Predictably, the West Coast region of New Zealand is located along the west coast of the South Island. New Zealanders usually refer to the area as Westland or The Coast (while those who live in the area are called Coasters.) The West Coast is bordered by the Tasman Sea, and the Southern Alps to the east. The region is roughly 23 000 square kilometres in area and is characterised by its rugged scenery, which includes mountains, glaciers, craggy coastline and a huge area of native bush that is largely tropical rainforest.
The 2006 New Zealand census recorded a population of 31 000 inhabitants residing full time along the West Coast, a relatively small number when compared to the regions size. Due to the large areas of untouched rainforest, which is home to a wealth of rare and endangered wildlife, a majority of the West Coast is public land that is managed by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Bird lovers should be excited to learn that the West Coast is the only place in New Zealand where the white heron nests.
The West Coast has a maritime climate; the combination of the ocean coastline and location of the Southern Alps means that the region receives a lot of rainfall. Regardless, the West Coast still sees a lot of sunshine. The combination of sun and rain is responsible for the lush, untamed natural environment.
The region has been a valuable site for both Maori and European settlers. The Maori valued the land for the plentiful deposits of jade – the green stone was an important adornment for the higher ranking members of the tribe. Europeans arrived in 1864 after the discovery of gold near the Taramakau River. A major gold rush led to a population influx and a rapid establishment of towns throughout; the population dwindled quickly once the gold rush was over, but many major towns that were established along the coastline exist today.
The West Coast offers a diverse and beautiful display of natural landscape. It is one of the only regions in New Zealand to boast mountain ranges, glaciers, limestone landscapes, hidden lakes and swimming holes, lush rainforest and a wild, rugged coastline. It also contains the largest area of protected land in the nation, and the Southern West Coast is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
The West Coast region offers access to five of New Zealand beautiful national parks. Tourists can pick and choose an outdoors activity suited to them, from a soothing canoe ride through an underground cave, exciting white water rafting or an arduous trek over a glacier.
Coasters are typically outdoorsy, friendly people who are only too happy to share their favourite spots with tourists – provided the tourists treat this delicate heritage site with respect. If you don’t like to leave a town empty handed, the townships of the West Coast offer Westland’s two icons in abundance – greenstone jewellery and ornaments, and delicious whitebait, a small river fish that are usually cooked into fritters.
Things to Do
- The West Coast Highway is one of the world’s top ten coastal drives, according to Lonely Planet, and offers a variety of scenery. Why not hire a convertible and drive the coastline with the top down?
- When will you ever get another chance to cross a glacier? The Fox Glacier has a range of more gently options, while Franz Josef Glacier is for hardcore hikers only.
- Shantytown, a replica pioneering town, is a fun and cheap day out. Here, you can pan for gold, enjoy a steam train ride, visit over thirty turn of the century buildings and generally live like the early settlers.