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Stretching six hundred kilometres from the sub-tropical ranges of Karamea in the north, to the wild and isolated Jackson Bay in the south, the West Coast has some of New Zealand’s most spectacular coastal landscapes. Wherever your West Coast accommodation is located, a superb beach will only be a few minutes away. One of the great joys of travel is discovering new and exciting places by accident. The West Coast is no exception and in your travels you will come across some amazing beaches quite by chance. But to get you under way, here are five suggestions for beaches you can visit while your are exploring the West Coast.
Backed by the rugged, brooding ranges of the Kahurangi National Park, Flagstaff Beach is located a few minutes from the centre of Karamea. This is the end of the road: if you want to go any further north on the West Coast you will have to walk the Heaphy Track. This long stretch of beautiful white sand is in a constant state of change as the Tasman Sea crashes up onto the shore, bringing with it the weathered hulks of trees uprooted from the forests by floods.
This is not a swimming beach. The currents and rips make the water treacherous even for strong swimmers and even though it may look benign on a hot day, you should never swim here. Besides, the great pleasure here is just walking. To the south, sheer bluffs mark the spot where the Karamea and Oporara Rivers meet the sea. Northwards, the bulk of Kohaihai Bluff marks the beginning of the Heaphy Track. Nikau palms growing along the shoreline give the beach a tropical feel and the myriad seabirds will please any birdwatcher.
A few minutes north of the famous Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki Beach is a narrow strip of black sand between to ocean and the steeply-rising flanks of the Paparoa Ranges. Rocky headlands, eroded outcrops and tiny rock-pools teeming with life are dotted all along the beach and you can spend hours just exploring. Nikau palms, like primordial fossil-trees dot the landscape behind the beach and towering cliffs overlook the ocean here. This is one of the best places on the West Coast to watch the sunset. As the fiery ball of the sun sinks into the Tasman Sea, the beach seems to glow as if lit from within: first bright orange, then purple and mauve, and finally the pale pink of the last light of day. This could easily become one of your favourite places in the world!
OK, so who said you have to disappear into the wilderness in order to find a great beach? Just a few steps away from Weld Street, one of Hokitika’s main thoroughfares, beyond a screen of tussocks and flax, this long, peaceful, sandy beach stretches away north into what seems like infinity. In the time it takes to have a couple of sips on your takeaway latte (the bakery on Weld Street can sort that out for you) you leave the bustling urban world of Downtown Hokitika and enter the solitary world at the edge of the ocean.
You can walk for ages if you choose to turn north; but to the south lies the wide mouth of the Hokitika River. This is a haven for bird enthusiasts as many different species gather here to take advantage of the rich fishing the river’s water encourages. In addition to avian fishermen, you will often see patient human piscatorialists out here, casting their lines into the swirls and eddies or, if the season is right, dragging their nets in search of the West Coast’s white gold: whitebait. Whatever you are looking for, the beach at Hokitika is a beautiful place to go for a pre-breakfast walk. Now for the hard part: choosing a café in which to dine!
The West Coast is full of melancholy places where the dreams of early settlers were dashed. People came from all over the world to seek their fortunes in the goldfields, coal mines and timber mills of Westland. Many were successful; many weren’t. The beautiful and wild Gillespie’s Beach, a forty minute drive west of Fox Glacier, is one of those places where you can still feel the sadness of the people who toiled there but ultimately failed to fulfil their dreams. The road to Gillespie’s Beach winds through stands of thick rainforest before descending gradually to the coast. There are a few ramshackle huts clustered in the lee of some gnarled old macrocarpa trees; a handful of desultory sheep mooch about amongst the gorsy flats.
This is a place of light and space. The stony beach stretches away to the south, fading into a haze of sea spray and mist. The distant icy ramparts of Mounts Cook and Tasman brood to the east. Twenty thousand people once lived here at Gillespie’s Beach, digging for gold in the surrounding countryside. You can still find the remains of old mining machines rusting in the hinterland.
But best of all, hidden in the bracken and fern, a tiny graveyard testifies to the lives of some of the people who came from elsewhere and never left. The gravestones are canted and broken but you can still make out the names, origins and ages of the people buried here. A melancholy place indeed, but also lonely and lovely.
Battered by Tasman Sea swells which have gathered their strength across thousands of kilometres of ocean, Bruce Bay is a place on the edge. In this part of South Westland, the rainforest crowds right down to the edge of the land and the elements hold sway over the landscape. This is a spectacular place in any weather. The rainforest trees stand four-square on to the wind and as the sea erodes the land, their roots are undermined and they topple onto the beach. The beach itself is composed of coarse black sand, strewn with rounded greywacke pebbles and chunks of pure white quartz.
If you pick up a random stone you can gaze up a the distant ranges and wonder where it might have come from and the forces of nature which broke it from the mountainside and brought it here to Bruce Bay. Passing travellers have built ornate cairns from boulders and stones gathered from the beach and you can while away some time here constructing your own monument, be-it a modest pile or a stupa worthy of a Buddhist monastery!
Find Your Own Wild Beach
The West Coast is a great place to explore at random. With its long narrow shape, it is hard to get lost and you are never further than a few kilometres from a main road. So while you are travelling on the West Coast, why not choose the occasional NO Exit road leading west towards the ocean? There are hundreds to choose from and every one will yield a new adventure, a beautiful view or a wild and lonely beach where you can imagine that you are the last person on Earth. Explore the dunes at Ship Cove; marvel at the fangs of rock jutting from the ocean at Knight’s Point; go beachcombing at the mouth of the Haast River; or watch the emerald green waters of the Arawhata pour into the Tasman Sea at the end of their journey down from the green hills.
It has often been said that “life’s a beach.” On the West Coast, beaches are part of the life of the Coast, just waiting for you to come and explore them. But don’t take my word for it. Set off into the west and find a perfect beach for yourself.
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