Off the Top of my HeadBy Paul Murray
Don’t be surprised if everyone waves to you as you pass by in Karamea…it’s that kind of place.
If you’re among the growing number of travellers who are looking to escape the usual tourist route for a subtler but more genuine Kiwi experience, you’ll be on the right track when you head for the Karamea region, at the top of the South Island’s West Coast. Enveloped by the Kahurangi National Park and sealed in by the Tasman Sea to the west, Karamea is a geographical island paradise with a wealth of natural beauty just 100 kilometres up the coast from Westport.
The road to Karamea is one of the most beautiful drives in the world and affords stunning views of the Tasman coast, river valleys, verdant forest and jagged mountain ranges.
The journey takes you north from Westport, through the charming seaside villages of Granity and Hector and across the Mohikuniui River before heading up into the densely forested mountains of the Kahurangi National Park, you’ll pass ancient tree giants, beneath majestic tree ferns and go high over the Karamea Bluff (stop your car, check out the view of the Tasman from the mountain top and listen to the symphony of birdsong) before dropping into the broad alluvial coastal plain at Little Wanganui. You’ll pass happily grazing dairy herds on lush green pasture, the expansive Otumahana Lagoon and over the mighty Karamea River before arriving in the beautiful hamlet of Karamea…getting there is just the beginning of your adventure.
There’s a wealth of sightseeing opportunities on offer in the Karamea region. The Oparara Basin has a full day of activities, including cave tours through the Honeycomb caves where you can see a very well preserved skeleton of a giant moa, an underground river, a limestone cathedral lit by a myriad of glow worms, ancient limestone pillars and chandeliers and exit from a massive arched cavern straight into verdant rainforest.
The road into the Oparara Basin from Karamea township winds through the beautiful native rainforest of the Kahurangi National Park, which is New Zealand’s second-largest National Park and contains the greatest diversity of flora and fauna of any parks in the country. A new track connecting the Fenian Track with the Oparara Basin opened in 2008. This enables people to follow the Oparara River into the Oparara Basin and experience more of the wonders of the Kahurangi.
Along the many short walks in the Oparara Basin, you’ll pass through an enchanted wonderland of prehistoric moss-covered vegetation from mighty natives to tiny colourful mushrooms, lichens and flowers. The biggest limestone arch in the Southern Hemisphere is at the end of one track, a massive stone structure bridging a large river and forming a tunnel for more than 200 metres. The Moria Gate arch is smaller, but a highly spiritual place for quiet introspection and meditation in the bosom of nature…a visit to Moria Gate is a must.
A little further on is the Mirror Tarn, a still pond about the size of a rugby pitch. Tall beech trees grow right to the edge of the water, sheltering the surface from any breeze. The leaves of the beech trees fall into the water and release their tannins, staining the fresh water a dark tea hue, which allows for a perfect mirror of the sky…to stand at the water’s edge and look down into the sky is an astounding pleasure. The tracks in the Oparara Basin are easily negotiated and allow people of all ages to experience amazing natural features that would otherwise have been hidden to all but the most extreme adventurer or hardened bushman.
One of New Zealand’s nine great walks, the Heaphy Track, finishes (or starts, depending on which way you’re heading) at Karamea. The 82-kilometre, four-day tramp attracts visitors from all over the world every year. Many people choose to walk only to the first or second huts on the track instead of walking its entire length. The huts, Heaphy and Lewis, are Department of Conservation-maintained bush cabins with gas cooking facilities, open fires, bunks with mattresses, large camping grounds, toilets and running-water facilities. Live like a millionaire for as little as $30 a night, awake to a choice of view: pristine mountain scenery or the roaring Tasman Sea.
The Heaphy Track opened to mountain bikers in the winter of 2010 for a three-year trial to determine the suitability and popularity of the Heaphy for mountain biking. The trial was a great success and the track is now open every year from May 1 to September 30. Mountain bikers from all over the world are expected to take the opportunity to ride one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” which is now also a “Great Ride.”***HINT: The Karamea end of the Heaphy Track is considered to be the most spectacular scenically, so many trampers and riders start in Karamea, ride or walk into the track and then return to where their vehicle is parked…this avoids costly transport and the time expense getting back to Karamea from the Collingood end of the track…and doubling the adventure in the process!***
Closer to town is the Karamea Gorge, a trout fisherman’s paradise. One of its features, the aptly named Big Rimu Tree, is a tree so large that when the region was logged about 60 years ago, the technology available at the time was insufficient to handle a tree of its size—It must be seen to be appreciated and to stand beside its mammoth trunk is a quite humbling experience.
There is also fishing, surfing or bird watching at the Karamea River estuary. For those interested in the latter, black swans, egrets, ducks, pukeko, oystercatchers, herons, gulls and hundreds of other birds congregate at the estuary. Tuis, wood pigeons and bellbirds will wake you in the morning with their dawn chorus…and there is a vast stretch of sandy beach-–where you might stroll along all day without encountering a soul…except perhaps your own!
For the adventurous and ambitious, the day walk up Mt Stormy is a challenging, but eminently rewarding slog that affords stunning views up and down the wild West Coast and out over the even wilder mountains of the Kahurangi National Park.
If a more sedate round of golf is your thing, don’t forget to bring your clubs and try out the decent nine-hole course right next to the beach …with a little imagination, the Tasman’s roaring surf could easily be the crowd at St. Andrews!
On the drive back, tune in to a community radio station, which broadcasts 24/7 from a shed behind Rongo Backpackers & Gallery. At Karamea Radio 107.5 FM you’ll hear an eclectic mix of music, humour, debate and social commentary.
The region’s past includes gold rushes, a flax boom and a huge timber industry. Karamea was once a thriving seaport and has weathered freak storms and earthquakes. Details of these and other historical happenings can be checked out at the local museum.
The Karamea region remains a peaceful natural enclave of forest, sea and sky…you’ll love what they haven’t done to the place!