Extending more than 500 kilometres along the western side of the South Island, the West Coast is the longest region in New Zealand (from latitude 40°50’ to 44°15’ south). Its length is almost the same as the distance between Auckland and Wellington. Hemmed in between the mountains and the sea, only a narrow strip of land is inhabitable.
One of the wettest parts of New Zealand, the West Coast has a great extent of native forest. With spectacular scenery, including glaciers that reach down to near sea level, it has the feel of isolated, frontier country.
Although the West Coast region covers 8.7% of the land area of New Zealand, it has only 0.75% of the people. Most of the small population lives in towns near the mouths of major rivers, and the rest of the region is sparsely settled.
The West Coast is one of the few parts of New Zealand where the population has been declining – from a high of 40,136 in 1936 down to 30,300 in 2001. The population grew slightly in the early 21st century and reached 32,148 in 2013.
Traditionally, young people have left to seek jobs and adventure ‘over the hill’ in Christchurch and further afield. However, in 2013 the unemployment rate (4.7%) was lower than the national rate (7.1%).
The term West Coast is widely understood to refer to the western side of the South Island – and the locals call themselves West Coasters (or just Coasters). Westland is sometimes used in the same sense, but it officially refers to the southern part of the region. Somewhere north of Greymouth the careless speaker is likely to be admonished, ‘You’re not in Westland now; this is the Buller.’
Most West Coasters believe that they belong to a distinct group of New Zealanders. One travel writer says: ‘Nowhere in the country does the pioneer past lie so close to the surface of contemporary life. Making a living here has always been hard. Mining, timber milling, farming, fishing … They’re all hard yakker [work] and they breed hard people. Individualists, self reliant, self-contained, and like all pioneering folk, wonderfully hospitable.’ 1
Traditionally, the West Coast has a frontier male identity, based on industries such as mining and forestry. Many of the tourist attractions on the West Coast hark back to a romantic vision of gold-rush days, when miners tried to extract a living from the wild countryside.
By the 21st century the reality was a little different. Tourism and outdoor recreation had become a major part of the economy, and there was growing local support for protecting the spectacular scenery and historic heritage.
Established in Reefton in 1868, Monteith’s Brewing Company is the only remaining brewery dating back to gold-rush days. Although it is now owned by DB Breweries, and most of the beer is brewed outside the West Coast, a Monteith’s brewery in Greymouth still survives, partly as a tourist attraction.
Pubs and workingmen’s clubs have long been local gathering places on the West Coast, especially in smaller communities. Hotels officially closed at 6 p.m. from 1919 to 1967, but there was only nominal observance on the West Coast – the front door would be closed, and a coded knock would get entry through the back door. It was part of a tradition of ignoring rules or laws made in Wellington that had little local support.
Those living outside the region often perceive West Coasters as a vocal and determined pressure group. Most of the land on the West Coast is owned by the Crown. Local residents have protested regularly against government decisions about the use of native forests and other natural resources in their region.
As a consequence, West Coasters have gained the reputation of being dissatisfied with life. This gained some support from the results of a 2008 UMR poll which found that people living in the region were the least happy group in New Zealand.
Radio Scenicland, a West Coast radio station, was aptly named because the landscapes of the region are spectacular – from high peaks to low-altitude glaciers and stony beaches within a few kilometres. Mountains, including New Zealand’s highest peaks, are in sight almost everywhere. Glaciers have moulded many of the landscapes, and are responsible for many of the lakes and the bumpy moraine country.
The West Coast region lies along the boundary between the Pacific and Australian crustal plates, which are slowly grinding against each other. This stress causes rising mountains, earthquakes and landslides.
The plate boundary through the South Island is marked by the Alpine Fault. This huge feature, visible from space, forms the western edge of the Southern Alps. Land on the eastern side of the fault is rising at the rate of about a centimetre a year, making it one of the most rapidly rising mountain ranges in the world. At the same time, the rocks on each side of the fault are gradually sliding apart. Those on the western side of the Alpine Fault have moved northwards about 480 kilometres compared to those on the eastern side, so that there is a sudden change in rock type across the fault.
Blue-grey mudstone or muddy sandstone is widespread in some parts of the West Coast, and is locally called ‘blue bottom’. Gold miners quickly discovered that gold was found only in near-surface gravels, and it was not worth digging any further once the blue-grey mudstone bottom was reached.
Greywacke – hard, grey muddy sandstone with bands of shale, 200–240 million years old – makes up much of the Southern Alps. Close to the Alpine Fault, where uplift has been greatest, the deeply buried greywacke has been heated and metamorphosed into schist. Pounamu (greenstone or jade) comes mainly from a small area of schist found north-east of Hokitika.
Because the mountains are being rapidly uplifted and eroded, the dominant boulders in rivers and on the beaches are greywacke, with a smaller amount of schist.
The rocks on the western side of the Alpine Fault are more varied. The oldest rock type is greenish-grey greywacke, about 480 million years old, known as Greenland Group. Pale-coloured varieties of granite have intruded into this rock.
These older rocks were overlain by layers of softer sedimentary rocks, including sandstone, mudstone, limestone and conglomerate. Coal-bearing rocks (known as ‘coal measures’) are widespread, and coal has been mined at a number of locations. A widespread layer of limestone, now partly eroded away, forms distinctive karst (eroding limestone) landforms such as subterranean caves and the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki.
Rare boulders of an unusual greenish-grey rock containing crystals of ruby and sapphire have been found in glacial gravels near Hokitika. The rubies are not high enough quality to be regarded as gems, but the rock is prized by collectors and is on sale in Hokitika. Although originally discovered by miners, the rock is named after William Goodlet from the Otago School of Mines.
Although the rocks on the West Coast are tens to hundreds of millions of years old, the landscape is much more recent, recording the impact of glaciers and erosion over the last 500,000 years. During this period there have been six major ice ages, when glaciers filled many of the main valleys, extending out past the present coastline south of the Taramakau valley.
The last glacial period – known as the Ōtira glaciation – finished about 14,000 years ago. As the climate warmed and the glaciers retreated, rivers flowed in the previously ice-filled valleys. Post-glacial river floodplains are some of the most productive soils in the West Coast today.
Rivers and glaciers carried fine gold from the Southern Alps to the sea, and concentrated it in some locations. One of the richest areas of alluvial gold ever found was near Kumara, where river action concentrated gold at the margins of older moraines (glacial mud and gravel).
With a high rainfall, the weather is a regular topic of conversation on the West Coast. Near the coast the annual rainfall is 2,000–3,000 millimetres, and it increases rapidly closer to the mountains. More than 10,000 millimetres a year falls in a narrow zone on the western side of the Southern Alps above 1,200 metres.
Because of the regular rainfall, many rural houses get their water from rooftop tanks. After a month without rain, tanks become depleted and surface reservoirs start to dry up. When tankers are needed to cart water, it’s a West Coast drought.
Flooding is an ever-present threat. A substantial part of the budget of the West Coast Regional Council is spent on building and maintaining stopbanks along the major rivers and monitoring river levels and rainfall.
Although rainfall is high compared to the rest of New Zealand, it often occurs as high-intensity downpours. In the main towns, near the coast, more than half the days each year are fine. Average annual sunshine hours range between 1,800 and 1,900 – less than Timaru, but more than Dunedin.
A visitor to the West Coast is immediately struck by the extent of native forest. Although some of the river flats and lowlands have been logged and cleared for farming, a higher proportion of forest cover remains than in other regions.
There are two major forest types:
The absence of beech forest in the central part of the region – known as the ‘beech gap’ – is thought to be due to the extent of glaciers during the ice ages, which destroyed the vegetation in this area. When the glaciers melted, 15,000–10,000 years ago, the bare land was quickly colonised by conifer and broadleaf trees, because their seed is rapidly spread by wind and birds. In contrast, beech seeds are slow to spread.
Small black sandflies are a common annoyance on the West Coast, and will bite any area of exposed skin. While visiting the West Coast in 1892, Lord Onslow (governor of New Zealand) was badly bitten, but his companion, Richard Seddon (the local MP) was unsympathetic: ‘Let ’em bite my lord. It is very seldom they get a taste of blue blood, and they will enjoy the luxury.’ Seddon had applied insect repellent, and was delighted to show that he had not been bitten. ‘You see, they won’t touch common blood.’ 1
Because of the large forest area on the West Coast, native birds are more abundant than in most other parts of New Zealand. In general, conifer–broadleaf forest supports larger bird populations than beech forest because it is richer in food sources.
The introduction of predators such as rats and mustelids (ferrets and stoats) had a devastating effect on bird populations. Some species, such as kākāpō (the flightless native parrot), which were common in the 19th century, have now disappeared, and others have become less common. The Department of Conservation is spearheading projects to protect two populations of endangered kiwi species, each with only a few hundred individuals remaining: the Haast tokoeka kiwi and the Ōkārito brown kiwi.
There are several notable birdwatching areas in the region.
After Polynesians arrived in New Zealand, between 1250 and 1300 CE, they started to explore the country. Pounamu (greenstone or jade) was soon discovered on the West Coast, mainly in the area around the Arahura River. Because of its hardness and durability, pounamu was prized for making tools, weapons and ornaments. By the late 1300s it was being transported around the country and traded.
In Māori tradition, Poutini was a much travelled taniwha (water monster). While visiting Tūhua (Mayor Island) he saw a beautiful woman, Waitaiki, and seized her. Pursued by her husband, Tamaāhua, Poutini fled to the South Island, but was trapped in the Arahura valley, where he cast Waitaiki into the river to form pounamu. The tributary of the Arahura River where much of the pounamu originates is called the Waitaiki (Olderog) Stream. Nearby Mt Tūhua commemorates the place from where she was abducted.
Evidence of the extent of Māori occupation of the West Coast comes from archaeological investigations. Sites were occupied along the whole length of the region, mainly close to the coast, and especially at lagoons and rivermouths where fish and shellfish were available. The written and archaeological evidence suggests that the total population at any one time was in the hundreds rather than thousands.
The tribal affiliations of the earliest settlers are uncertain, but they are generally thought to have been Waitaha, the first settlers of the South Island. The West Coast was occupied by Ngāti Wairangi in the 16th or 17th centuries. By the time of first European contact in the early 19th century Ngāti Waewae, a hapū of Ngāi Tahu, claimed ownership of much of the West Coast. They came to be known as Poutini Ngāi Tahu.
The main Māori settlements on the West Coast were probably between the Māwheranui (Grey) and Hokitika rivers – the main pounamu-gathering area. Trade routes across the Southern Alps became established, and Kaiapoi pā in north Canterbury was a major trading centre.
In 1831–32 a Ngāti Rārua group, led by Niho and Takere, invaded the West Coast from the north. They defeated Poutini Ngāi Tahu and remained in occupation, controlling the main pounamu gathering sites. Ngāti Rārua withdrew in 1837, leaving Poutini Ngāi Tahu again in control of the whole region. Those who lived close to the Arahura River collected and traded boulders of pounamu.
In 1826 John Boultbee, a sealer, estimated the Māori population of South Westland at about 500, including an important settlement at Ōkahu (Jackson Bay). When explorers Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy travelled along the coast in 1846–48, they found thriving small Māori communities. But when James Mackay visited the region in 1857, he estimated the total population at only 100–200, presumably because of the devastating effects of infectious diseases such as influenza and measles, which had been introduced by Europeans. By this time the settlement at Ōkahu was deserted.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries the Māori population remained small. In 2013 there were around 3,000 Māori on the West Coast – 10.5% of the region’s population. They support two rūnanga (regional collective bodies), Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae in Greymouth and Hokitika, and Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio in South Westland.
Abel Tasman’s first view of New Zealand on 13 December 1642 was from off the West Coast. He described ‘a large land, uplifted high’ – the Southern Alps, or perhaps the Paparoa Range. James Cook had a similar view in 1770. For both explorers the weather was poor, so they stayed well out to sea and were able to do little more than sketch in the coastline and mountain peaks. They could tell that the land was forest-covered and the coastline lacked sheltered anchorages. Appropriately, one of the few West Coast features named by Cook was Cape Foulwind.
Although most of the North Island and the eastern side of the South Island had been explored by the mid-1840s, the West Coast had hardly been visited by Europeans, apart from a few sealing parties. It was known to be forest-covered and mountainous, with high rainfall, so seemed unattractive for immediate settlement.
The search for land suitable for farming close to the Nelson area led to three major exploring expeditions between 1846 and 1848 by Thomas Brunner and Kehu (a Māori guide), accompanied by Charles Heaphy on the first two trips. They traced the Buller River from its source to the sea, traversed the Grey and Īnangahua valleys, and explored and mapped the coastline as far south as the mouth of the Paringa River.
Exhausted and unwell at the end of his final trip, Brunner concluded that there was no worthwhile land on the West Coast. Until 1857 there was little European interest in the region.
In the late 1850s a shortage of agricultural land in Canterbury and Nelson led to renewed interest in the West Coast. Before Europeans could settle on the land, it was necessary to come to an agreement with the Māori occupants, Poutini Ngāi Tahu.
After the Arahura Deed was signed, it was accidentally immersed in the Grey (Māwhera) River when James Mackay upset his canoe. Although the signatures are clear, some of the writing is smudged. Legend has it that Mackay was reprimanded for not taking better care of such an important document.
In 1859 James Mackay was instructed by the government to purchase the land. After detailed negotiations, the Arahura Deed was signed by leading Poutini Ngāi Tahu chiefs on 21 May 1860. The whole of the West Coast region, apart from small areas reserved for local Māori, was sold to the Crown for £300 (about $36,000 in 2019 terms). One of the reserved areas was the settlement of Māwhera, part of the present town of Greymouth.
In November 1859, surveyor John Rochfort found gold in several places on the West Coast, including the Taramakau valley and lower Buller Gorge. Over the next four years a trickle of prospectors explored parts of the West Coast, but there were no major gold finds. At the end of 1863 the total population (Māori and Pākehā) was probably less than 300. The Otago goldfield (discovered in 1861) seemed more attractive, and as that declined there was a rush to Wakamarina (Marlborough) in early 1864.
Geologist Julius Haast was astonished at how quickly Hokitika had expanded when he visited in April 1865. He recorded, ‘The principal street, half a mile long, consisted already of a large numbers of hotels, banks and dwelling-houses, and appeared as a scene of almost indescribable bustle and activity … there was shouting and bell-ringing, deafening to the passers-by; criers at every corner of the principal streets which were filled with people – a scene I had never before witnessed in New Zealand.’ 1
The discovery of payable quantities of alluvial gold in Greenstone Creek near Hokitika in mid-1864 led to a major gold rush. The time was right – floods and poor returns at Wakamarina had left prospectors ready for new fields. By late 1864 further discoveries had been made near Hokitika, and the population had swelled to over 1,000.
With a succession of gold discoveries in different parts of the West Coast through 1865 and 1866, the population exploded, peaking at about 28,700 in late 1867. In only three turbulent years the main towns had been laid out.
It has been suggested that the total population of the West Coast at the time of the gold rushes may have reached 50,000 or more. However, analysis of data including the 1867 census results suggests that the West Coast population at the height of the gold rushes that year was about 28,700 – a few thousand less than in the early 2000s.
With a population of 4,866, Hokitika was the largest town. Greymouth and Westport each had less than 2,000.
Although alluvial gold had been found in many places, the richest sites were soon exhausted, and miners began to look for other work. There was still employment for miners in large sluicing claims and underground mines, and also in building roads and railways.
An outflow of single miners was partly balanced by continuing immigration, including of single women, wives and families. The population dropped by a few thousand after 1867, but gradually increased again after 1882.
Most of the early European settlers arrived on the West Coast independently, under the spell of gold. West Coasters are proud that most of their ancestors arrived under their own steam, rather than as assisted emigrants.
Most of the miners who arrived on the West Coast had been born in the United Kingdom (which then included the whole of Ireland). More than a third were Irish, many of whom came via Victoria, Australia, where they had gained mining experience. The proportion of Irish settlers was much higher on the West Coast than elsewhere in New Zealand, where emigration schemes gave preference to English and Scots emigrants.
After 1867 several distinct groups settled on the West Coast:
In 1875 immigrants were recruited by the government for a special settlement at Jackson Bay, to work in farming and forestry. Most were from non-English speaking parts of Europe such as Germany and Italy. The climate was too wet and by the late 1870s most had left for Otago.
After the 1880s the proportion of Irish immigrants dropped dramatically, while Scottish arrivals increased to over 30%. English immigrants were consistently the dominant group. The Reefton gold mines had problems recruiting experienced hard-rock miners, and attracted a steady flow of miners from Cornwall, where the industry was in decline.
The Buller County Council gained notoriety in the late 1970s and early 1980s for its hostility to people living unconventional lifestyles. They demolished a solar-powered house built by activist Owen Wilkes because he had refused to get a building permit, and prosecuted residents of the Stone Kingdom community near Karamea for living in tent-like houses.
The West Coast had a steady decline in population during the second half of the 20th century. However, there was a small inflow of people from elsewhere in New Zealand, often attracted by the availability of cheap land. From the 1960s they included people living what were seen to be unconventional lifestyles, such as those in organised communities. Collectively grouped together by locals as ‘hippies’, they were not always welcomed.
Although the numbers were small, this group has been responsible for the development of craft industries and organic farming.
Population movements over 140 years have resulted in a population that is predominantly of European heritage. In the 2013 census, ethnicity statistics showed only 10.5% Māori (compared with 14.9% for New Zealand overall), 1.0% Pacific Island (compared to 7.4%), 2.2% Asian (11.8% nationally) and 0.4% Middle Eastern, Latin American and African (1.2%).
In 1853 New Zealand was divided into semi-autonomous provinces. Because the West Coast was virtually uninhabited, it was split between Nelson and Canterbury provinces, with the boundary along the Grey River/Māwheranui.
Although most of the miners who arrived in 1865–67 had little interest in politics, they protested against the unwillingness of the Canterbury provincial government to spend money on goldfields infrastructure. In late 1867 the central government created the County of Westland, which became Westland province in 1873. The northern part of the West Coast (Buller) remained part of Nelson until provincial governments were abolished in 1876.
Initially voting was restricted to property-owning men, but the Westland Representation Act 1867 extended the vote to holders of a miner’s right (a permit to mine).
Until 1902 the West Coast had five members of Parliament, but the number declined over the 20th century as the population of the rest of the country increased relative to that of the West Coast. In the early 2010s the single electorate, West Coast–Tasman, extended northwards into the Nelson region. Those on the Māori roll voted in Te Tai Tonga electorate.
After arriving in Hokitika in 1866 from England, via the Victorian goldfields, Richard Seddon worked as a gold miner, storekeeper, miner’s advocate and publican at Kumara. Elected as member of Parliament for Hokitika in 1879, he was to represent parts of Westland for the next 27 years.
Always a strong advocate for local issues, he endlessly raised in Parliament matters such as the rights of miners and the management of the Waimea sludge channel. When the Liberal Party took power in 1891, he was the obvious choice as minister of mines.
Seddon was known to look after his constituents. According to an often-told but unauthenticated story, a West Coaster appeared in his office one day, and asked for a job. He was given a note to a departmental head requesting that a job be found for him. Some time later Seddon received a memo explaining that the man could neither read nor write. It was immediately returned with a scribbled note from Seddon, ‘Then learn him.’ 1
With the death of John Ballance in 1893, Seddon became premier. An unashamed populist, King Dick (as he was known) toured the country tirelessly. His speeches always contained references to his adopted home on the West Coast, and he ensured that public works there were pushed ahead with vigour. Commemorated with statues in Hokitika and Wellington, he is remembered with great affection on the West Coast.
Underground coal mining was dangerous, with many accidents and fatalities. The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894, introduced by the Seddon government, made it difficult for unions to take direct industrial action to improve conditions.
In February 1908, Blackball miners went on strike for a 30-minute lunch break rather than the 15 minutes they were allowed under their award. This so-called ‘crib-time’ strike escalated, catching the public imagination when Judge William Sim, in the Greymouth court, took a 90-minute lunch adjournment before fining the miners for their illegal strike. It was the symbolic start of a campaign to discredit the arbitration system. Leaders included unionists Paddy Webb, Pat Hickey and Bob Semple, all later prominent in the labour movement.
There were bitter battles within the labour movement on the West Coast. Paddy Webb had been a leader in the 1908 Blackball strike and was imprisoned during the First World War for his opposition to conscription. But when he stood as a Labour candidate in the Buller by-election in 1933 he was opposed by unionist Angus McLagan, who argued that Webb was a capitalist in disguise because he had worked as a coal merchant. Both men later served in the cabinet of the first Labour government.
For many years the West Coast was a centre of radical union activity, based around coal miners. Paddy Webb, Harry Holland and James O’Brien were later elected as Labour MPs, representing West Coast electorates, and Bob Semple and Angus McLagan were Labour MPs in other areas.
Although the West Coast has a reputation as a stronghold of the labour movement, this is sometimes overstated. Miners were often reluctant to go on strike, and cooperative mining groups, farmers and small businessmen opposed the large unions. More than once, strong independent candidates threatened the hold of local Labour MPs. In 1990 Margaret Moir was elected as the first National MP in the region, although she lasted only one term. Chris Auchinvole also won the seat for National in 2008, but Labour’s Damien O'Connor won it back in 2011 and still held it in 2020.
Archaeological investigations show that pounamu (greenstone or jade) from the West Coast was traded throughout New Zealand by early Māori. Most of the main passes across the Southern Alps were known to trading parties. The amount of pounamu that was transported was limited to what could be carried.
The West Coast gold rushes led to a huge influx of miners and traders in 1865–67. Many arrived by sea, either directly from the Victorian goldfields in Australia, or by small coastal ships from Christchurch, Dunedin or Nelson. River ports developed at Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport.
Being closest to the goldfields, Hokitika boomed initially. It proved a treacherous port, with many shipwrecks.
A coach road across Arthur’s Pass was opened in 1866, after a search for an overland route to Christchurch. A telegraph line gave rapid communication from Christchurch to Greymouth and Hokitika.
Because of the number of shipwrecks, Hokitika’s port was eventually abandoned. The port of Karamea silted up after the 1929 Murchison earthquake. Only the river ports of Greymouth and Westport are still in use, mainly by fishing boats. These ports can only handle relatively small ships, with limited cargo capacity.
Railways were the only feasible way to move bulk commodities such as coal and timber. By 1876 a line had been constructed from Brunner to Greymouth, so bituminous coal could be exported by sea. In 1879 a steep cable railway was built to transport coal from Denniston, 600 metres above sea level, to Waimangaroa. From there it was taken to the port of Westport.
Over the succeeding decades railways were gradually extended throughout the region. The Ōtira tunnel, through the Southern Alps near Arthur’s Pass, was completed in 1923, allowing connection to the national rail network. A difficult section through the lower Buller Gorge was completed in 1944, allowing the Westport line to be connected to the rail network. However, the planned section through the upper Buller Gorge, to link up with Nelson, was never started.
Since the opening of the Ōtira tunnel, the rail system has been mainly used to export raw or partly processed materials from the West Coast. In 2007 the main cargo was coal from the Buller and Grey coalfields, being transported to the port of Lyttelton for export. Substantial amounts of cement from Westport and milk powder from Hokitika were also transported.
Before mining could start in remote areas, it was necessary to build a dray road capable of transporting heavy machinery. Several companies blew all their investors’ money (and often money from local bodies) on building an access road, and then found that they couldn’t make a profit from mining. The Croesus Track near Blackball, the Mount Greenland track near Ross, and the Kirwans Track near Reefton are all relics of unsuccessful mining ventures.
From the gold rush onwards, horse tracks were gradually converted to dray roads, capable of transporting people and goods. The road through the upper Buller Gorge was opened in 1882, providing a direct route to Nelson, and the Lewis Pass route was completed in the 1930s.
South Westland remained relatively isolated until the Haast Pass road to Wanaka was opened in 1965. That road is now part of a popular tourist circuit around the South Island.
Because of the isolation of the West Coast, aeroplanes have been used for transporting people and cargo since the 1930s. The first scheduled commercial air service in New Zealand started in 1934 between Hokitika and Franz Josef.
Regional airports at Westport and Hokitika have regular flights to other parts of New Zealand. There are smaller airfields at other centres.
The discovery of payable quantities of gold in late 1864 sent miners swarming across the area between Greymouth and Hokitika, with rushes further south to Ross, Ōkārito, Gillespies Beach and Bruce Bay. The tide changed in early 1866, with rushes northwards to Brighton (near Fox River), Charleston, the Grey Valley and the coastal area north of Westport.
The West Coast’s peak production of gold – more than 15 tonnes – occurred in 1866–67, and yields declined rapidly thereafter. During this period most of the claims were small. Equipment was relatively primitive, and sluicing was small-scale. The easily won alluvial gold was soon exhausted, and sluicing and dredging on a larger scale was needed to find gold.
Miner’s phthisis (silicosis) was one of the most dreaded hazards of working in the quartz mines near Reefton. Inhaling quartz dust over a time led to breathing problems that were often fatal. The Miners Phthisis Act 1915 provided some financial compensation, and gradually led to improved working conditions.
The discovery of gold-bearing quartz veins led to the opening of hard-rock mines in the Reefton–Lyell area. Ore obtained from the mines was transported out of the mine and crushed in a stamper battery to recover the gold.
During a dredging boom in the early 1900s there were 40–50 dredges on the West Coast, but these had largely disappeared by the First World War. Larger electric dredges were developed in the 1920s and 1930s, often with overseas capital.
The West Coast is the only part of New Zealand where high-quality bituminous coal is found. The main coalfields (Greymouth, Reefton and Buller) had been discovered by the early 1860s, and production was soon underway. There was a strong demand for bituminous coal as fuel for steamships, railway locomotives and industrial boilers, as well as for coal gas production.
In the early 1900s the German navy was concerned about the wartime supply of high-quality coal for their warships in the Pacific Ocean. They identified the Buller coalfield as a possible source, and suggested that in an emergency it might be necessary to occupy Westport and the surrounding area. Fortunately these plans were never put into action.
The quality of West Coast coal got worldwide publicity in 1889 when the Calliope, a British warship, was the only one of seven warships to survive a hurricane in Apia harbour, Samoa. Using coal from Denniston, it was fired up quickly and able to escape from the harbour. The Westport Coal Company featured this incident in their advertising for the next 50 years.
West Coast coal production reached 1 million tonnes in 1907, and fluctuated around that level for the next 50 years.
Because the price of gold was fixed for much of the 20th century, gold mining gradually became less profitable. The last underground mine closed in 1951, and after that there was only small production from a single dredge.
The demand for bituminous coal decreased from the mid-1950s as ships and trains switched to oil, coal gas was replaced by natural gas and electricity, and less coal was used for household heating.
The price of gold was allowed to float from 1973 and rapidly rose, leading to increased interest in gold mining. Many small alluvial operations were able to work ground that had previously been inaccessible or lacked water. A dredge in the Grey Valley worked river flats in the 1990s.
After several years of prospecting and drilling, OceanaGold started producing ore from a large, hard-rock opencast pit near Reefton in 2007. The partly processed ore was transported by rail to Otago, where the gold was extracted. The Reefton mine closed in 2016, having produced 610,000 ounces of gold.
From the 1990s there was a revival in coal production. High-quality bituminous coal from the West Coast was in demand overseas, particularly for specialised smelter operations. By 2013 annual coal production was 2.5 million tonnes, most of which was exported.
The Pike River underground coal mine on the Paparoa Range was opened by Pike River Coal in 2008. On 19 November 2010 a massive explosion occurred in the mine. Twenty-nine men working in the pit at the bottom were killed. Two men survived the explosion because they were in an access tunnel some distance from the pit. Rescue teams were prevented from entering the mine because the situation was too dangerous, and a second explosion occurred on 24 November.
The Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy was established in 2010 to investigate the tragedy. Pike River Coal went into receivership, and the mine was bought by the state-owned Solid Energy in 2012. Solid Energy decided not to retrieve the bodies because it considered the mine remained too dangerous to enter. Some families objected to this decision and the tragedy remained a source of bitterness for many West Coasters. Solid Energy went into liquidation in 2018. In the same year, the government decided that an attempt would be made to re-enter the mine and recover the entry tunnel by 2020. This was done at a cost of $51 million.
The variety of rock types on the West Coast is reflected in a wide range of soil types. The soils used for agriculture in lowland areas can be generalised as three broad groups:
The arrival of gold miners led to the development of small farms that provided vegetables, potatoes and dairy products, as well as some hay and chaff for horses. Sheep and cattle were driven over passes from Canterbury to provide meat for the miners.
In the 1880s the West Coast had more than 30% of the domestic goats in New Zealand. Goats were the typical dairy animal of the gold miner – able to scavenge in the bush, and giving a fair return of milk for minimal attention. Thousands of their descendants roam the bush today.
With a high rainfall spread across the year, and a moderate climate, there is a ready supply of grass, and cattle can live outdoors all year. After paddocks were fenced, sheep were introduced, but the climate is generally too damp for successful sheep farming.
Changing technology in the early 20th century led to the development of the dairy industry. Cows could be milked by machine, and cream could be mechanically separated. On the West Coast this led to the development of a chain of small farmer-owned dairy companies, from Ōkuru in the south to Karamea in the north, producing mainly butter.
Buoyant international prices for dairy products from the mid-1980s led farmers to reduce sheep numbers and move into dairying. By 1999 the West Coast had become the only region where there were more dairy cows than sheep.
As rivers were bridged and roads improved after the Second World War, there was a gradual amalgamation of dairy companies. The Westland Co-operative Dairy Company became dominant, and gradually absorbed other companies – Arahura, Harihari, Greymouth, Reefton, and finally Karamea in 1987. By that time, tankers were calling daily at farms to collect milk rather than cream, and transporting the milk back to a central factory that produced milk powder and a range of other products, as well as butter and cheese. The company was reconstituted as Westland Milk Products, one of the few dairy companies independent of Fonterra, which dominates the industry in the rest of New Zealand. In 2019 Westland Milk Products was sold to the Yili Group, a Chinese dairy company.
In 2014 tankers from the Westland Milk Products factory in Hokitika collected 750 million litres of milk from 425 farms spread between Karamea and Franz Josef.
An increasing demand for land suitable for dairying has led to the developments of two techniques to improve wet soils, both using modern hydraulic excavators.
Both techniques involve adding fertiliser (often a special ‘pākihi mix’) and reseeding with grass. Overall there has been a substantial rise in agricultural production, and some previously abandoned land has been turned into farmland.
Although the earliest European settlers were surrounded by trees, they were able to make little use of timber apart from building houses. Transport difficulties meant that timber could not be easily moved far, let alone exported from the region.
The timber trade increased by the start of the 20th century, once timber could be transported to ports by rail. A number of mills were opened, with modern, steam-driven machinery. In 1910–11, 20% of New Zealand’s timber came from the West Coast.
Rimu was the dominant species milled. Beech trees were generally left standing, although they were sometimes harvested for use as pit props in the mines.
In 1920 New Zealand Forest Service investigations revealed that the total area of remaining native forest suitable for milling was much less than expected. The West Coast was the main area that still had substantial areas of native conifers such as rimu. Much of the forested area on the West Coast was designated as a state forest, and protected as a future source of timber.
National parks were created at Arthur’s Pass (1929), around Franz Josef and Fox glaciers (Westland Tai Poutini National Park, 1960), and in the area around and west of Mt Aspiring (1964). All were in mountainous areas that did not contain much millable timber.
The Maruia Declaration, first signed in July 1975, called for an end to logging of native forest. It was a divisive issue. Some West Coasters were in favour of logging because they wanted to see economic development, while many of those who signed the declaration (and subsequent petition) lived outside the region.
A gradual change in public opinion led to progressive protection of lowland native forest. Westland Tai Poutini National Park was extended to include adjacent lowland forest, Paparoa National Park was created in 1987, and Kahurangi National Park in 1996. Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, designated in 1990, covers all the forests in South Westland.
Logging of native forest on the West Coast effectively ended in the late 1990s. In 2000 the new Labour-led government agreed to pay $120 million in compensation to assist the West Coast economy. Most of this money is managed by Development West Coast.
Some areas were planted in exotic trees, mainly radiata pine, in the 1970s and 1980s. From the early 2000s this was harvested by local sawmills, but the amount of timber available is much less than previously estimated.
The seas adjacent to the West Coast cover the Challenger Plateau, a rich area for fishing. Boats mainly work out of Greymouth and Hokitika. Species such as blue cod, groper and sole are the traditional catch, but deeper-water species such as hoki, tuna, squid and orange roughy are also harvested.
The Westport Deep Sea Fishing School provides practical training for students who hope to enter the fishing industry.
Although West Coasters always insist that the whitebait yield in the current year is poor, there are many stories about its abundance in the past. It is often recalled that whitebait were so common during the 1930s depression that people dug them into their gardens as fertiliser and fed them to the hens. One of the earliest whitebait stories came in 1847 from explorer Thomas Brunner, who noted that whitebait were so abundant that dogs licked them up from the river banks.
Although whitebait are caught in rivers all round New Zealand, the largest returns are obtained from the West Coast, where whitebaiting is an important seasonal industry. Some families move to a cottage near their favoured site for the season.
Whitebait is a high-value commodity – in the 2010s the retail price was over $100 a kilogram. Regulations cover mesh and net size, placement of nets, and the hours for fishing. On the West Coast, the whitebait season is from 1 September to 14 November, a month shorter than in the rest of the country. Set nets are allowed in some rivers, but must be licensed. There is no limit on the amount an individual can catch as long as they are following the rules. Once caught and washed, whitebait are usually frozen and stored for later use.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the West Coast was remote, with poor roads, and so there were few tourists. Most climbers and trampers preferred the eastern side of the Southern Alps, where the rainfall was lower. The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers attracted a steady trickle of visitors, but this involved a lengthy car or bus journey.
The Graham family provided guiding services and ran the Glacier Hotel at Franz Josef from 1911 until 1948, when they sold out to the Tourist Department. After the hotel burnt down in 1954, it was not rebuilt for over a decade.
Greymouth geologist Paul Caffyn is an internationally known sea kayaker. His first major trip in 1978 was a circumnavigation of the South Island, starting at Tewaewae Bay. Since then he has paddled his way into the record books with trips around the North Island, Japan, Great Britain, Australia and New Caledonia, as well as along the entire coastline of Alaska.
The opening of the Haast Pass road in 1965 made it possible to include a visit to the glaciers in a circuit of the South Island. The rebuilt hotel at Franz Josef was the first modern accommodation on the West Coast, soon followed by the development of other hotels and motels. There is now a well-defined tourist route starting at Christchurch, crossing the Southern Alps over Arthur’s Pass, stopping at Greymouth or Hokitika, then driving south to the glaciers before heading over Haast Pass to Wānaka, Queenstown and Milford Sound.
By 2006 visitor numbers to the West Coast had risen to 1.9 million a year, most of whom visited the glaciers. Almost 60% of the visitors were from overseas. Most stayed for only one night, so much of their time was spent travelling and they saw only a limited part of the region.
In April 1995 a viewing platform collapsed at Cave Creek, in a remote part of Paparoa National Park, causing the deaths of 14 people, mostly students at Tai Poutini Polytechnic. The platform had been constructed by the Department of Conservation, but building techniques and inspection were inadequate. The resulting commission of enquiry led to much greater emphasis on safety and professional standards in outdoor recreation throughout New Zealand.
The forestry debates in the later part of the 20th century ultimately led to large areas of lowland forest being made reserves. In the 2010s the Department of Conservation managed 1.9 million hectares on the West Coast, about 25% of the protected public land in New Zealand. This included part or all of five national parks (Arthur’s Pass, Mt Aspiring, Kahurangi, Paparoa and Westland Tai Poutini) and Victoria Forest Park, as well as Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
The designation of national parks has led to the development of a network of visitor centres, as well as tracks and walkways to sites of natural and historic interest, which are mainly used by tourists.
Local authorities have enthusiastically supported tourism throughout the West Coast.
Several museums reflecting the history of local areas have been developed: Coaltown Museum in Westport; History House Museum in Greymouth; Blacks Point Museum near Reefton; and the West Coast Historical Museum at Hokitika.
Shantytown Heritage Park, south of Greymouth, is a reconstructed gold mining town where visitors can try their hand at gold panning, visit a sawmill, and ride on a steam train. Built by volunteers, it has been a popular attraction ever since it opened in 1971.
Serious gold mining requires a mining licence and appropriate resource consents. To cater for people interested in recreational gold panning, eight areas administered by the Department of Conservation have been set aside on the West Coast as gold-fossicking areas, where gold pans or sluice boxes can be used. All have good access, and several have picnic and camping facilities.
Outdoor sports such as rugby, football and netball have a strong following, especially at a social level. The small population inevitably means that representative teams are weak compared to other provinces, and talented sportspeople often move to larger centres.
Neither the Buller nor the West Coast rugby football teams have ever held the Ranfurly Shield (the century-old provincial rugby trophy), although they have challenged for it regularly over the years. Buller drew with Otago (6 all) in 1949, but Otago retained the shield.
Despite the small population, there are two rugby unions (Buller and West Coast), partly because the distances are too large for individuals to travel across the whole region for games. Buller has been the more successful of the two in recent decades, twice reaching the final of the Meads Cup for minor unions, and winning the second-tier Lochore Cup in 2012.
Rugby league, traditionally associated with coal miners, is strong around Greymouth, and the West Coast has held the national league trophy on a number of occasions. There was always a shortage of players so, despite the rivalry between rugby codes, some younger sportsmen played union on Saturday and league on Sunday.
Multi-sport and endurance races have been growing in popularity. The annual Coast to Coast race, which involves mountain running, road cycling and kayaking, starts at Kumara beach, crosses the Southern Alps, and ends at Sumner beach in Christchurch.
Working-class life in West Coast coal mining towns has inspired many writers, including Bill Pearson (Coal flat), Eric Beardsley (Blackball 08), Jenny Pattrick (The Denniston rose), Mervyn Thompson (Coaltown blues), and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (The late great Blackball bridge sonnets).
Peter Hooper (A song in the forest) was inspired by the landscapes and changing climate of the West Coast. In his play The gods of warm beer (2008), Peter Hawes explores personal conflicts related to the rivalry between rugby union and league in Westport in the 1950s. The bone people, by Ōkārito resident Keri Hulme, published in 1984, is set partly on the West Coast. It won Britain's Booker Prize in 1985. The luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, the only other New Zealand novel to win the Man Booker Prize (in 2013), was also set on the West Coast – in Hokitika during the 1860s gold rush.
The West Coast gold rushes, by Phil May (1962), was a landmark in New Zealand historical writing, in its move away from political events to social history. It helped inspire interest in the historic heritage of the West Coast, and has been followed by many local histories.
More than a dozen local newspapers have been published over the years, but only two daily papers remained in the 2010s: the Westport News and the Greymouth Star. The Grey River Argus (1865–1966) has special significance for historical research, as for many years it was the only New Zealand daily to present the news from a left-wing viewpoint.
Many 19th- and early 20th-century artists were fascinated by the landscapes of the Southern Alps and the West Coast, although painting often meant enduring sandfly bites and a damp climate. Petrus van der Velden visited the Ōtira area many times, and made more than 20 paintings of the striking river scenery.
Among many photographers who have specialised in West Coast landscape and the bush, Andris Apse and Craig Potton are noteworthy.
Film-maker Gaylene Preston and cinematographer Alun Bollinger both have West Coast roots.
The West Coast’s good-quality kaolin clays have been used in pottery, both locally and outside the region. There are a number of pottery workshops, the most long-standing being Hector Pottery, north of Westport, which produces ware reflecting the colour and textures of the West Coast landscape.
Boulders of pounamu (greenstone or jade) are found close to Hokitika, and many stone-carving workshops have grown up since the 1970s. Modern carvers use fast-cutting diamond tools. A large quantity of tourist souvenirs are produced, and a number of skilled carvers (including Theo Schoon and Ian Boustridge) have produced high-quality jewellery, often incorporating Māori designs.
Traditionally, the West Coast’s economy depended on the export of raw materials – timber, coal and gold. A decline in jobs in these sectors from 1960 to 2000, followed by the ban on milling native timber, seemed disastrous. But this has been more than offset by rapid growth in dairy production and tourism. Both areas have potential for considerable growth.
The expansion in dairying reflects a change across the whole country, but it also builds on the natural advantages of the West Coast, with high rainfall and a temperate climate allowing the year-round growth of grass.
Increased tourism has led to the growth of accommodation and tourist facilities throughout the West Coast.
Mining continued to play a significant part in the economy of the West Coast in the 21st century. The traditional underground mine has largely disappeared, and modern mines use mechanised equipment and earth-moving machinery. OceanaGold’s opencast mine at Reefton opened in 2007 but closed in 2016.
In the past, most of those seeking post-secondary school education had to travel to Christchurch or further afield, often never to return. The development of Tai Poutini Polytechnic, based at Greymouth (with campuses in 2020 at Westport, Reefton, Auckland, Christchurch and Wānaka) has allowed for the growth of vocational education on the West Coast. As well as providing training in a range of trades, business and hospitality, it offered programmes in outdoor education and ecotourism, and the only course in New Zealand in jade and hard-stone carving. Its Ecotourism Centre of Excellence regularly hosted a national ecotourism conference.
For many years the small Māori population of the West Coast was virtually invisible. Despite the agreement between Poutini Ngāi Tahu and the Crown, signed in 1860, local Māori lost ownership of pounamu (greenstone or jade) in the Arahura valley, rental income from the town of Greymouth was capped at a very low level, and most of the promised reserves were never established.
As part of the Ngai Tahu Claim Settlement Act 1998, there was a substantial financial settlement, and control of pounamu resources was returned to groups within Ngāi Tahu. Ownership of pounamu in the Arahura River catchment is vested in the Māwhera Incorporation.
In 2020 there were two West Coast rūnanga (collective bodies for districts), based on long-established communities: Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio (associated with Bruce Bay) and Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae (associated with Arahura). In 2005 a new marae was opened at Bruce Bay, indicating the renaissance of the Māori community there.
In 2001 the West Coast Development Trust (now Development West Coast) was formed to manage, invest and distribute money received from the government in compensation for the ending of native-timber logging on the West Coast. This provided a fund to assist local economic development, education and business training on the West Coast.
Acknowledgements to Warren Inwood, Judith Nathan, Brian Wood and Les Wright
(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)
(Multiple responses allowed)
Poutini Ngāi Tahu
(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)
Beck, Russell J., and Maika Mason. New Zealand jade: mana pounamu. Auckland: Reed, 2002.
Coates, Glen. The rise and fall of the Southern Alps. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2002.
May, Philip Ross, ed. Miners and militants: politics in Westland, 1865–1918. Christchurch: Whitcoulls for the University of Canterbury, 1975.
May, Philip Ross. The West Coast gold rushes. 2nd ed. Christchurch: Pegasus, 1967.
McKerrow, Bob. Ebenezer Teichelmann: pioneer New Zealand mountaineer, explorer, surgeon, photographer and conservationist: cutting across continents. New Delhi: Tara-India Research Press, 2005.
Rogers, Anna. Illustrated history of the West Coast. Auckland: Reed, 2005.