Finally Travelling The West Coast from Top to Bottom

I’ve driven up and down the South Island’s West Coast a million times (and I never get sick of it!) but recently a friend and I took off from Christchurch in my mum’s campervan with the intention of driving all the way from the top to the bottom, which I’d never done. I have always referred to this part of Aotearoa as “West Coast Best Coast” and it was time I saw every inch of it!

First up, we made our way to the very Northern end of the road. The further north we travelled, the more sub-tropical everything felt. The beaches had softer sand and there were native palm trees galore (we’ve only got one native palm in NZ – the Nikau). The population shrinks the further north you go on this road and some of the small coal-mining towns felt like ghost towns but were also charming in their own special way. The colourfully painted cottages set against steep rainforest-covered hills make for a pleasant scene.

Lake Kaniere in Winter. Photo by Alex Cameron.

We stopped in Karamea after a long and gruelling drive over some gnarly mountains and were both very pleasantly surprised by the place. Even though it was a quiet Sunday morning, we could feel that the town had a great community spirit and everyone we met was very friendly and willing to help us figure out what we should explore. We had a delish venison pie from a cute café in town and continued the extra little stretch up the road to the start of one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks – The Heaphy Track. Mannnnnnn, what a track! It was one of those magical winter days that felt like spring was creeping in. The air was warm and smelt really nice.

The Punakaiki Coastline is Stunning!

We decided to do an hour in and an hour out and it was an excellent decision. We climbed through breath-taking native forest, up to clifftop lookouts and on to a beautiful sandy beach which we had all to ourselves. The track reminded me a bit of the Abel Tasman Track – the most popular of NZ’s ten great walks, although this one doesn’t have the consistent stream of people, so feels a bit more secluded.

Although this stretch of the West Coast is certainly not the most convenient to visit when one does not have a lot of time to explore New Zealand, I would absolutely love to showcase this section of West Coast Best Coast to our clients, especially when they have a couple of extra days up their sleeve and appreciate the more “off the beaten path” style places.

We were determined to get to Jackson Bay where the road ends to the South. And we did! Wow, what a dramatic difference from the north end. Jackson Bay was harsh and unforgiving – rain and strong winds battered us all along the winding coastal drive. We stopped at the end of the road in the hope that we could enjoy lunch at the Cray Pot – a somewhat famous establishment down that way – but alas, it was closed. We cooked chicken burgers in the campervan and proceeded to hike through the forest to a secluded bay on the other side of the peninsula.

The Start of the Heaphy Track (Karamea end)

The sharp rocky coastline was a real contrast to the Heaphy Track up further North. Getting to Jackson Bay at the very southern end of the road is much easier than making it all the way to the Northern tip, thanks to the Bay only being a 40-minute detour, while Karamea is a good couple of hours each way off the main route. Both were well worth the extra driving and the contrast in landscapes is quite amazing. I love that after 6 years of travelling this diverse country full time that I am still finding surprises around the corner from time to time!

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Photo by Alex Cameron.