Twelve day holiday on the West Coast

Shona Watson recaps her West Coast adventure and discovers the extra-ordinary.


By Shona Watson

We are still fizzing from the exhilaration of a twelve day holiday on the West Coast of the South Island, freed for a while from the stress of Covid updates, and feeling the guilty pleasure of being among so few other tourists.


At Punakaiki, on our second day, and our only wet day, we thrashed our way round the route through the Pancake Rocks with great excitement, battered by wind and rain.

The blowholes were responding dramatically to the high tide and the weather, and the sea was its usual unyielding and dramatic self.

Our accommodation just north of Punakaiki was an individual chalet in a nikau palm forest, but there is a hostel there too for solo travellers.


Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki


Nikau Palms

I understand there were countless uses for the nikau palms in the past, from using the bulb- like parts of the trunk as storage and cooking containers, to using the leaves to thatch houses, to making necklaces from the berries, to eating the flowers that burst forth from the base of the trunk like a frilly skirt. It is the only palm native to New Zealand. What a treasure!

On our second day, we walked for an hour along the first part of the new Paparoa Great Walk, which takes you through another thriving nikau palm forest. Damage from the very recent floods had been patched up and there was a steady stream of walkers. Easy walking for older folk.

Along the Paparoa Walk

Grey District

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Freshly picked blackberries

Continuing down the coast towards Greymouth, we picked blackberries next to a sobering memorial to the nineteen men killed in the Strongman mine disaster in 1967.

From this point you get a grand view : a long sweep of coastline and pounding seas.

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Great Coast Road
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Miners Hall, Runanga

This was the site where it is said the New Zealand Trade Union movement and the New Zealand Labour Party began.

You can’t explore the West Coast without becoming interested in its mining history. At Runanga, north of Greymouth, the famous Miners’ Hall is in the process of being restored.



Gloria, by Sam Ducker-Jones

Gloria by Sam Duckor-Jones

In Greymouth, another neglected building is being restored and revitalized in glorious pink by Sam Duckor-Jones . Gloria, with her installation of larger than life parishioners, has risen from her Anglican past to become a haven and chapel for the queer community and has a flash of eccentricity that brightens up the neighbourhood.

We left Gloria and Blaketown and walked down to the wharf, past moored fishing boats and boats under repair. On one side we could see the notorious sand bar that fishing boats have to cross. On the other side was the beach where 100 years ago six people from Reefton were caught in a rip and drowned while having their annual miners’ picnic.


We stayed in Reefton next, which has been a mining town since the 1860s. Our accommodation was the ”Blue House” which is being renovated by a young couple. Reefton is friendly and has a bustle about it. In the Visitors Centre they have a replica of a mining tunnel.


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Reefton is famous in that it was the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity, even before London and New York.


I was looking forward to indulging my fascination for abandoned places and buildings by visiting the ‘ghost town’ of Waiuta, south of Reefton. A reef of quartz containing gold was discovered in 1905 and the town was built for the mining families, the mine closing for good only in 1951. The day was glorious as we set off to walk around Waiuta..

There are just a few buildings intact, like the Police station and Barber’s Shop, and a few cottages. but you can take a map and walk around and see where everything used to be: the bathhouse, the school, the bakery, the Miners’ Hall, the Hotel, the store, the recreation ground, the Anglican church.


Waiuta - A Tohu Whenua site

Blackwater School

Not far down the road back to Reefton is Blackwater School, an exquisitely proportioned one room schoolhouse. If you give the door a firm push, you can go inside and soak up the feeling of a country school in the 1940’s.


Blackwater School


Classroom, Blackwater School

The school closed in 1949 with four pupils, three from the same family.


Hokitika was the next stop (The place where the series,” The Luminaries” was set).

The powerful Hokitika river has gouged its way from the Southern Alps to the sea creating the Hokitika gorge, with its steep walls of granite and water of a piercing turquoise colour.

Apparently the colour is the result of rock being ground into a fine powder by shifting glaciers high up in the mountains.

We followed the loop walk through the native forest, over swing bridges to viewing platforms overlooking the rocky gorge.

Before Covid, 40,00 people came here every year.

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Hokitika Gorge

On our final morning in Hokitika we caught sight of a long low- lying wooden building on the hill overlooking the sea , and climbed up to investigate. It turned out to be Seaview Mental hospital, which is no longer in use. The buildings are still there in different stages of repair, some being used as a hostel. The hospital used to be the main employer in Hokitika and patients came from all around.

There is a tiny one-room museum which gives you some insight into medical treatment in the past.

A sense of peace prevails with the Hokitika cemetery next door and the ‘naked ladies’ popping up amongst the grass.

You can camp here and according to on-line comments the hot water supply is limitless.


Seaview Hospital

Lake Brunner

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Lake Brunner

The theme of bringing history back to life continued with our final stop. Our AirBNB hosts at Moana, on the shore of Lake Brunner, have restored two railway carriages. One, a goods van, was dragged out of the river, and has become a living room, with a wood burner, and a bath from which you can view the stars through a transparent roof.


The other carriage is the bedroom, with all the original fittings of a guards van, and a tiny kitchen and bathroom squeezed into alcoves.


Our final fling was to drive to the other side of Lake Brunner for a short walk to the Carew Falls and a walk along the swampy lake margin through the wetlands at Bain Bay, before scooting back up the island to the ferry, totally satisfied with the variety of what we’d seen and done.

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