Westward Ho — the great Kiwi road trip
24 March 2022
Australia is all well and good if you are hankering to travel but why not combine two great pastimes and show your classic car a bit more of Godzone?
By Vaughan Wilson
The West Coast has had a challenging past. Gold and then coal drew in white settlers and it was also exploited for its native timbers. Its weather can be described as ‘untamed with a dash of rain’. And wow, can it rain. At the Cropp River in the Hokitika catchment rain gauges recorded 18,000mm in a single year. That’s right, 18m — and typically it records 12m in a given 12-month period. That is wet.
The West Coast has always attracted tourists but historically most of them were just passing through from the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. That is changing for the better. The West Coast is becoming a destination in its own right, helped by its amazing beauty, the fantastic things to do and see, and cycling opportunities.
Greymouth is positioned at the junction of the West Coast’s State Highway (SH) 6 and SH7, after the road from the Lewis Pass turns south-west at Reefton. Hokitika is more easily accessed from Arthur’s Pass, SH73. This makes a fantastic full-day triangle of highway roads, challenging hill climbs, and winding corners through beautiful vistas, with deviations to places like Hanmer Springs along the way.
Now I have to confess, we cheated. This was supposed to be a classic car adventure but we flew from Wellington to Westport and grabbed a rental car. This is because I had limited time. I live in the capital and I had an energetic two-year-old and similarly energetic wife with me, both of who did not want to take one of our classic cars on a road trip — with me.
So we drove to Hokitika, got our Airbnb old cottage on the outskirts of town on Woodstock-Rimu Road, and settled in for a fun-filled week. We travelled in February — the weather was largely sunny; reliable; and most important, not wet. When we had rain I considered changing my name to Noah and looking for a hammer and some timber. The house we rented literally had the Hokitika River 10m from the back door. It changed from a quiet, meandering body of water and a large collection of rocks to a turbulent torrent, six times wider, carrying logs and other debris.
Hokitika is cute, not unlike many of New Zealand’s rural towns, with a supermarket, coffee shops, the odd chain shop, and an eclectic mix of tourist-based retailers. In this case the two main items for sale are jade and possum products. And there are lots of them.
A couple of things to note. The former fire station has been converted to five-star accommodation called, in the no-nonsense West Coast style, the Fire Station. We talked to someone who had just stayed there and he could not praise it enough. He thought it was worthy of 10 stars.
Adjacent is the Carnegie Building. This is the library, or former library, as it is closed due to being earthquake-prone. Carnegie, as in Carnegie Hall in New York, was Andrew Carnegie, a Scot who made a massive fortune in the US in steel in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He competed against some of the wealthiest men of the day to be the richest and then in the twilight of his life competed again to give it away.
Carnegie was responsible for the construction of 2509 libraries, most of them in the US but many in the UK, Canada, Australia (only four — maybe the demand wasn’t there), and 18 in New Zealand. The Hokitika building is a beautiful and ornate single-level concrete building. We hope it will be strengthened and reopened.
KIWIS OF ALL KINDS
Nearby is The National Kiwi Centre where you can get up close and personal with local wildlife including giant eels, kiwi, tuatara, whitebait, and crayfish. The eels, many of which are over 80 years old, can be fed three times a day and are massive. This place is an excellent example of Kiwiana and how tourism used to feel. It is fantastic and well worth the visit.
The Hokitika Gorge Department of Conservation (DOC) walk has been a favourite for many years but a recent upgrade means that this walk is now a loop. A very large car park is the starting point for this amazing excursion some 20 minutes from Hokitika in the east. The addition includes a very impressive swing bridge and beautifully designed and built timber walkways that purposely curve through the bush above the river, providing amazing viewpoints of the brilliant milky blue of the glacially fed waters below.
Nearby is the poignant memorial to the seven victims of New Zealand’s first mass murderer — Stanley Graham in 1941. The memorial stands at the roadside to what was Graham’s property where he carried out his terrible deeds. It is worth the stop and to read the plaques.
Lake Kaniere is a short excursion. It is a stunning lake surrounded by hills and some farmland. Pockets of cribs hug parts of its foreshore. It is possible to drive around much of the lake but much of this is gravel, which might be a no-no for some classic cars. This trip is not complete without seeing Dorothy Falls, an impressive multi-level waterfall close to the road.
Alternatively, a visit to the north end of the lake on sealed roads will whet the appetite. At the Sunny Bight Road end a four-hour hike to the south end of the lake begins. If that sounds like hard work the 10-minute Kahikatea Forest Walk will surely be a delight. Kahikatea make up one of the five common species of podocarp forests — others being matai, rimu, miro, and totara — and are the tallest of New Zealand trees.
A second walk in the area is the Canoe Cove, accessed via a track which begins at the carpark opposite the Hans Bay Road / Milltown Road junction. This walk leads through dense stands of rimu and kahikatea forest to a sheltered sandy beach. It is suitable for picnics and swimming.
Just a minute drive from our rented accommodation is the Woodstock Pub, an amazing brew pub and restaurant, from which even the hungriest trucker would walk away content. Popular with locals and visitors alike, it benefits from being on the secondary road south which also leads to Treetops.
Just 200m up the road on the right, travelling south, is a contender for the world’s smallest tourist sign, declaring the Woodstock Glow Worm Dell. Behind the bank is a small entrance to a cave which leads to a dell created by former gold mining — it’s well worth a night-time visit to see bioluminescent worms in all their glory. There is a more well-known glow-worm dell on the main road of Hokitika, just north of the town along a short walk, which is also well worth the effort.
The West Coast Wilderness Trail, a four-day bike trail, has been the latest addition to the things to do on the Coast. It starts (or finishes) at Greymouth at the north and Ross at the south. Given we had a two-year-old on board we chose the flattest day, being day one — or day four depending on your direction — from Hokitika to Ross. To make things even easier we rode just halfway and then turned round and came back — total distance around 34km.
We rented bikes from Wilderness Trail Shuttle which had a large warehouse of hundreds of bikes and e-bikes to pick from and, in our case, a baby seat too. We left its premises and a short ride led us to the bike and walking lane on the SH6 bridge over the Hokitika River. At the end of the bridge was a kilometre or two of meandering trails leading to a marked crossing across the highway and into the Mananui Tramline. Technically the tramline exited to the highway further south but as part of the Wilderness Trail they extended it north.
The Tramline is an amazing trail through native podocarp forest and the pathway was in excellent condition with raised timber bridges and pathways. It was originally constructed over 100 years ago for a light rail tramway to haul logs from the area. What is left is a beautiful and easily accessible method of biking or walking around 9km to the Woodstock-Rimu Road. There are plenty of historic signboards to read on the way with interesting history. The adjacent Lake Mahinapua was used as part of a waterway with local streams to also move logs and other goods and now used for recreation. A short walk from the tramline leads to the shores of the lake — perfect for a picnic.
At the southern end is a short 2km ride to the West Coast Treetop Walk & Café. Modelled on four similar walks in Australia and constructed by the same group, this $7.7 million investment provides a loop walk 50m or so in the air on steel walkways high above the forest floor and in and amongst mature podocarp forest. It is a marvel of engineering sitting on DOC land so part of your entry fee also goes to DOC. At the entrance is a large car park and cafe (on private land) that provides excellent food and refreshments. There were even a barbecue and a band playing when we were there.
After touring the foliage we simply mounted our bikes and retraced our ride back to Hokitika. No need for a shuttle or a set time for pick-ups.
Just south of the crossing on SH6 for the tramline on the coast side of the road is the Mananui Bush Walk, a short walk through pristine bush and forest to the beach. Coming from the southern North Island it is unusual to have such forest so close to the beach. If you only do one short walk on the West Coast this should be it.
However, there is another worthy walk: the Tunnel Terrace Walk north of town on Stafford Loop Road. Here there are several longer walks that we didn’t attempt but the Tunnel Terrace is well signposted with its own carpark and an entrance and exit beginning and ending with tunnels. The walk is a pleasant saunter through old gold-mining works and past banks of rock that were sluiced for gold. The tunnels are tight so if you are claustrophobic this may not be for you.
We spent a day travelling north past Greymouth on SH6 and experienced some amazing coastal vistas rivalling the famous Big Sur Highway 1 in California although the colours are very different. The road is in great condition and is wide enough to accommodate the various forms of transport that you meet along the way.
We stopped at Pancake Rocks, one of the West Coast’s favourite tourist spots. This is a DOC site and there is an excellent DOC office providing information along with cafes and a convenience store. The car parking is good. You cross the highway and enter a looped walk out to the Pancake Rocks. It is certainly a pilgrimage for every New Zealander to do at least once in their lifetime and the rock formations are fantastic. They’re best seen at low tide when the rushing sea creates drama as it pushes up violently through atriums carved out over millennia.
Just north is a large cave easily accessible and worth a 10-minute exploration. Further north is the Truman Track, a DOC walk down from the highway to the beach below. The car parking is less developed so be careful of passing highway traffic, but the short walk is very worth the effort and the beach (also best enjoyed at low tide) is beautiful. The cliffs afford a completely different experience from regular New Zealand beaches and are another example of what we have here in Godzone.
Leaving Hokitika we spent a night at Lake Brunner. Also a favourite with locals and Cantabrians for holidays, the lake is surrounded by mountains and is home to numerous short- and medium-length walks, at least one glow-worm dell, and two clusters of homes — one called Moana with the Lake Brunner Hotel and Pub, and Cashmere Bay with large, expensive homes and Aldamere Lodge.
We stayed at Moana at the hotel and did some local exploring. The view across the lake is amazing and best viewed early in the morning. A nearby walk across a swing bridge over the exiting Arnold River is a great loop through forest and an easy 30-minute meander. The lake is also unusual, as it is the only lake I know of in New Zealand with a railway running along its foreshore at Moana. The daily Tranz Alpine runs in both directions once a day each way along with freight trains, and it is an interesting site to see how they combined rail, a sailing club, water access, and houses in a relatively small area. It all seems to work without fanfare.
TRAINING PAYS OFF
At this point we took the Tranz Alpine to Christchurch. I would highly recommend it. The trains are excellent with comfortable seats, large windows to take in the views, great staff, a full-on cafe onboard, and audio on earphones providing information en route as the train moves along.
The trip begins at sea level and follows the Greymouth River before edging into the mountains with several stops allowing a stretch of the legs. One can only consider the lonely and cold existence of our early pioneers working for the railways cutting a rail route and then manning shunting yards and stations. Small communities sprung up and still exist, albeit smaller than their earlier years.
On the day we went through the Coast to Coast triathlon race was making us appreciate our comfort even more as competitors and their support crews bashed a similar route across the South Island. At the campsite for the two-day competitors Portaloos were everywhere, as were tents, bikes on cars, and tired and weary competitors.
The train rolls out into Canterbury which offers completely different views from the mountains we had just traversed. A visit to Orana Wildlife Park before flying home was a great way to end this wild West Coast journey.
Hokitika and the West Coast have so much to offer, to see, and to explore, so jump in your classic car, head to the Coast, and see it before the foreign tourists come back.
Story and images supplied by New Zealand Classic Car magazine. Read more New Zealand Classic Car content here on themotorhood.com.
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