To Karamea and back
26.12.2015 - 28.12.2015
Westport strikes me as a town at the end of the line (this is not necessarily a bad thing). You drive over the Buller River and up its long main street, to find that it terminates at the edge of the river. In ways I can't describe, the town also has an end of the line vibe. Kaitaia feels the same to me. But it is not the end of the line: by turning right half way up its main street, there is more - 100 km of gloriously wild coastline, coal mines, country music museums, pizza parlours in cowsheds and historic sites before you get to Karamea. Even then, for the determined, there is more: a multi day walk over the Heaphy Track will see you emerge near Golden Bay.
I spent a couple of days north of Westport, parked up in a holiday park in Seddonville, a tiny settlement named in honour of former PM Richard ("King Dick") Seddon: I don't think he had any connection to the town, although he adopted the Coast as his home when he arrived in New Zealand (and was Mayor of Kumara). Seddonville was a mining town, and as far north as the West Coast railway line came - it sits just across the Mokihinui River from the Karamea Bluff, which is a major obstacle for trains. The camping ground is very low key, in the former school with check in at the local pub. There were just an older couple - who come every year for the fishing (the man grew up here and went to school in the very building used for the camp facilities) - a family in some tents, and a group of indeterminate size in a large converted bus.
There are actually three camping grounds in this area - the Mokihinui Domain ground is on the southern side of the rivermouth and the Gentle Annie is to the north. The former didn't look very appealing and I found my place before I drove in to the Gentle Annie - a busy park in a beautiful spot.
It is here I found the pizza place in the cowshed: the people who ran the farm found that a lot of people wanted to stay, so they turned over some land to camping, and that business grew to the point it was better to stop the dairying and provide some food. After a few years, they contracted out the food side of the business, which led to an odd system of payment. You can pay for camping with a credit card, but for food it is either cash or direct payment from your bank account to theirs: they watched me as I made the transfer on my phone. Pizza range was pretty limited, but I enjoyed the Margherita.
I could not be this close and not carry on to Karamea: as I drove over the Bluff, I was so glad I was not towing a caravan - it is about 30 km of curls, first up, then down. Karamea itself is pretty small, and very quiet on a summer Sunday afternoon. I sat outside the shop with an ice cream, amused by the young guy who parked his bike beside me, engaged in an elaborate ritual of locking up his bike, went across to the shop aver the road and was back to unlock his bike before I'd finished my ice cream. The only people around were a few locals coming in for beers, and tourists in campervans after ice cream: no security risk. After a nosey around town and a quiet ale in the Karamea Village Hotel ("Best Country Hotel 2011" according to Hospitality New Zealand), there was no real reason to stay.
South of Seddonville is much more interesting. I stopped in Granity several times - initially to have a quiet ale at the pub. My only companion seemed to have a certain hostility to outsiders coupled with a need to talk - his sole conversational gambit was an attempt to tell me my caravan lights were on, dismissing any suggestion by me that they were not on the basis that he knew better. I drank up quickly and went out the back to the rather good Tommy Knocker cafe, which faces the beach.
It has only been open since Labour Day, but is by far the best source of rogan josh pies on the West Coast, has good coffee and, at least on the Sunday after Christmas, was doing a roaring trade. I was past several times and stopped in, but when Drifters, the original Granity cafe, re-opened after the break I went in out of curiosity. I remembered it as this ramshackle place, with furniture which was a mixture of the hand-made and whatever someone wanted to get rid of - in other words, quite cosey. Now, it looks like any other cafe with corrugated iron bar facing and proper tables and chairs.
Just up from Granity is Hector. On my first pass through, I saw a sign for the Hector Country Music Heritage Museum, but the first couple of times I checked, it was closed. Finally, about a week into the New Year (I was back in the area) I had my chance. It doesn't reveal its secrets from the outside
but the place is jam-packed - some memorabilia, a homage to Dunedin band the Tumbleweeds (who had the best selling single in New Zealand for a couple of decades with their version of Maple on the Hill), a few Indian-American artefacts (why not?) but the bulk of the collection was music and signed photos of country music artists. The fellow who runs the place, another Barry, was keen to chat, told me of the difficulties of having modern artists provide photos without payment and of having people want him to make recordings from the collection without payment. The collection is impressive.
The big thing on the coast is, of course, mining. The Denniston mine has tours, but they were not operating the days I was there. The Stockton mine is still producing coal, and very much closed to the public, with a big security fence several kilometres from the mine. All I could see were the gantries constructed above the railway line so that coal can be poured into carriages.
The best I could do was wander around the old Millerton mine, which closed in the 1960's. There are still a few houses scattered about but the equipment and buildings from the mine have been taken away, leaving behind just a few (significant) signs of activity.
This is a grand part of the world in which to hang out, but I had bookings elsewhere, so it was time to cross back over the Buller River and head north.