The middle reaches of the Grey Valley and its tributary valleys are one of the largest areas of flat farmland on the West Coast. In the rain shadow of the Paparoa Range, the western side of the valley has lower rainfall than the surrounding area, and has traditionally been regarded as good sheep country, although dairying is increasing.
The main settlements in the Grey Valley are small farming centres, from north to south:
- Tōtara Flat
The flat farming land is surrounded by dissected hill country, formed mainly of brown gravel and sand. Much of it has been cleared of native vegetation and planted in exotic trees, mainly radiata pine for forestry.
During past ice ages, glaciers extended down most of the eastern tributaries of the Grey. The furthest extent of the glaciers is marked by terminal moraines (a hummocky belt of gravel and mud) that now hold in lakes such as Brunner (Moana), Hochstetter and Haupiri.
The gravels in the Grey Valley contain concentrations of gold, but in low quantities. In the 1870s and 1880s there were many gold workings by individuals and small parties, and evidence for past working can be seen in the recreation area near Nelson Creek. The most profitable way to work low-grade gravels is by dredging, and there were many dredges in the area from the 1890s onwards. In the late 20th century a large dredge worked an area in the central part of the Grey Valley around Ngahere.
Downstream from Stillwater the Grey River/Māwheranui flows through a narrow gorge. Stillwater is a rail and road junction, with routes going north (to Reefton), south (through the gorge to Greymouth) and east (to Lake Brunner (Moana) and Arthur’s Pass). The nearby Kōkiri meat works is the central abattoir and packing works for the whole region.
Lake Brunner (Moana)
This lake’s full Māori name is Moana Kōtuku, meaning the sea of white herons. The nearby farming settlement of Kōtuku has a historic school and oil seeps – evidence of the petroleum potential of the West Coast.
A popular recreational lake, it is used for boating, kayaking and trout fishing. The settlement of Moana on the north side of the lake is a weekend resort, often referred to as an outlying suburb of Christchurch as it can be easily reached by rail or in less than three hours by road.
Gloriavale is a conservative Christian community near Lake Haupiri. The sect’s members live, work and worship together, and do not individually own property. They run one of the largest dairy farms on the West Coast, with 1,200 cows, as well as deer, ostriches and a few sheep. Other business ventures include aircraft maintenance (Avkair), sphagnum moss processing and oil exploration. The community runs its own school and early childhood centres. In 2015 there were around 500 people in the community. That year families leaving Gloriavale attracted widespread media attention.