The path less taken – north to Karamea, one of NZ’s most isolated communities

Beautiful things don’t ask for attention – James Thurber

The most epic summer of my life is nearly over and we thought what better way to see its departure than with some warm summer sunsets in the West Coast Region of Aotearoa New Zealand. This region is known for its untamed natural wilderness comprised of large limestone cliffs covered in thick rainforest vegetation that give way to glaciers that meet the Tasman Sea at stoney beaches and rock stacks. We have traveled nearly the length of the region’s coastline in trips past, but like most roadtrippers we had yet to head north to Karamea.

Karamea is a tiny isolated community located at the terminus of one of NZ’s longest cul-de-sacs, 100 km from an inland road connection. While we didn’t rest our heads each night in this little town, we spent nearly all of our time along the road between Westport and Karamea. If you like sunshine, coastline, caves, rock arches, and isolation, this stretch of road is the place for you.

Westport

We spent our first night in a little surf shack in Westport near Tauranga Bay.  We found this off the grid place on Air BnB and were as always big fans of its outdoor tub, which has become a ‘must’ for our travels these days. Watch out for the resident Weka birds (native flightless Bush Hens) who are happy to enter open doors or steal light weight shoes left outside.

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This bay attracts surfing enthusiasts and tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the most accessible seal colonies in NZ. While the surfing is most certainly epic and home to West Coast Surf, an authentic surf lesson company run by one of NZ’s most famous wave riders, we were not big fans of the seal colony viewing area.  A large overdeveloped overlook with a quintessential international city directional sign sits on the western edge of Cape Foulwind where seals can be viewed from a considerable distance doesn’t provide that ‘wild’ experience that we prefer. This area was so uninteresting, I didn’t even bother snapping a quick photo. The track becomes more scenic as it undulates north along the granite cliff coastline, through paddocks, exposing some lovely views of the many rock steeples and stacks in the sea.

The track terminates at a lighthouse that can also be accessed via a shorter journey from a parking lot to the north of the cape.  We would return to this side of the cape the next morning, for the real highlight of the northern reach, Gibson’s Beach.  This beach and its sandstone and mudstone arch is the iconic face of Westport, yet somehow it remains off the tourist radar and there isn’t any signage to lead you to its hidden location.

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In order to visit this geology lover’s dream, a quick look at the tide schedule is necessary; access is low tide only. Walk along the fossilized sheer cliffs towards two small archways to the east, discovering sea life clinging to dinosaur shaped rocks along the way.

The surfing beach of Tauranga Bay is equally as beautiful, but far less rugged.  This bay is lined with a dune system protecting large expansive white sand beaches. Watch the surfers ride the last waves of the evening as the sun sets over the Tasman. We were filled with gratitude during this magical sunset!

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Northward to Karamea

The further north you travel towards Karamea, the more tourists you will leave behind.  The large winding cliffside drive to a dead end with only a handful of hiking tracks attracts only those that really want see every slice of Aotearoa New Zealand.  Most of my kiwi friends haven’t even bothered with this journey and boy are they missing out!

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winding drive along cliffs to Karamea

Heaphy Track

A river mouth beach and the start of the Heaphy Track, a NZ Great Walk, are located at the end of this journey.

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The Heaphy stretches across Kahurangi National Park to Golden Bay, where it grows steeper and more densely forested.  While only 78 km stands between the start and terminus of the track, it is 7 hour trip around the national park by car. If you don’t have time to walk the entire track, there are several small day tripping opportunities from the Karamea end, a short Nīkau palm loop or a 1.5 hour return trip to Scott’s Beach, which is considered to be the nicest sand stretch of the walk.

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Even if you skip the Nīkau palm loop, you will certainly see plenty of NZ’s only native palm along the walk and the drive to Karamea.  These palms are the most southern reaching species in the world and really stand out with their Beaker the muppet appearance amongst the tiny broadleaf trees common to NZ.

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There are several notable hikes prior to reaching the road terminus worth exploring, the Charming Creek Walkway and Oparara Basin Arches.

Charming Creek Walkway

The Charming Creek Walkway is an easy grade 9.5 km (one-way) walkway along an old mining rail between Seddonville and Granity.  While mining along this track is retired, a working coal mine in Granity can be seen from the carpark. The Charming Creek track travels along rails adjacent to a swiftly moving stream with enough energy to move massive boulders.

I was a bit perplexed by its naming as it had originally led me to believe that I would be walking along a babbling brook instead. The path winds through a series of tunnels and densely vegetated cliffs that are prone to frequent slips.  There were so many signs warning of dangerous rock fall I began to question whether our decision to walk along this path following the major rain that ex-cyclone Gita had recently dropped on the area was a smart plan. The many tunnels overhanging with ferns oddly felt like the safest areas, serving as refuges from the loose material.

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We chose not to walk the entirety of the track due to time (it is estimated to be a 5 hour return hike), making the turn at Watson’s mill.  Walking swiftly on return this hike took us about 1.5 hours. This stretch of trail will lead you past large mining equipment, across a nerve wracking swing bridge and to a large waterfall.  While it didn’t provide you with the dramatic backdrop NZ is known for, we appreciated it for its history that is important to the settlement of the area.  The tracks and equipment were preserved in a way that really brought you back to the time when this mine was functioning.

Oparara Basin

The Oparara Basin, formed 350 million years ago from a bed of old Karamea granite, is filled with limestone arches, caves, and dense rainforest. A tea colored river winds through the basin feeding several tarns sprinkled throughout.  You could easily spend days exploring caves filled with Moa bones and rainforested creek paths, but we limited our visit to the two southernmost tracks leading to the Moria Gate and Oparara Arches. These can be hiked in a few short hours depending on your speed and chill time.

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While the Moria Gate Arch is lovely, it isn’t as impressive as the Oparara Arch and the circular track leading to it is far more manicured.  It is worth the walk, but I would start with this track and leave the Oparara track as the grand finale. One of the first features you see as you head to Moria is Mirror Tarn. Clearly this lives up to its name, with the exception of the sky that was washed out in the photo below; the reflection is mirrored perfection.

 

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Nearing the end of the loop track (if started on the northern end, which I recommend) you will reach the Moria Gate Arch. This densely vegetated arch spans 43 meters across the stream stained with tannins from the surrounding rainforest species. You can enjoy views of this arch from above through a gap in the canopy and from a small path that leads you below.

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The Oparara Tarns Track takes you through dense beech and podocarp forest, passing mossy limestone outcrops. The trees along this track express the unique species of the NZ bush, making you feel as though a dinosaur may pop out at any moment.

At the end of the track you will reach the Oparara Arch. With dimensions of 219L x 79W x 43H (meters), large openings covered in hanging ferns, and stalactites reaches down to the floor, this arch is impressive!  If only I could figure out how to properly capture its massive scale and micro textures in a photo.

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If you are thirsty after all of this hiking the Minors of the Sea, is a great place to stop for cold brew.  This cafe is attached to a restaurant and contains a few small cabin accommodations as well.  What a great view at the end an epic few days.

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Punakaiki

We spent our final evening on the edge of Punakaiki National Park at Takutai Cabin.  We had hopes of walking the Pororari River Track the next morning, but Gita had caused significant damage and the track was closed. We had already visited the famous blowholes of the Pancake Rocks and since it was still the high tourist season we didn’t make a third trip. Below are a few pictures from our last visit.

Our accomodation, the Takutai Cabin is a great place for hosting large groups of people.  It was far larger than necessary for two people, but finding a quality place at the last minute in this area was challenging. The entrance to the cabin has a lovely wood carved door and the rear of the cabin opens to a large covered wood deck and fire pit area.

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Access to the beach is just steps from the cabin.

From here you can walk to similar pancake rock formations as you will find in the national park and will likely be joined by passing riders returning their horse to the stables next door.

We closed out our last weekend summer night with another gorgeous sunset here.

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On our way to catch the ferry home to Welly, we made all of our traditional stops on this route, Nelson Lakes National Park to see the eels in Lake Rotariti, the Mussel Pot in Haverlock for the best green lipped mussels in NZ, and a few Marlborough vineyards to stock up on wine.

 

Until next time West Coast…we love you!

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Categories: New Zealand, Travel

angie campbell

I am an expat from the United States living in Wellington, New Zealand. My love affair with landscape, culture, and learning has led to a life filled with travel and academic institutions. Endowed with endless curiosity, I spend a great deal of time philosophizing about anything and everything, but very often pertaining to environmental issues. I should note that I am not formally trained in environmental philosophy, nor do I have the vocabulary competency to pass for someone who has. My writing is a somewhat tongue and cheek.

I am using this blog as a means to work through some of this thinking and to follow my own pathway of inquiry, while providing (hopefully) some meaningful insight of what it is like to live as an American in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am sure at some point there will be some interesting travel photos once I make the leap from iphone to fancy camera.

There is a secondary tab to the this blog spot. Reflections of the Watering Hole is an old blog I started during one of my academic stints studying the social and environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development in the Denver Julesburg Basin in the United States. While some of the information is a bit 'dated' (I started it in 2013), many of the conundrums remain relevant today.

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