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Exploring New Zealand

Westport Area Guide

Main street of Westport showing
Municipal buildings - ©
Westport, the main town at the northern end of the West Coast, is on the banks of the Buller River, near its mouth to the sea, its broad, flat streets spreading over the band of land between the Buller River and the Orowaiti Estuary wetlands.

Westport is the oldest of the coast's towns, established in 1861 as a single trading post beside the mouth of the Buller River to supply gold prospectors. After the gold rush subsided, the West Coast turned to New Zealand's black gold - coal. The country's largest coalmine, the Stockton opencast mining operation, is on a high plateau 35 kilometres north of Westport, and from the village of Ngakawau at its base you can watch as the coal, destined for steel mills in Asia, South Africa and Brazil, is transported down the hill on an aerial ropeway.

Westport's summertime playground lies at the sandy Carters Beach, six kilometres to the west, where families spend their camping holidays, and surfcasters try their luck with the fish. Further on lies Cape Foulwind, evocatively named by British explorer Captain James Cook, who was held offshore for a week by a raging storm. From here, you can visit the Tauranga Bay Seal Colony to watch fur seals swimming in the sea and dozing in the sun at the country's northernmost breeding colony of fur seals.

Westport's history has long been entwined with the Buller River, the bed of the river constantly dredged to allow coal and cement barges to dock at the port. The river is known as 'kawatiri' in Maori, meaning 'swift and deep', and the spectacular lower Buller Gorge east of Westport provides good rafting and jetboating.

Westport's Coaltown Museum on Queen Street gives a sense of the conditions endured by the early coalminers, with a walk-through mock-up mine, but to truly get a sense of the hardships faced by the coalminers and their families, visit atmospheric Denniston on the rocky desolate ground of the 600-metre Rochford Plateau above the village of Waimangaroa, 15 kilometres to the north. In its early 20th century heyday, 2,500 people lived in Denniston and the neighbouring towns of Coalbrookdale and Burnett's Face, the coal trucks careering down the gravity-powered Denniston Incline at up to 70 kilometres an hour. Most residents have long since left the mist-covered plateau, and now there are just a handful of people living in Denniston. You can drive up the Denniston Road to get here, or walk up the original miners' bridle path from Conn's Creek, two kilometres inland from Waimangaroa.

There are other good short walks near Westport, including the Charming Creek walkway from Ngakawau, nine kilometres north of Waimangaroa. The five-kilometre walk alongside the sheer bluffs of the Ngakawau Gorge follows an old railway line once used to truck out timber and coal, and passes through the S-shaped 'Irishman's Tunnel' and across a swingbridge to the pretty Mangatini Falls.

From Charleston, 26 kilometres south of Westport, there are cave rafting trips through the Nile River Caves to see glowworms, or for the less adventurous, trips through the rainforest on an open-carriage train reminiscent of the early settlers' bush trams.