THE WEST COAST REGION
In 1846 Charles Heaphy and Thomas Brunner became the first Europeans to explore the Paparoa region. Until then it had been visited only by Maori and the crews of sealing ships. The Paparoa coast has changed little since the pioneering days. Within the boundaries of Paparoa National Park and the many scenic reserves along the coast, are areas of untouched wilderness. You can find a myriad of caves and sinkholes surrounded by dense bush in an intricate ‘karst’ landscape, where the limestone rock has been carved by water into elaborate natural rock structures. The Paparoas owe much of their beauty to these limestone cliffs and rock formations, but they are also distinguished by their beautiful coastal rainforests and the landmark pancake rocks at Punakaiki. Inland lies the mining town of Riverton and the scenic highway across the Lewis Pass, at the southern end of the Spenser Mountains. The pass was originally used as a route to the West Coast by generations of Ngai Tahu Maori in search of greenstone. Today the traverse from west to east is a beautiful scenic journey on an excellent road through the mountains and the beech forests of the Southern Alps.
Further south along the coast, glaciers rumble slowly down through steep-sided valleys from snowfields high above in the mountains. These huge rivers of ice once spread out across the coastal plains to the sea during an ancient ice age. They molded the landscape, carving away rock from the mountains and depositing it in the valleys far below. Locked eternally in a series of advances and retreats, controlled by variations in the climate, the glaciers are always on the move. This is a changing landscape continually being eroded by natural forces working to counteract the upheaval of a continental plate which is slowly lifting the Southern Alps. In the Westland National Park you can view massive glaciers from up close at the end of short walks from the glacier access roads. Walking tracks explore many of the beautiful forests and climb the hills around the glaciers, while the State Highway runs right through Westland, giving unparalleled access to areas in a park that runs from the coastline to the mountains.
The southernmost of the highways across the Southern Alps, the Haast Pass highway is one of the most beautiful alpine scenic routes in the country. A gold prospector named Charles Cameron was the first European to cross, in 1863, followed a few weeks later by Julius von Haast who led a party of four to the Coast, naming the pass after himself. A narrow pack track had been completed across the pass by 1876, but work didn’t begin on the road until the 1920s. Finally completed in 1965, the Haast Pass Highway opened up the West Coast, creating a link between Westland and Central Otago. The highway runs through the Mt Aspiring National Park, the second largest national park in the country, with over 289,000 ha of rugged mountain peaks cut by numerous river valleys. Once all but covered by a huge icecap, these beautiful mica schist mountains are still feature over 100 glaciers of varying sizes as well as numerous hanging valleys and cirque basins which feed water into huge river systems running westward to the sea as well as inland to the lakes and rivers of Central Otago. There are numerous places to stop and experience the wilderness along this beautiful scenic highway.