The road snakes around the northwest coast, heading from one jaw-dropping National Park to the next in New Zealand’s South Island. Rich with gold and coal, the area drew fearless miners through the mountains to these shore in the late 1800s. The miners have long since left and seals, albatrosses, and parakeets seem in greater abundance than people. We rented a car in Nelson and drove the scenic Highway 6 along the coast to Greymouth and over Arthur’s Pass, stopping for short hikes and photo ops at every turn. It’s a beautiful ride with its share of twists and turns, buckle up!
After our kayak excursion through Abel Tasman, we called our couchsurfing host Neil to let him know we had left his home in great shape (yes, this stranger-turned-good-friend, left us the keys to his home after knowing us for mere minutes). “Great!” Neil answers. “Then you must swing through Murchison on your way to the coast so we can fix you lunch on the farm!” This guy was unbelievable. He and a friend made a beautiful spread with local cheeses and beers to enjoy on the porch. We chatted for an hour then Neil said, “Before you leave, let’s walk down to the creek and feed the eels.” We went down to a tiny stream, thinking we’d find one or two little critters. Think again, watch this video, and never look at a “cute little stream” the same way.
Neil packed us full of roadtrip tips to explore the west coast, starting with a secret spot in the Buller Gorge Scenic Reserve. Insider Tip: Take Highway 6, then after you see the turnoff to Buller Gorge, take the first little gravel road on the left and hike down to the coral-colored canyon and raging river. Find a rock, sit back, and enjoy the view.
Pressing on through the mountains, the coast appeared. The strong breeze off the water was pushing our car to shake and swerve…we must be at Cape Foulwind. The winds may be foul but the resulting erosion has made for one dramatic beach.
We lost complete track of time, between the fun with Neil and the beauty of the beaches, but more importantly we lost track of our gas gauge! We realized our folly when we saw a sign “Next Petrol Station: 75 km,” and looked down at our needle sinking into the red. Thankfully a very opportunistic hostel owner had a canister of gasoline ready for poor saps like us…at 3x the price! We bought just enough to get us to Greymouth, grumbling at the rip off and missing the beautiful Paparoa National Park to darkness.
Greymouth is the biggest city on the west coast, sparked by the mining boom in the 1800s. There are some interesting ruins left, like the Brunner mining site with its suspension bridge and weathered buildings. It was actually home to the worst mining disaster in New Zealand history, killing 65 people, and now has a memorial to commemorate them. After a stop at Brunner, the mouth of the great Greymouth river, and a few craft beer samples at the historic Montheiths Brewery, we headed back north on Route 6 to catch the views we’d missed the night before.
Driving back through Paparoa National Park, we stopped to tramp The Truman Track. After 15 minutes of sub-tropical forest we arrived at this beach cove that looked like the next Frank Gehry project. A sweeping cliff framed the shore, sloping inward to create shelter, shade, and total drama. The beach was mirrored by an island eroded into rooms and sea caves connecting one space to the next. Climb it if you can, just watch for sharp mussels underfoot!
We made it to the geological wonder of Punakaiki, also known as Pancake Rocks. The stacking effect is largely from the layers of mudstone eroding faster than the limestone, and few other mysterious factors yet to be revealed in its 30 million year-old history. Adding to the surreal landscape, the rocks have a series of openings—some as large as a house and others with tiny blowholes that spout water at high tide.
With our pancake craving satiated, we headed back south and made a beeline for Arthur’s Pass. This is the cut-over from the west to east coast, dug in 1866 by 1,000 burly men with hand-tools, basic rock drills, and dynamite. It’s the fastest way from Greymouth to Christchurch but the region is so beautiful it has been deemed a National Park.
There are tons of incredible hikes throughout Arthur’s Pass, including this one-hour tramp to Devil’s Punchbowl. Through beech forest, over rivers, and up an embankment, we arrived at the falls. This wispy stream of water is said to be the woven flax of a famous Maori weaver, Hinekaki.
Pushing our adventures to near darkness, again, we pulled over and literally ran to this crazy fortress-like rock formation. We arrived totally humbled by these Stonehenge-esque limestone monoliths, then ran back to the car, laughing at how ridiculous we probably looked. The sun set minutes later and we completed the journey to Christchurch in the black of night, without regret for a single photo stop, picnic, hike, beer sample, or even a pricey backwater petrol fill-up.