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Exploring the Back Roads of New Zealand's South Island: Karamea to the Heaphy Track
The Elusive, Flightless Kiwi
Visit New Zealand and I defy you not to love this land of the kiwi for its rich colours; the striking, breath-taking contrast of deep blue sky, lush green vegetation and aquamarine rivers.
Go to the South Island and you can explore so many and varied regions.
As one of the 'Exploring the Back Roads of.....' series, initiated by billybuc, I’m going to take you to the South Island's North West Coast, beyond Punakaiki, to a region more remote and with fewer tourists. Take Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch to Greymouth (a wonderful journey in itself), travel northwards past the well-known Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks), then you are heading for the end of the road.
The Karamea Environs
Habitations become more sparse and the last ‘town’ on this road is Karamea; a small habitation lying on the west coast strip between mist-shrouded mountains and a coastline enveloped in rolling sea mists.
North from Karamea the landscape becomes more and more remote, the road narrower between sea and rocks, until at the road’s end you reach a car park and the beginning of the Heaphy Track.
The mountains acting as a backdrop to this landscape are covered in rainforest. The mists roll down from mountain to coast, roll in from sea to shore, creating an atmosphere of ancient times, of a land much older and wiser than any being.
Small though this area is, it holds an amazing amount of hidden treasures. Because it is less visited and therefore less known by tourists, one can walk and explore without encountering many other people.
To the End of the Road
Karamea itself is a small habitation which serves a long, narrow area of flat land giving up to mist-shrouded mountains to the east and grey-misted seas to the west. Walk across a broad expanse of grassland where tufted mounds make quad-riding fun, to reach a long, wide beach; from there you walk to meet the sea.
It is served by the local shop which will order most things for you but if you need to stock up well then it has to be a longer trip to either Westport or Greymouth to the south.
Occasionally a few locals might set out fishing lines here - just long metal pegs hammered into the sand with ropes attached carrying vertical nets and stretched out to sea as far as one can manage. Come back the next morning and you’ll find small (about 3 feet long), toothless sharks called Rig Shark, Lemonfish or sometimes ‘Gummyfish’! They make delicious steaks, barbecued or steamed. You need a quad-bike with a trailer to take them home!
Fishing for Rig
If you take an eastward turn just north of Karamea, up a winding lane into the forest, you can look down into a huge bowled valley; impossible to see the bottom through the thick vegetation but its size is all-enveloping, offering, almost threatening, to swallow you up. You are looking down onto the Oparara Basin, an ancient area of forest, through which flows the Oparara River. The track is rutted, quite steep in places and hugs the edge of the basin.
Oparara Basin Rainforest
Carry on until you reach a parking area. Here, you might see some Weka. They are flightless birds (as is the Kiwi), about the size of a chicken. They show no fear of people and are happy to scrounge crumbs of biscuit or cake! However, locally they're regarded as pests even though they are a protected species.
From the car park follow the path which meanders by the Oparara River, through the vegetation. The river water is a clear, strong orange, coloured by naturally occurring tannins. The winding path takes you further into the forest, abruptly turns, dips and rises. At the side of the path are strange eroded-earth formations looking like mini sky-scraper cities. There are huge ferns growing here, one of them being the Silver Fern, the other emblem of New Zealand.
Oparara River & Path through the ForestClick thumbnail to view full-size
Moria Gate Arch
After about half an hour of easy walking, look for the narrow entrance to the Moria Gate Arch, a limestone formation over the river. Blink and you’ll miss the low portal amidst the rocks but there’s a small sign informing you of the route down through slippery rocks, to the river cave. It’s passable with comparative ease (there are railings and a chain to hold onto) but you need to be agile. The broad, level cave floor gives out onto the narrow river, the roof and arch above you. The beauty of this hidden treasure is... well, I defy you not so say ‘Wow!’ over and over and over.
The Moria Gate ArchClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Heaphy Track
The road continues a while, the rocks come close to the shore, a little further and you’ve reached the end of the road! Here you’ll find the Kohaihai River across which is an entrance to Kahurangi National Park where the Heaphy Track begins; a hikers’ track which meanders through the mountains, eventually reaching Golden Bay. It’s a treck that takes up to 3 days or more; there are simple shacks along the way for intrepid explorers to use at night for taking food and shelter or just for a rest if you’re not tackling the whole length. Where the track begins, a beautiful inlet joining tropical vegetation with the rocks and the sea provides a peaceful, shady area to sit, relax, picnic or just take in the stunning scenery.
The track, 80 km long, has connected Karamea on the west coast with Golden bay in the north since 1893, due to the Gold Rush. Its name comes from Charles Heaphy, an explorer, artist and soldier, who was one of the first to explore this coastline and the forest inland.
There is a diversity of plant species here and there are strict rules for users of the track: no dogs are allowed as the area shelters many kiwis, the notoriously shy and elusive emblem of New Zealand, and you are expected to take out any litter you generate. This is a track for seasoned walkers, or ‘trampers’ as they are called locally.
The Heaphy TrackClick thumbnail to view full-size
Astonishing Beauty to be found around the Corner
Beauty & Surprises around Every Corner
All of New Zealand offers wonderful areas of outstanding beauty in both south and north islands. It has rivers and mountains, forests and lakes, wonderful coastlines and inland thermal valleys. You can ski or snorkel, walk or sail, visit vineyards or watch seals, bathe in thermal waters or sunbathe on clean, sandy beaches. There are no snakes but an array of indigenous wildlife.
If you get a chance to visit, snatch it and make the most of this amazing country and its friendly people.
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Information on the Heaphy Track:
Going Off the Beaten Track
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© 2013 Ann Carr