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West Coast wonders

Luce, Alex and Grace, Franz Josef Glacier
SONIA SPEEDY’s family were mesmerised by the West Coast. She shares what they got up to and why you should add it to your family’s holiday plans.

The last time I holidayed on the West Coast, I was a teenager. There are terrible pictures of me shivering, a huge white glacier glistening behind me.

This time the photos are of three impatient girls on a blazing hot January day, a smaller glacier glistening behind them. Just out of shot, streams of people come up the path behind us. Tourism is definitely back on for the West Coast.

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And you can see why. Tangible history seeps from its very pores, all set against that mesmerising
and humbling backdrop of the Southern Alps. It feels like you’re in one of the last untouched places on earth. 

We started by road-tripping along State Highway 6, spending our first night camping at the Department of Conservation’s (DOC’s) Otto’s Corner campsite on the edge of Lake Mapourika, just north of Franz Josef. It’s a perfect swimming spot for the kids, and there are also eels to feed. We sat entranced in the morning, watching a rare kōtuku/white heron by the lakeside. 

Lake Mapourika, Franz Josef

Ross was our lunch stop, and we became totally enthralled at the Ross Goldfields Information and Heritage Centre. The kids rushed from the old miner’s cottage to the historic church to the Old Ross Gaol. The short Ross Water Race Walkway takes you past a replica miner’s hut and the historic cemetery on the hill, both well worth the walk. Our nine-year-old walked around wide-eyed and then spent the evening sketching women in old-fashioned dresses. It feels like the old miners still walk among you in Ross.

In Hokitika, we discovered the joy of the popular Lake Kaniere, where we stayed. On our hit list was a visit to the Hokitika Gorge and the Glow Worm Dell, but it was so hot and the lake so beautiful we spent most of our time jumping off the pier, finding amazing rocks and laughing at weka. The kids loved the Driftwood and Sand Beach Art Festival being held on the beach at Hokitika, especially when a seal popped out from a snooze by one of the exhibits.

Checking out the Beach Art Festival, Hokitika

En route to Reefton, we stumbled across DOC’s Brunner Mine Site Walk. This easy 2km loop (you don’t have to do it all) shows off one of the country’s earliest industrial sites – a coal mine – and commemorates our worst mining disaster, which occurred there in 1896. This was an unexpected gem.

But in Reefton, it was the Bearded Miners at the replica miner’s hut right in the middle of town that really tickled us. One of their brilliant volunteers regaled us with stories of life in the gold rush days and his own gold-hunting adventures. 

Inspired, we headed off on our own gold-panning trek the next day – self-guided with a borrowed pan. While initially delighted with the little flecks of gold the kids could see on the rocks and in the creek bed, cold feet, hands and slippery rocks got the better of the two youngest. The nine-year-old, however, had to be prised out of the creek. I think the West Coast created a new history buff, if not a prospector. If we had only had more time….

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