What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of New Zealand’s West Coast?
Probably the Glaciers – the huge Franz Josef and his smaller neighbour, Fox – where you can take helicopter flights and guided tours on the ice. Perhaps you think of the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki, or of Hokitika’s wooden sculpture and turquoise blue gorge. Maybe the weather of the Wild West Coast comes to mind: the strong winds, harsh rains and roaring sea. But I can guess you probably wouldn’t think of Karamea.
Karamea isn’t firmly placed on the tourist trail of the West Coast. Arriving from the Tasman region, you have to head north to reach it, and then double back past Westport to continue onto the West Coast’s more well-known sights: the Pancake Rocks, Hokitika and Franz & Fox Glaciers. Travelling North from the South, you must continue past Westport to get to Karamea, and then double-back through Westport in order to reach the northern Tasman region afterwards. In short, you either take a trip there and back from Westport, or you skip it completely.
The drive from Westport takes at least an hour and a half. It’s along the narrow, winding SH67, which can be quite gripping to drive – especially in bad weather. But when the weather is fine, this coastal drive has been nominated one of the finest on New Zealand’s South Island.
Perhaps it’s understandable then, that tour buses and most tourists don’t make Karamea part of their itinerary. But that’s all the more reason why I loved it!
Situated between the mountains and the sea, Karamea has a relaxed, off-the-beaten-track vibe, but still has a certain ‘hub’ feel to it. With a supermarket, petrol station, restaurants, cafés and numerous accommodation choices, it’s an ideal place to get away from it all for a day or five. It’s the gateway to the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, and to Kahurangi National Park, a vast wilderness which is home to incredible landforms and a rich variety of flora and fauna. I loved the area because of the variety of walks and tramps – simply too many for us to cram into the one day we spent there! There are hidden treasures to the area that are impossible to find elsewhere in the country, and best of all, there are often very few tourists. I wish I could say that I had done all of the attractions in this blog post; here is an insight to some I have done, and others that are on my list for next time.
What to see and do
The Heaphy Track
Karamea is located at the beginning (or end, depending on which direction you walk) of the Heaphy Track, which, at 78.4km, is the longest of NZ’s Great Walks. The 4-6 day trek passes through Kahurangi National Park, retracing the steps of early Māori seeking pounamu (greenstone) and of 19th century gold prospectors. Offering varied landscapes of tussock downs, lush forests and wild coastline, it’s open year-round and is suitable for all ages. Although I have only hiked the Kepler and Abel Tasman (so far!), I’d love to trek the Heaphy. If you don’t feel like tramping, mountain biking is also permitted on the track from 1st May to 30 Sept (2-3 days, grade 4-5). For more information and/or to book, visit the DOC website here.
Short Walks on the Heaphy Track
- Scott’s Beach/ Kohaihai: an easy hour-long walk brings you to a vast beach with beautiful golden sands. Take your swimsuit on a sunny day! The track has detours for flood conditions. Make sure you stop at Scott’s Hill Lookout, around halfway along the track.
- Nikau Palm Walk: A 40 minute loop walk in the midst of the Nikau palm trees, which are the world’s southernmost tree. Watch out for kererū (NZ wood pigeons) who adore the Nikau’s rich red fruit. Suitable for all ages and the disabled.
- Katipo Creek Shelter: A six hour return hike along the coastline brings you to the Katipo Creek shelter and campsite (5 sites). Try to coincide your walk with reaching Crayfish Point at low tide; one hour either side of high tide it’s impassable!
The Oparara Basin
This is an absolute must-do if you visit Karamea; the area is home to a number of incredible natural limestone formations which will make you say ‘wow’ over and over again. Access to the Oparara carpark is via a long gravel road and sturdy walking shoes are recommended for the walks in the area.
- Oparara Arch: A 25 minute walk brings you to the larger of the limestone arches.
- Moria Gate Arch: This arch is situated a 30 minute walk and the walkway enters through a small cave which opens out into the roof of the arch.
- Mirror Tarn: A ten minute walk leads you to a small, picturesque lake hidden amongst the bush.
- Crazy Paving Caves and Box Canyon Caves: A 2.5km drive from the Oparara car park brings you to the caves, which you’re free to explore as you please. Beware; they’re pitch-black, eerily quiet and you might be lucky enough to spot a cave spider or a weta… Don’t forget your torch!
- Oparara Valley Track: This is a 5 hour trek along the Oparara river through the rainforest. I wish we’d had time for this one! It finishes at the Fenian carpark.
- The Honeycomb Hill Caves: Also noted for its limestone formations, the honeycomb caves are protected and access is by guided tour only. The caves are renowned for their collection of Moa bones (a huge flightless bird that was driven to extinction when the first Māori arrived in NZ) as well as the bones of other extinct bird species.
The Fenian Area
In the 1860s, the Fenian area was home to gold miners who cut a bridle track through the mixed beech forest, creating a number of easy walking tracks which range from 40 minutes to 7 hours long. Amongst the bush, you have the chance to trek to to viewpoints, heritage sites and caves.
Kahurangi National Park
As well as the Heaphy, Karamea is also the main gateway to the marvellous Wangapeka Track, a challenging 3-5 day tramp climbing to 1701m above sea level, across alpine saddles and through valleys of beech forest.
For the experienced, there’s also the Karamea-Leslie Track, a 6-9 day ‘semi-wilderness experience’, which is situated in the midst of the national park. The track travels for the first 3-4 days through the Karamea Valley, before joining the Wangapeka track. High level of fitness required.
For both of these walks, backcountry hut tickets are required; contact DOC.
Getting to Karamea
By car, from Westport take the SH67 to Mokihinui, then the Mokihinui-Karamea Highway to Karamea. The road is sealed. Distance Westport to Karamea is 97km, allow 1.5 hours driving (no stops).
By bus, the Karamea Express (2 hour journey) runs Mon-Fri, May-Sept and Mon-Sat, Oct-Apr, departing from Westport iSite on 123 Palmerston Street.
Staying in Karamea
For a small town, there’s a surprising amount of accommodation choices, from B&Bs to baches and chalets to backpacker hostels. Pick up a copy of the ‘Karamea’ and ‘Buller District’ leaflets from the iSite in Westport for options. You can also camp at Kohaihai DOC campsite ($6pppn) but remember your sandfly repellant! We stayed at the Karamea Memorial Domain Camping Ground for $9pp (unpowered site).
Useful websites and information centres
- Karamea Information and Resource Centre: 106 Bridge Street, Market Cross. Phone: (03) 782 6652. Website: www.karameainfo.co.nz. Email: email@example.com.
- Westport i-Site: 123 Palmerston Street. Phone: (03) 789 6658. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Buller region: Website: www.buller.co.nz.
- DOC (Department of Conservation): Website: www.doc.govt.nz.
Have you visited Karamea? Is it somewhere that would make your itinerary? Have you ever seen a limestone arch or another incredible natural formation?
Thanks for reading,
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All information is based on our experience in Karamea on 3rd to 4th December 2015. Sources of information include DOC’s Heaphy Track booklet, the 2011 Karamea leaflet and the Bullet District leaflet. Visitors should always check track conditions at an information centre or visitor centre before beginning their walk, overnight treks must be booked with DOC.