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West Coast / Glaciers

With a population of only 31,000 people, the West Coast retains the feeling of a pioneer frontier.

It's a wild place known for rivers and rainforests; glaciers and geological treasures. Legends and stories from the past cling to every feature of the landscape.

Maori were first to discover the West Coast, seeking sacred pounamu (nephrite jade or greenstone). Gold fever in the 1860s brought Europeans, many of whom stayed on to start farming, forestry and businesses.

The locals are known as 'coasters', a term synonymous with friendliness and hospitality. Isolated from the rest of New Zealand by the Southern Alps, coasters have developed a distinctive culture of their own. Their pioneering values of self-reliance and loyalty are as strong today as they were 100 years ago.


MY TRAVEL AGENT'S suggested things to see on the West Coast:

 

1.  THE AMAZING PANCAKE BOULDERS OF PAPAROA NATIONAL PARK

Paparoa National Park was opened in 1987. Its boundaries were carefully chosen to protect the area's forests and minerals and a full range of ecosystems. A relatively small park (30,000 hectares/74,074 acres), Paparoa is packed with variety and stunning landscapes.

Paparoa is perhaps most famous for its 'Pancake Rocks' on Dolomite Point. These fascinating limestone formations put on a spectacular spouting display in certain sea conditions. The eroded rock layers look like stacks of pancakes. Water is forced by the waves into small holes, where it blows upward, making tiny geysers. The effect is best during high tide or stormy weather. The coastal promontory of the Pancake Rocks is looped by an easy walking track.

 

2.  THE HOME OF KOKOTU, THE WHITE HERON

Whataroa and the area surrounding coastal Okarito provide a sanctuary and feeding grounds for New Zealand's only breeding colony of Kotuku. Visitors can go on an excursion into the nesting area accompanied by a permitted guide. From September to late February/March, breeding pairs stay in the colony and raise their chicks on precarious nesting platforms.

Nearby coastal Okarito has the largest unmodified tidal wetlands in New Zealand and is a major feeding area for birds - more than 70 species have been recorded.

 

3.  JOURNEY INTO GLACIER COUNTRY

On the West Coast, remnants of the ice age cascade from the vast snowfields of the Southern Alps to valley floors just 250 metres above sea level. Nowhere in the world's temperate zones are glaciers so accessible. Several companies offer guided excursions to explore the spectacular ice formations. The professional guides provide full explanations about the geological features, flora and fauna of the area. Helicopter and fixed wing aircraft offer scenic flights and snow landings.

The villages of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are good bases for glacier explorations. Several walks will take you through rainforest to excellent vantage points for viewing the glaciers.

 

4.  THE LEGEND OF GREENSTONE

The West Coast is New Zealand's only source of greenstone. The boulders are found in the region's rivers. In the towns of Hokitika and Greymouth you can watch greenstone carvers at work.

According to Maori oral history, there lived in Hawaiki the chief Ngahue, a daring navigator who was driven from his homeland by a woman, Hine-tu-a-hoanga, who invoked the aid of a great green taniwha (water monster), Poutini, to capture him. The monster hotly pursued the chief's sailing canoe until at last Ngahue saw the stupendous mountain of Aoraki (Mt Cook) beckoning to him and commanding him to sail north.

Arriving at the mouth of the Arahura River (just north of Hokitika), Ngahue watched as the sun hid her face, to cover the land in shadow save only for the gleaming icefields of Tara-o-Tama at the river's source.

With the taniwha close behind, the navigator read the omen as a sign to make his way inland. The water monster pursued him up the river until he reached a deep rock pool at the foot of fearful rapids. There the taniwha was injured, and sank to the bottom to be transformed into greenstone.


 
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