Roused by the rhythmic raw soundtrack of roiling ocean breakers and the gentle pitter-patter of a dawn shower, rise with the seals and strike out along the coastal trail at Cape Foulwind for a head-clearing start to the day. Just south of Westport, Cape Foulwind lighthouse stands sentinel-like on the headland, in much the same fashion as when it was first built in 1926. The foundations of its 1876 predecessor stand alongside it – built in rimu, which suffered from rot.
History runs deep here, as it was where Abel Tasman first dropped anchorage in New Zealand in 1642 and the cape earned its name from the operatically howling weather that serenaded James Cook on his foray here in 1770. It’s also the closest point to Australia. The sweeping panoramas are stupendous. I gazed north along the coastline to the strikingly sculpted cliff-backed beaches, Omau Cliffs. It’s where hard granite intersects with softer mudstone, glowing a golden hue in the sunshine.
Photo / Brenda Turner
To the east, the inland ancient marine terraces rise up to the Paparoa Ranges, while patches of pakihi were readily identifiable. This widely adopted Maori name in Buller denotes stunted vegetation on swampy ground. On a clear day, Mt. Cook serrates the southern skyline, while the Kahurangi National Park towers to the north. Scores of weka were nonchalantly grazing in the trackside scrub. Unlike most of New Zealand, Buller is one of the few places where you’ll regularly encounter them. Friendly and flightless, they are fleet-footed and highly opportunistic.
Beyond the lighthouse, a 90-minute coastal walk from Cape Foulwind south to Tauranga Bay passes along the edge of an escarpment, undulating grazing pasture, a sandy beach and granite bluffs, serving up monster views of the rugged coastline. I cheated and drove around to the beautiful golden sweep of Tauranga Bay, a surfies haven, taking the shorter track from the car park to the seal colony.
Photo / Mike Yardley
The 10-minute walk up to the headland leads to the lookout points of the seal colony, draped across the wave-battered rocks, below. Beyond the shoreline, a rocky outcrop called Wall Island is like a satellite town to seal city, and the thoughtfully mounted free-to-use binoculars, provide magical glimpses of the playful fur seals enjoying some island time. Tauranga Bay is one of New Zealand’s most accessible fur seal colonies and the place hits fever pitch over summer it’s teeming with frolicking pups.
Pointing the car north, I popped by Carters Beach, a family favourite over summer, before passing through Westport to Waimangaroa, where the road is pressed against the rocky shoreline by thickly forested hills. I fondly recall my first family holiday to the West Coast when I was seven. We stayed at Waimangaroa and visited the Denniston coal mine, where a worker gifted me an old blue miner’s helmet. I still have it.
Following the signposts, I drove up to the top of the 700-metre plateau, where only a few scratchings remain of what was once a bustling mountain village, a coal mining community living in the clouds. At its peak, Denniston was home to 1500 residents, just over a century ago. The starring attraction is the Denniston Incline, one of New Zealand’s greatest engineering feats, which opened in 1879. This outrageously steep rail track system, which tilts at 45 degrees, was built to carry coal from the Rochfort Plateau down to Conns Creek, 518 metres below. It was one of the steepest railways in the world.
Photo / Mike Yardley
Empty coal wagons were hauled back up the slope by the weight of the descending loaded wagons. It was a counter-balancing triumph and the only way in and out of Denniston until the road was built in 1900. Not only did it transport coal, but people, furniture and all manner of goods. An old family friend who grew up in the area recalls riding the wagons as a childhood weekend pastime!
The Denniston Incline finally closed in 1967, but many vestiges of its guts and glory remain in situ, including the huge brake drum and some of the wagons at the top of the incline. An absorbing sequence of interpretation panels are scattered across the site, charting the epic history here. In addition to taking in the ghost-town wistfulness of Denniston, the horizon-searching views across the region and coast, from the lofty plateau are incomparable. More echoes of the glory days are speckled all the way up the Buller Bay coastline, where pastoral greens give way to the pounding surf in rustically charming settlements like Granity, Millerton, Ngakawau, Hector and Mokihinui.
Photo / westcoast.co.nz
Back in Westport, blaze some new trails. One of New Zealand’s latest multi-day walking and cycling trails is already wowing the crowds on its completed sections. Primarily funded by the Provincial Growth Fund, the Kawatiri Coastal Trail is a 55 km heritage trail which will eventually connect Westport to Charleston, via Carters Beach, Cape Foulwind and Tauranga Bay. Five of the eight sections are already open, enabling you to ride from Westport as far as Okari, on the 21km route. The spectacular all-seasons trail can be ridden in either direction or split into shorter chunks, for leisurely strolls and rides.
In the final section that’s open, from the Nile River to Charleston, the suspension bridge over the Nile at Joyce Bay is a fan favourite. This Grade 2 (Easy) Trail is suitable for all ages, fitness levels and cycling abilities. The trail is predominantly wide, flat and smooth, with a gentle gradient. At the Westport trailhead, there’s also the Kawatiri River Trail which starts just below the Buller River Bridge, linking the town with North Beach.
The brainchild of the Buller Cycling Club and crafted by 100 volunteers, the well-formed dual-use trail incorporates beautiful remnant native bush, wetlands and sterling views of the old wharves of Westport, on the river’s edge. Also, check out the Kawatiri River and Beach Trails, at the northern end of Westport, which include a fabulous boardwalk over the harbour basin leading you to a lagoon and Shingle Beach, while the beach trail loops around North Beach. They are a joy to explore, accentuating Westport’s connection with its watery surrounds.
Photo / westcoast.co.nz
Reward yourself with a hearty dose of gourmet indulgence by making tracks to the West Coast Pie Company, which is garnering plenty of accolades. Just over a year old and the brainchild of Emily Lucas, this fabulous bakery on Westport’s main street, next to New World, is a celebration of the West Coast’s legendary love affair with wild meat. Specialising in hand-harvested premium wild game pies, their range includes spiced wild nanny goat; wild goat and mint sauce; cumin-spiced wild Himalayan tahr; wild rabbit leak and cider; wild hare mushroom and mustard; and a selection of wild venison pies. They are a revelation – and be sure to add some Glasseye Creek wild meat sauce, which was conceived in the Little Wanganui pub. More good eats in Westport? Fuel up for the day on a delicious breakfast at Gibby’s Café, while Denniston Dog is a superb spot for dinner. Sink into the fried chicken waffles with maple syrup!
Photo / Mike Yardley
Smack bang in the heart of town, the Bella Vista Motel Westport is Qualmark 4-star endorsed and offers 18 self-contained and fully serviced units to choose from. Options include studio and one-bedroom units, all with convenient parking on your doorstep. Choose from king, queen or single beds with electric blankets for the cooler nights. Creature comforts include in-room cooking facilities, tea/coffee, free WIFI, 50+ SKY TV channels, a DVD library, and continental breakfasts can be provided. www.bellavista.co.nz/westport
Strike out on a wonderful escape to the untamed natural wilderness of the West Coast this spring and summer. For more trip inspiration, head to https://westcoast.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.
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