The West Coast is a paradise for walkers. With its deep valleys, rushing rivers, mountain ranges and rainforests, it is easy to get way off the beaten track here. But you don’t need to be an intrepid Bear Grills type of character in order to get into the wilds of Westland. There are plenty of short works scattered all along the West Coast, which can take you deep into the wilderness without too much effort and without having to wander too far from your West Coast accommodation or from the nearest café!
Just pack a raincoat (you know why), some insect repellent, your camera and your sense of adventure and you are ready to go. Oh, and don’t forget to tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Here are four suggestions for short walks which will get you right amongst the West Coast wilderness.
A few kilometres north of the Visitor Centre at Punakaiki, the Bullock Creek Road leaves the main highway and heads deep into the forest. The winding gravel road passes through thick stands of kaihikatea trees and across swampy flats were cattle graze. After six kilometres you reach a car park where a signpost shows the way to Cave Creek.
The trail undulates over some low ridges covered with manuka then drops suddenly into the eerie green depths of the Cave Creek Gorge. Mosses and liverworts cover the giant limestone boulders which fill the bed of the creek and the trees grow thickly overhead. The air almost seems to have a green tinge to it from all the vegetation surrounding you. Cave Creek itself emerges from a mysterious-looking cave at the foot of a massive bluff. A tiny beach of crushed limestone curves out from the rock and is a good place to sit and enjoy the solitude of this lonely place.
The Cave Creek walk takes about one hour each way. Check the weather forecast before setting off on this walk as heavy rain will flood the creek making it impossible to see the cave.
Beyond the hamlet of Kokatahi, a half-hour drive inland from Hokitika, the gravel road ends at a carpark surrounded by re-growth rainforest. There are toilets, and information panels describing the natural and human history of the area. Of particular note is the description of the rainfall around here: this is the wettest place in New Zealand.
The walking track to the Hokitika Gorge begins with a timber boardwalk bolted to a sheer rock face above the river. Ferns and mosses grow thickly on the dripping rocks and the trees cling precariously to the steep ground. The track slowly descends to a swing bridge which spans the swirling river, which runs between vertical bluffs of grey stone.
On the far side of the swing bridge a short path leads down to the top of the rocky bluffs overlooking the river. The glassy, pale blue waters of the river curl down the gorge and heavy stands of timber cluster to the very edge. This is a great place for a picnic (weather permitting) but the sandflies are extremely tenacious so plenty of repellent will be required. This is a spectacular and beautiful place in any weather. The walk from the car park only takes about fifteen minutes.
Franz Joseph Valley
The awesome forces of geology have shaped the landscape of the West Coast in ways that are unique in New Zealand. The processes of mountain-building, glaciation and erosion continue to this day and a great way to experience some of these forces first-hand is to take a walk up the valley of the Franz Joseph Glacier.
From the car park at the head of the road, the wide path leads through stands of regenerating forest where tiny creeks flow gently between the trees and invisible birds call to each other. The track emerges into the valley at the foot of a massive boulder, as big as a four story building, that the glacier deposited sometime in the distant past.
The path up the valley is clearly marked but because of the constantly-changing nature of the river, it can be rough and occasionally eroded. Good shoes or boots are needed and, because this is an alpine environment, warm clothes and a wind/waterproof jacket should be carried. But just look at the landscape you are in!! Sheer walls of black rock, polished smooth by the ice of the glacier, tower overhead. Waterfalls cascade down the vertiginous sides of the valley and bits of rock are constantly rattling down the steep chutes and gullies.
Up at the face of the glacier, the debris of smashed mountains are everywhere. Grey meltwater runs from beneath the terminal face of the glacier in a roiling torrent. The ice cracks and crumbles, shedding giant chunks and making it highly dangerous to get too close. Lurid sign warn of the dangers of venturing near the unstable and unpredictable ice. It is a raw, elemental place where the forces of nature are all around you. The walk takes about forty minutes each way.
Thirty kilometres south-east of Hokitika, Lake Kaniere is a hidden jewel. The long, narrow lake lies mirror-calm in its frame of rainforest and misty hills roll back in row after row of deep green. The rainforest steps right down to the water’s edge and the big trees brood over the still water. It is like a primordial scene from a textbook about the Earth before man, and you half expect a dinosaur to come wandering out of the forest.
There are numerous short walks to be found around the lake but a pleasant short walk begins at Dorothy Falls, a 3.5 kilometre drive from Hans Bay on the northern side of the lake. The falls step down from the forested heights in a series of cascades which can be anything from ethereal veils of spray to roaring cataracts depending on the weather. The track begins on the opposite side of the road from the falls and leads through a quiet stand of trees to the edge of the lake.
The waters of Dorothy Creek fall quietly into the lake beside a small beach of pure white sand. Paradise ducks, herons and pied stilts poke about on the lake margins and their cries echo from the surrounding forest. There is a wooden bench to sit on while you enjoy the serenity of this place. You can also wander off around the lake shore to your left and find tiny, secluded little beaches where you can sprawl in the sun and imagine you are the only person on Earth. Bring an Adam or an Eve along for the walk.
Each walk in the West Coast is both beautiful and unique. Book your West Coast accommodation so you can spend some time in the area and see them all.