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Mike Yardley: Great Coast Road adventures in Westland

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sun, 19 May 2024, 4:31pm
Rainforest glory of the West Coast. Credit Mike Yardley
Rainforest glory of the West Coast. Credit Mike Yardley

Mike Yardley: Great Coast Road adventures in Westland

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sun, 19 May 2024, 4:31pm

No matter how many times I drive the South Island’s Great Coast Road (SH6), between Westport and Greymouth, it never fails to intoxicate me. It’s like a mesmerising, implausible mix of Hawai’i and Ireland; of the Wild Atlantic Way and Maui’s Road to Hana. On one side, the raw, full-throated power of the ocean tempest and foaming surf; while across the road, fortress-like mountains pierce the sky and sandstone unfurl their majestic carpet of greens, drenched in thick, lush rainforest. It’s a rolling medley of knock-out scenery to thrill all senses. 

Great Coast Highway by Punakaiki. Credit Mike Yardley

If you’re launching your on-road exploratory from Westport, make a date with one of the Pounamu Pathway experience centres. Just two months ago, Westport’s revitalised Coaltown Museum reopened as The Museum of Kawatiri, the second experience centre to open along the Pounamu Pathway. Designed and created by Wētā Workshop, four themed galleries comprise the museum: Wealth of the Land, Early Settlement, Ecstasy of Gold, and People Pou. It’s a stirring celebration of the heritage and intrepid endeavour of the Buller people, underpinned by the lure of pounamu, coal and gold. As you’d expect from Wētā Workshop, there’s a lot of tricked-up technological wizardry powering this immersive experience.  

Westport is the second of four interconnected experience centres necklacing the West Coast, that form the Pounamu Pathway. Greymouth’s experience is also open, while Hokitika and Haast will complete the sequence next year. Heading south along the Great Coast Road, four seasons in one day vividly powered proceedings, with forbidding storm clouds scudding across the sky before yielding to bright autumn sunshine along the gloriously carved coastline, seemingly under assault from the pounding surf of the obstreperous Tasman Sea. Before long, the karst-strewn landscape of Punakaiki shuffles into view. 

Punakaiki Cavern. Credit DOC

Punakaiki is nestled at the base of the thickly forested Paparoa Ranges, which form the backbone of the Paparoa National Park. This gorgeous blanket of native forest brims with rimu, beech and matai trees, in addition to the striking nikau palms. The national park’s visitor information centre is situated on the highway roadside – and the site is currently undergoing a monumental transformation. The $41m redevelopment will see the information centre complemented with a multi-media exhibition space, adding an additional thread to the Pounamu Pathway. There’s a slew of enchanting hiking options on offer in the area, to suit all tastes and stamina levels. The one trail not to miss is the 30 minute Truman Track, which weaves its way through pristine native forest, taking you right to the edge of the Tasman Sea coastline, with a dramatic seascape. 

Truman Track coastal viewpoint. Image supplied

 It’s a banger of a bush walk starting off the highway in a thick forest of podocarp and rātā trees towering above thickets of vine and nīkau palms. Gaze up in awe of totora, miro, rimu and kahikatea. The track then transitions, leading you through typical West Coast coastal flax flats before climaxing with that blow-your-hair-back seascape, with a sweeping viewing platform elevated above the cliff overhangs and booming ocean, as waves smash onto the rock-strewn beach below, with unbridled fury. Those overhangs are unstable sandstone bluffs. Previously topped with limestone, that has already been weathered away and now the sandstone remains under relentless attack. A stairway provides access to the beach at low tide, but do not trifle with the ocean at high tide or when the seas are rough. If you’re wondering, the track is named in honour of Jim Truman who ran Truman’s Department Store in Greymouth. He had a bach opposite the original track which he substantially enhanced. The caves along the beach is where Bob Semple and Paddy Webb hid, as these conscientious objectors did not want to go to war. 

Nearby, take a wander into the Punakaiki Cavern – although claustrophobics may wish to give it a wide berth! Wooden stairs lead down into the main chamber of the cavern, with daylight flooding through its entrance. Take a torch with you because it is pitch black in the bowels of this limestone cave’s narrow canyon-like passage, leading off the main chamber. Look out for stalactites and glow worms as you explore this passage, cleaving deep into the hillside. 

But of course the blockbuster attraction is an intimate encounter with nature’s theatre at Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. These remarkable geological formations, which resemble layer upon layer of pancakes, is the result of many centuries of weathering. The formal term for this fantastic tableau is stylobedding.  When the tide is high, nature’s inter-play of stone and sea is operatic, with the ocean surging into the caverns and booming ferociously through the blowholes. Even the showy waterworks of Las Vegas or Dubai struggle to match this multi-sensory spectacle. 

Blowholes at Pancake Rocks. Credit - Tourism New Zealand

Heading south from Punakaiki, after taking in the coastal vistas from the Strongman Mine Memorial lookout, I also struck out on the Point Elizabeth Walkway. 90 mins return from the Rapahoe end, the track climbs to an open terrace and then into the Rapahoe Scenic Reserve, one of the country’s finest remaining tracts of mixed coastal forest, extending from the limestone range out to the cliff edge. Mamaku (black tree ferns), nīkau palms, kawakawa and kiekie share this forest with some of New Zealand’s larger native podocarps. The trees were all aflutter with fantails, silver eyes, grey warblers, tomtits and kereru. Gradually the pounding sea can be heard again as big forest gives way to more stunted growth and waves of flax on the Point Elizabeth headland. The exposed rocky point lookout serves up panoramic views, with Mt. Cook scratching the southern skyline, while to the north, a battalion of rocky sea stacks waging war against the relentless, erosive forces of the ocean. Those sea stacks are a reminder that the coastline once extended much further out. 

Point Elizabeth walkway. Credit DOC

My final walk on the check-list led me to heritage-laden village of Runanga, steeped in mining history where well-maintained houses and well-tended lawns sets the tone for this proud and charming hamlet. I love how the street names pay homage to leaders of yore, from Ward, Seddon and Savage to Fraser, Balance and Ranfurly. The Runanga Miner’s Hall, with over a century of history and a totem to the formation of the union movement, is currently being restored to its former glory. 

Heritage street names in Runanga. Credit Mike Yardley

Runanga is home to one of the very best short-walks on the West Coast, the Coal Creek Falls track. The trail originally led to the West Coast’s first commercial coal mine, but it now makes for an splendid 90 minute out-and-back stroll. At first, you’re walking through regenerating native forest before a mix of old-growth, podocarp and beech forest takes command of the terrain. It’s undulating in parts, but certainly not strenuous, and for much of the walk, the slinking Coal Creek stream flanks the trail. The great crescendo is the waterfall, a wide-bodied cascade, streaming over a sandstone ledge with a swimming hole at its base. Spectacularly photogenic, this is definitely one of the West Coast’s most beautiful waterfalls to savour.  You can’t beat a walk that is crowned with a happy ending.  

Coal Creek falls. Credit DOC

Where to stay? Just minutes from Pancake Rocks, Scenic Hotel Punakaiki is a distinctive four-star property, which was previously known as the Ocean View Retreat. Superbly overseen by outgoing, personable staff and boasting 63 premium guest rooms and suites, it’s the elemental brilliance of this beautifully designed property that adds the wow-factor to staying in this blessed pocket of wild New Zealand. With sublime views of the booming Tasman Sea, foaming Punakaiki Beach and the glorious rainforest that brackets the hotel, you’ll feel enrobed by scene-stealing nature.  

Deluxe Ocean View Suite at Scenic Hotel Punakaiki. Image supplied

There’s a variety of accommodation categories, but I highly recommend the elevated views of the Deluxe Suites which come with a King Bed, luxury en-suite bathroom with shower, and a small kitchenette, in addition to your private balcony. I enjoyed breakfast and dinner at the on-site Ocean View Restaurant and Bar, which delivers a premium dining experience. in one of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations. I’m a big fan of Scenic Hotel Group’s “Home Grown” initiative, which places huge emphasis on sourcing local and sustainable premium produce. I enjoyed their Feta, Quinoa & Pomegranate Salad as an entrée, accentuated with toasted walnuts, slivers of avocado and topped with crispy kumara crisps. For my main, how could I say no to the Braised Lamb Shank, accompanied with a creamy garlic mash, broccolini, and rosemary jus? Magnificent. Take your Great Coast Road getaway next-level by bedding down at Scenic Hotel Punakaiki.  www.scenichotelgroup.co.nz 

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