west coast

'Wild about New Zealand – the West Coast'

By New Zealand Trails

5 minute read

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Wild about New Zealand, Gus Roxburgh's documentary on New Zealand's national parks, featured the South Island's wIld West Coast - one of our favourite areas of the country and somewhere guests on our small group hiking tours always tell us they love.  The West Coast of New Zealand's South Island is a little bit different for all the right reasons - the people, the terrain and yes, even the weather.  The 800km (500 mile) Southern Alps mountain range forms an imposing barrier in more ways than one - in physcial terms the natural barrier of the alps has kept the population down over the years, meaning more open spaces to enjoy.  In climatic terms, the alps trap the moist air which blows in from the Tasman Sea and every once in a while this will fall as rain on the coast, providing the perfect environment for the native species to thrive.

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First up, Gus focused on Westland National Park, home to Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, the rivers of ice that flow down the western slopes of Mount Cook to only a few hundred metres above sea level, one of only a handful of places in the world where this phenomenon occurs. Look around the world at places you can visit glaciers and most of them involve travelling to high altitudes, but here in New Zealand it is possible to stand with your feet in the ocean and a short trip later be walking on a glacier. The added advantage of the West Coast glaciers is that everyday folk like you and I can discover this remarkable environment without the need for technical climbing skills or the risks involved in high altitude mountaineering. As we do on our small group walking tours, Gus went walking on Fox Glaicer with one of the local guides where he learnt all about this very dynamic environment, every year the ice flow can be as much as 5 metres and at it's thickest point an estimated to be 300 metres (1000 feet) thick. 

Leaving the ice world, Gus introduces us to another treasure on this land, nephrite or jade and the stunning 'Aotea' a unique precious stone which incorporates Fuchite and Kyanite in a Quartz Matrix - here on the coast is the only place in the world where this stone occurs.  Gus walked the shores of the Jacobs (Te Awa Makaawhio) river with a local jade carver who continues his ancestors' time honoured tradition of greenstone carving. Throughout 'Wild about New Zealand', Gus has skillfully interwoven stories of the land with the people and nowhere is this more pertinent in this example of West Coast jade and a local carver continuing the traditions of his forefathers.


Running water is responsible for unearthing the treasure of Aotea (jade) for us to see and this same water has created a treasure of a different kind - the largest network subterranean caves in New Zealand are found along the hundreds of kilometres of the West Coast. Some of these cave systems remained undiscovered until relatively recently, Gus takes the slightly more extreme option of abseiling deep into a 40 metre abyss with two local guides and while this looks undoubtably exciting we think there may be a slightly easier, more accessible, less extreme option for discovering this underworld - the Nile River Caves near Charleston is where we discover this lost world on day three of our New Zealand walking tour. Without a doubt, these cave passages and caverns are unbelievable and something everyone must experience once in their lives.

Back above ground, Gus takes a look at a very unique local resident - the Westland Petrel, a sea bird which spend months at sea and returns to nest near Punakaiki - the only place on the planet where these birds spend time on land. Government conservation workers are actively involved in a project to protect the endangered Petrel and Gus goes into the field with one local conservation worker (and his very impressive beard), Chippy. Like other native marine birds, the Petrel nests on land and while for many species this leaves them very vulnerable to pests like the introduced stoat, the petril is big enough to defend itself which has meant survival when other species have floundered.


As we do on our New Zealand hiking tours, Gus travels from Punakaiki down to Okarito - a real gem and an extremely unique ecosystem as the largest remaining unmodified wetland in the country.  Due to it's remote location, Okarito lagoon remains untouched by human development, even here on the West Coast many wetlands were drained or modified for agriculture. Thankfully Okarito remains wet and the best way to discover this area is a gentle kayak on the lagoon with local kayaking and nature guide Richard, who knows everything there is to know about Okarito and it's wildlife and happily shares this with Gus. One sobering statistic from Richard is that 75% of New Zealand's wetlands have been drained and with that 400-500 year old Kahikatea trees were felled but thankfully Okarito survived this and is now here to stay.  Okarito's most famous daytime resident, the Kotoku (Eastern Great Egret), deservably takes centre stage with it's grace and elegance both in the air and on the ground. Interestingly the Kotoku were blown here from Australia on the strong westerly winds and with a return flight against the wind impossible they made their home here in Okarito, now the only place these birds will breed in New Zealand. The Kotoku will actually travel far and wide throughout New Zealand during the year but always return to breed and there are now 45 pairs in Okarito.

If the Kotoku is the star during daylight hours, without a doubt in Okarito the nighttime hours belong to the rarest of New Zealand's five species of Kiwi - the Rowi or Okarito Brown Kiwi. With only 300 Rowi left in the world the conservation of these birds now requires human assistance and Gus visits the Okarito Kiwi breeding centre where we witness the birth of a Rowi chick and the first 10 days of it's life. Once the Rowi reach the age of 15 months they are returned to the wild, the South Okarito forest has protected status as a Kiwi breeding sanctuary. What makes it so challenging for all our native species has been the introduction of pests like rats, stoats and possums, all of which were bought to New Zealsnd by early settlers. Having evolved in a world with no natural enemies, New Zealand's native birds had no need to fly to safety so many lost the ability to use their wings and with no threat to their eggs from land animals nesting on ground was safe too. 


Over the past 6 weeks Gus Roxburgh has travelled around the best of New Zealand's national parks discovered these amazing natural lanscapes, uncovered the history and gives us close encounters with wildlife and the people who spend their lives here. We think it speaks volumes that so many of the areas Gus chose to highlight in his 'Wild about New Zealand' series, are the same areas we travel to on our small group New Zealand hiking tours. We hope this series has been a good introduction to our backyard and if you would like to learn more about discovering our favourite spots on a small group guided tour, while enjoying the comforts of home and the finest food and wine in New Zealand, then we would love to hear from you.

Note - The documentary is being uploaded to the TVNZ website for viewing on demand but this is not available outside of New Zealand.  Here’s a little teaser below with some of the graphic hightlights, otherwise the best way to see all this wonderful countryside is to join us on one of our tours!

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