stop spot for gold mining history and regional information.
Designated public areas where you can fossick for gold: https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/things-to-do/gold-fossicking/
For a red hot day out, and an exceptional and practical memento to take home, it would be hard to bypass a knife-making workshop with Steven at Barrytown Knifemaking — a small town (Pop: 250) at a beach on the scenic Great Coast Road between Greymouth and Punakaiki.
It’s a fun-filled full day activity — no experience required, lunch and refreshments included. Learn to forge your own steel blade, attach a native timber handle, shape, grind and polish the blade down to a mirror finish. You choose the shape — kitchen knife, cheese knife, hunting knife, whatever — then spend the day learning the ancient art working the red hot metal on the forge, and creating the beautiful hand-crafted wooden handle.
Wander deserted streets and overnight amongst the ghosts of riches past in a Tohu Whenua DOC heritage site. Once a bustling mining town of 600 residents, Waiuta — on a winding hill road halfway between Greymouth and Reefton — has remained deserted since 1951 when the mining company locked the doors on the West Coast’s largest gold mine.
No one lives here any more but you can stay with the ghosts in DOC’s Waiuta Lodge.
Waiuta was the location of New Zealand’s third biggest mine, and the West Coast’s largest producer of gold — a total of nearly 750,000 ounces of gold (an equivalent value today of NZ$1.6 billion).