The West Coast of New Zealand is wild place with a fascinating and colourful heritage. Rugged landscapes and pristine wilderness have been the locations for exciting stories of times gone by, when brave pioneers flocked to the region to make their fortunes and rugged adventurers seized the opportunity to strike it rich. We’ve put together a brief history of some famous West Coast settlements – how they came about and what makes them tick, from gold and coal to glass, greenstone and wild venison recovery.
Great sky-scrapers of rock follow the Tasman Sea along the western shores of the South Island, a suitable backdrop for an equally undulating past that bristles with tales of hardy pioneers, fortuitous gold prospectors and indomitable outdoorsmen. This extreme environment forged a special breed of kiwis and shaped the face of the industries that turned the cogs of the local economy.
There's gold in them hills
Although 'The Coast' is sparsely populated these days, this was not always the case and, in the mid to late 1860's, the population in this region boomed with the discovery of gold. First discovered in 1864 by two local Maoris in a river just inland from Hokitika, gold attracted Europeans to settle in abundance along the 600 kilometre stretch of West Coast. Nothing gets men moving quite like the allure of striking it rich, so prospectors flooded into the region. Many of the famous towns in this part of the South Island were founded in this way, such as Hokitika and Okarito, both of which briefly enjoyed short stints as some of the nation’s most populous and thriving settlements. Gold is still mined here to this day and although the methods for doing so are somewhat more refined, you can still find plenty of mining relics harking back to the good old days of the West Coast gold rush.
Glass, crafts and greenstone
Greenstone has always been highly prized by local Maori as a product for trade, tools, weapons and art, and is the oldest industry on the West Coast. Many roads and famous hiking trails in the region, particularly surrounding Hokitika and Punakaiki, found their roots as ancient Maori trading trails and today, the semi precious stone is just as prized as ever. Galleries and live demonstrations in Hokitika are a great place to see artisans in action and view their beautiful work, masterfully crafted from greenstone, glass and other natural materials. The small community of Punakaiki is also well known for its artisans and is a great place to pick up some authentic kiwi crafts.
Venison by air
Perhaps some of the hardiest and most colourful characters on the coast were found working in the mountains and mighty river valleys, mustering cattle in remote and inaccessible places and chasing red deer during the hey-day of wild venison recovery. By the 1960s and 70s, roughly a century after the first liberation of Scottish red deer in New Zealand, populations reached plague proportions, coinciding with prices that reached irresistible highs - giving birth to a major industry. This era was known as 'the venison wars', when pioneering aerial hunters battled for the precious resource. Characters like Mike Bennett and Goodwin McNutt worked hard to make the most of this new industry, traversing mountains and valleys on foot and in helicopters. These characters represent the hardworking and innovative spirit that has always driven folks on the coast and this same attitude and vibrancy still exists on the coast today. These days, however, you’re more likely to find helicopters ferrying visitors into remote and beautiful locations rather than looking for deer.
The West Coast is an exciting and colourful place to visit, and we include visits to in Okarito, Hokitika and Punakaiki on many of our Small Group Tour itineraries. Discover gold mining relics, meet friendly, down to earth Kiwi locals and admire the magnificent landscapes on tour with MoaTrek. Find out more about our Small Group Tours here, or contact us directly.