When one thinks of the West Coast, visions of rugged and dramatic hills, acres of rainforest and spectacular surf spring to mind, but from Greymouth to Westport the scenery also has an almost tropical appeal with nikau palms sprouting from glistening white sands and clinging to rocky escarpments. In Punakaiki, a friendly holiday town made famous by its stunning pancake rocks, salty spray flies from blowholes, while nearby Westport, a town often overlooked, provides many unique activities for the intrepid traveller. Inland, avid anglers have the opportunity to try their luck on the internationally renowned waters of the Murchison/Nelson Lakes region, where some of the best fly fishing in NZ can be found on Lake Rotoroa, Lake Rotoiti, and up the Travers, D’Urville and Sabine Rivers. We spend three days driving the scenic route from Greymouth to Nelson. We visit a world renowned pounamu (jade) sculptor, admire Punakaiki’s pancake rocks, ride rapids aboard jet skis in Westport, enjoy indigenous cuisine, join a thrilling whitewater rafting expedition down the mighty Buller River, and angle for elusive brown trout!
Overnight Bob’s been doing his research on the famous pancake rocks in Punakaiki and he’s keen to get on the road.
We drive north to Rapahoe where the road joins the coast and offers fabulous views of rugged hills, dramatic headlands and rolling surf. From Barrytown the landscape changes: coastal plains dotted with nikau palms are flanked by bush-clad hills.
More palms cling obstinately to the layered rock escarpments in Punakaiki, creating a tropical backdrop to the green-blue sea. “It’s got a Hawaiian feel!” says Bob as we park the car and walk the Dept. of Conservation track to the blowholes at Punakaiki’s famous pancake rocks. The timing couldn’t be more perfect: it’s high tide and there’s a good ocean swell so salt-laden spray is flying. Bob gets some great shots and then after lunch at Punakaiki Tavern we walk along the beach and collect pieces of perfectly polished, pure white quartz.
There are several good hikes in the area including the Pororari River Track, the Truman Track, Fox River Cave Walk, Cave Creek / Kotihotiho Walk and the Punakaiki-Pororari Loop, but our legs have been stretched, and so we continue north. On the outskirts of Punakaiki we visit the Te Miko Glass Bead Studio, where we watch Carolyn Hewlett as she crafts each individual flame-worked bead, before we drive on to Westport.
After checking into our accommodation, we drive to Tauranga Bay (near Cape Foulwind) for a late afternoon stroll to the seal colony.
As the sun begins to set our mighty appetites lead us to Tauranga Bay’s acclaimed The Bay House. Here we discover a modern NZ menu featuring some of the country’s finest fare, in a beautiful setting overlooking the bay.
In the morning the feasting continues with a hearty breakfast in town before we visit Coaltown, a museum that brings Westport’s history alive through its sawmilling, gold and coal mining, and shipping displays. We spend an hour looking around and then leave town on SH6 following the Buller River inland to Inangahua Junction, then on through the Upper Buller Gorge Scenic Reserve to Newton Flat where, shortly after, we stop at the 110 metre long swingbridge over the raging Buller Gorge. We enjoy a latté then cross the wobbling bridge to the other side, where we decide to ride the comet line, a 160 metre long flying fox, back across the river. It’s a blast; but Bob’s slightly vertiginous, and yells all the way!
After a lunch of egg and cucumber sandwiches in nearby Murchison, a small town that offers a range of high adrenaline activities – most of which centre on or around the river – we don wetsuits at Ultimate Descents and join a whitewater rafting tour. Bob’s a little hesitant, he’s not sure what to expect, but after we board our raft and receive expert instruction from Dean, our whitewater rafting guide, he begins to visibly relax.
The first stretch of river is tame - great for first-timers. I slip into a quiet reverie as our raft drifts along the Buller’s crystal clear waters; a kaleidoscope of colours reflect from the surrounding hills onto the river’s glassy surface and beneath lies a riverbed of perfectly polished pebbles. “F-O-R-WARD!” Dean’s bellowed commands suddenly shatter the silence. “LEFT! RIGHT! F-O-R-W-A-R-D!” Bob shoots me a horrified look as our raft gathers momentum, sweeps around a bend, and we come face to face with a tumbling tower of bottle-green waves and foaming white wash. For a precarious moment we perch at the crest of the towering wall, then we’re at right angles descending into the roaring foam.
The last thing I see before the world turns abruptly white is Bob’s grimly determined expression.
Through the white-out Dean can be heard shouting at us to hold on. Between gasping and screaming there’s no time for communication at our end of the raft!
Seconds later we emerge from the rushing icy whiteness only to charge headlong into another rapid. Adrenaline kicks in and we’re loving it. Eventually we emerge at the other end - totally unscathed. “That was amazing,” says Bob later, as we’re checking into a farm stay on the outskirts of Murchison. Then he gives me a strange expression, “You know I’m positive I came face to face with a trout!”
After his fishy encounter on the Ariki Falls, Bob decides a spot of fly fishing is in order today. Fortunately we’re in precisely the right place for the trout fishing at Lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti, and up the D’Urville, Sabine and Travers Rivers is internationally renowned.
We drive to beautiful Lake Rotoroa nestled against the mountainous backdrop of the Nelson Lakes National Park and while Bob shoots off with local fishing guide, Russell Frost, I hike up the beginning of the Porika track, a rocky zigzagging four-wheel drive route, with excellent lake and mountain views.
Then, as I’m not expecting Bob to return until noon, I hike a short way along the lakeside track, a rough path through podocarp and beech forest which skirts around the eastern shoreline of the lake to Sabine Hut, before doubling back to meet Bob at the car.
He’s had an “awesome” morning stalking brown trout and tells me all about it as we drive to the village of St. Arnaud, where we stop for a late lunch at Tophouse, an historic cob (mud) cottage which dates back to the 1880s. Back in its early days the lodge was frequented by drovers transporting sheep through the valley and onto the Marlborough and the Canterbury plains.
After seeing the bullet holes in the verandah (left after a double murder / suicide in 1894), and perusing the range of local arts and crafts housed in what was once NZ’s smallest bar, we drive down to the lake and hop aboard Bill Butters’ water taxi service. His service is used by trampers hiking the four to seven day Travers-Sabine circuit or completing day hikes such as the Lake Rotoiti Circuit, the Mount Robert loop track, the St Arnaud Range track, and the Whisky Falls track.
Others, like us, hire his services for a scenic tour of the lake. A local born and bred (his family has lived here since the 1860s), Bill tells us he moved back here in ‘85 for a lifestyle change. On the far side of the lake he shows us the breathtaking Whisky Falls and at the lake head the water is so clear that we can see trout undulating in the current. On the return Bob tells Bill all about his morning fly fishing excursion. “What did you do?” Bill asks me. When he discovers that I’ve never hooked a trout before he gets excited. “My wife Betty can teach you!” he exclaims.
Bob’s so keen that I too experience the pleasure of trout fishing that he shouts me the lesson and before I know it, Betty’s down on the shore and I’m booked into a two-hour “Troutwise Women” course. Bob takes off to the Dept. of Conservation visitor centre to view its displays, then hikes through beech forests dripping with honeydew and swarming with bellbirds in the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project, while I head off with Betty for my first fly fishing lesson.
To begin with Betty shows me classic trout tucker – live nymphs, then I’m taught how to prepare my rod with a weight forward floating fly line and a nymphing rig. The rig has a small artificial nymph on the bottom, a weighted nymph above and a strike indicator attached so I can easily identify a strike.
Next up is tension casting. “Look where you’re aiming,” Betty instructs as I cast the line. Once this is mastered I then learn to mend the line; a key part of the lesson. “If you don’t mend properly it won’t matter how good your casting is, the nymph will look unnatural as it floats through the water and the trout will ignore it,” says Betty.
Mending the line proves difficult, but after a lot of practice my nymph is moving through the water in a natural drag-free drift and Betty says I’m ready to fool a wily old trout. She leaves me to play while she pours us a thermos tea and suddenly my indicator disappears. It’s a strike! I yank the rod upwards and holler for help.
Betty comes running with the net and I jump up and down like a six year old catching her first sprat.
“How’d it go?” asks Bob later when we triumphantly return. “Magic,” I say as I load my six-pounder carefully into the chilly-bin (much to Bob’s horror as he’s strictly a tag and release kind of guy). We wave goodbye to Bill and Betty as we leave town and head north to Richmond. Then, instead of driving into the city, I indicate for Ruby Bay.
“If we’re staying in Nelson,” says Bob, consulting the map, “We’re going the wrong way!”
“Oh – sorry – change of plan,” I reply, “I thought we’d stay at Clayridge instead.”
“Why the sudden change?” asks Bob in a puzzled tone.
“W-e-ll – it’s got fabulous rooms, great views, a good breakfast... oh yes and then there’s the broadband...” I end lamely. Bob shoots me a quizzical look.
“OK, I’m sprung,” I admit impatiently, “but we’ve got a trout on ice in need of a good smoking and Clayridge is closer to the Smokehouse Café!”