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West Coast Area Guide

The untamed West Coast, known simply as 'the Coast', stretches 600 kilometres down a narrow band of land from Karamea in the north, to the remote fishing community of Jackson Bay in the south.

The region is bordered by the Tasman Sea on the west, and the southern alps to the east, the brooding bush-covered mountains never far away, providing a sense of isolation which grows more intense when the clouds close in for days of torrential rainfall. The West Coast was settled after the gold rushes of the 1860s and it retains its frontier-like atmosphere, the Coasters themselves having a healthy disdain for authority and a lack of interest in official pub closing times. The region encloses two national parks, the Paparoa National Park, with the limestone formations of Pancake Rocks at its centre, and the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, which surrounds the two magnificent glaciers Fox and Franz Josef.

In the Coast's north lies the small town of Karamea, close to the beginning (or end) of one of New Zealand's Great Walks, the 82-kilometre Heaphy Track, which links Golden Bay to the West Coast. The Heaphy was one of the greenstone trails used by the Maori people when they travelled to the West Coast to look for the highly prized pounamu (New Zealand jade) for use in tools, weapons and ornaments.

From here, the road leads south along the coast to Westport, the oldest of the West Coast towns, established in 1861 as a single trading base beside the mouth of the Buller River to supply gold prospectors. Just to the west of here is the Tauranga Bay Seal Colony, the country's most northerly breeding colony of fur seals.

To the south, state highway 6 heads 55 kilometres along the scenic coastline to tiny Punakaiki, with its unusual Pancake Rocks, a collection of limestone rocks weathered to form pancake-like stacks. In rough conditions, the sea surges atmospherically under the rocks and out through blowholes.

Further south lies Greymouth, the largest of the West Coast towns, its usually sedate atmosphere transformed each February when hundreds of contestants in the Coast to Coast Race descend on the town before setting off on their mad quest to run, cycle and kayak the 243 kilometres across the southern alps to Christchurch. The journey over the alps on the TranzAlpine train offers a scenic, and less arduous, way to get to Christchurch.

Hokitika, 40 kilometres to the south of Greymouth, is on the northern banks of the Hokitika River alongside the surf-pounded Hokitika Beach. Hokitika is known for its greenstone and has long been visited by Maori people from throughout the country anxious to trade for the precious commodity. As well as being noted for its greenstone carving, the town is known for its Wildfoods Festival held each year in March, when a collection of stalls sell all manner of interesting foods - previous visitors have been treated to fish eyes, venison tongue, and cicada and pistachio ice-cream.

To the south of Hokitika two white rivers of ice, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, force their way down the valleys towards the coast, forming the stunning centrepiece of the Westland National Park.

From here state highway 6 continues its winding way through forests and past lakes to remote Haast, finally connected by road to the rest of the Coast in 1965. It's another 50 kilometres to the fishing village and former sealing base of Jackson Bay, population 23, which lies quite literally at the end of the road, with only the wilderness of Fiordland beyond.