“A century ago and indeed for much of its history, Karamea was one of New Zealand’s remoter settlements. Isolated by mountain, bush and river and largely dependent on the sea for its contacts with the outside world, the settlement developed and fostered a unique spirit and character among its people.” (William E. Rowling Prime Minister, New Zealand, 1974)
Travelling from the snowy mountain winter wonderland of Maruia Springs, we arrived at the ‘Last Resort’, our accommodation for a few days of rest and relaxation. The ‘Last Resort’ is named because Karamea is the ‘last town’ on the New Zealand West Coast Highway.
A fascinating history
As early as 1874, Karamea was a busy working port town from. The port provided for the docking of large ships transporting goods and produce, and offered a way for ferries and boats to cross the Karamea river mouth. A significant earthquake in Murchison, in 1929, silted up the harbour and the town lost its main access, making transport in and out this remote town almost impossible.
The first bridge across the deep and wide Karamea River was built in 1895, and eased the difficult access and transport problems. When an inland route over the Karamea Bluffs first opened in 1916, it further contributed to the ease of land access which had formally only been via a track over the coastal hills.
In the early days, the majority of settlers came from England and the Shetland Islands (Northern Scotland). After failing to develop agricultural farming on the terraces above the ‘Karamea flats’ they relocated to the fertile flat land beside the river which became known as the ‘Promised Land’ (the south side) and ‘The Land of Promise’ (the north side). These areas are now known by their Māori names—Aripito and Umere. Today, Karamea has a current population of approximately 600 re
Today, the region’s unique micro-climate supports the ongoing growth in dairy farming. The first butter factory opened in 1911 and milk powder production got underway in the 1970s. Logging, now a largely historic activity, was more prolific when the road to Westport opened; and today, the area supports a measured amount of fruit and vegetable production. Since the 1980s and 1990s, tourism has increased and the town now supports the many mountain bikers and hikers who traverse the Heaphy and Wangapeka tracks beginning in Golden Bay and Tapawera in the Nelson district respectively. There is a lot of opportunity for relaxation and enjoyment in Karamea—from adventure tourism which includes kayaking, white water rafting, ‘riverbugs’ and tubing, horse riding and caving; to the more sedate bush walks and in season white-baiting and fishing.
Explorers, explorations and interesting finds
The area may have changed over the years but there is no doubt it remains a picturesque and interesting destination. Modern exploration began in the mid 1800s with Charles Heaphy and James Mackay looking for signs of early indigenous culture. They uncovered evidence of ovens, adzes, and Māori canoes, all of which signalled occupation of this region. The Moa has been long extinct in New Zealand, but the discovery of Moa-hunter sites on the Heaphy River in 1960 suggested that there was occupation of the area from about the 1500s. The little known, but also extinct, ‘New Zealand Haast Eagle’—Māori name of Hokioi—were also present in the area. Bones have been found in caving systems of the Kauhrangi National Park around the Karamea area.
Arriving in a storm
We arrived in a southerly storm of wind, rain, and raging seas. We settled into the ‘Last Resort’ in the late afternoon and enjoyed an evening meal of ‘whitebait patties’ with salad, an iconic New Zealand dish of tiny, locally caught fresh fish.
The storm continued to rage well into the next afternoon but once it abated we took the opportunity to explore. However, we chose to stay ‘close to home’ so that if the tail of the storm decided to lash once more we would not be caught on the Heaphy track walk to Scott’s Beach or at the Oporaro Arches–they could wait until tomorrow.
Getting out and about: Exploring for ourselves
Keen to stretch our legs and get some fresh air, we drove beside the north bank of the Karamea River for about 8ks before walking through the lush native forest—albeit umbrella in hand to catch the drops falling offg the trees overhanging the bush track!
Our destination was the giant Rimu tree said to be around 1000 years old and lucky to have escaped the mighty axe of the early loggers who cleared huge areas of native bush turning it into pasture and farmland. We enjoyed the 30 minute walk +to the base of the 32m high tree where we stretched our eyes upwards to glimpse the tops high above the canopy in the now blue sky.
We arrived back to the car just in time for a ‘shower of rain’ which came tumbling down. On our way back to the resort, we stopped by an orchard of tamarillo trees and chatted with the owner as we purchased a few kilos to take home with us.
The rain drove us into the car and back to the resort and our cosy, warm room.
The sun shines and so do we
The following day dawned clear and bright and with our day planned we excitedly set off northward on the short drive to the Kohaihai River, the beginning of the Heaphy track. About half way up the road we turned inland and drove into the Kahurangi National Park wending our way through lovely native bush on an unsealed road.
Arriving at the car park, we reminisced how long it had been since we had been here. We were amazed at the wonderful picnic tables under cover, the history boards of the area, and the great addition of public toilets for the increasing number of visitors to this fascinating area.
Bearing a striking affinity to the magical rainforests and sculpted formations in the mythical lands of the stories of J.R Tolkien, the Oparara Basin is tucked away in a remote corner of the warm northern West Coast rainforest of the Kahurangi National Park. With its unique combination of natural landforms, diverse ecosystems, spectacular caves and arches, born of a million years of undisturbed isolation, many areas are named after features from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (taken from the Karamea Information and Resource Centre guided tours brochure).
More about the arches
The Basin is comprised of 400 million year old granite and younger, softer limestone. The forces of the earth has wrinkled, faulted, glaciated, and eroded this land to form carved canyons, cave systems, cathedral-like passages, and massive arches. Subterranean wonderlands have formed tunnels and caves which comprise dripstone and flowstone, along with rare and delicate features which include cave coral, petals, and much more. These areas are protected under the 1987 Conservation Act.
The rainforest provides an interesting garden of virgin beech and podocarp trees thickly coated in moss which generate the acids that give the streams their distinct colour, often described as ‘billy tea’. The birdlife here is prolific and include the great spotted kiwi (if you can ‘spot’ them), blue duck, kaka, weka, New Zealand falcon, pigeon, robin, fantail, and tomtit to name a few.
Entering the track, we crossed the little bridge over the stream babbling along full of the tannins that stain the water a golden brown colour (billy tea).
It was lovely to walk in the native forest and enjoy the nature of the New Zealand bush. After about 30 minutes, we came to a ‘fissure’ in the rock and out came some people stating “this is the most amazing place in the whole world”.
Once they passed where we had stepped aside on the narrow track leading down into the cavern, we entered, gingerly watching our steps on the wet rocks while holding the chain to steady us on the steep but short descent into the cave which leads to the arch. Soon we were out of the rocky cavern and entering onto the sandy ‘beach’ of this amazing natural arch open at both ends with the river running through.
We walked to one side and sat on a log marvelling at the scene before us.
We stayed a while enjoying the splendour before clambering back up the fissure in the rock and making our way to the car park along the track we had come along.
You can walk ‘the loop track’ but that takes a lot longer and we were keen to have our lunch at the picnic tables and move on to see the Oparara Arch, anticipating another walk through the lovely native forest alongside the river.
The track was a little narrow in places and somewhat muddy underfoot from the recent storm; nevertheless, we enjoyed a pretty forest walk by the Oparara River to the archway which takes its name from the river running through it. The sun shone through the tannins in the brown water and it shone like gold. What a beautiful show the river put on.
Once we arrived at the archway, the south end rose high above us at 37ms (the other measurements are 49m wide and 200m long). We climbed the narrow pathway into the cavern where you can view both ends.
In the past, I had been able to walk right through the cavern to the beautiful flat at the farther side of the archway. We sat and enjoyed the ‘feeling’ of the place, the special energy that we perceived. I found a small path leading up and away from the viewing area and although I did not explore where it went, could not help but wonder if it led to the roof of the archway far above.
Soon we started back down the path towards the car park, stopping by the river to rest and enjoy as it fell away, crashing over the large boulders, to a sedately flowing river sparkling golden like melted syrup as it moved calmly down the valley. Back at the car park in the late mid afternoon people were still arriving to walk the tracks and enjoy this magical place of limestone arches.
At the car park, there is a bridge across the river and the road goes on north, leading to further arches—the Honeycomb Hill caves—which are said to be the most beautiful and sit in a ‘specially protected area’. The brochure notes; ‘here you descend into the subterranean wonderland of striking limestone features, as well as the largest and most varied collection of sub fossil bird bones ever found in New Zealand. Glow-worms light up the eternal darkness, creating an out of this world atmosphere of magic and mystery’.
The only way to access the Honeycomb Hill caves is via a ‘guided tour’ which, in true warm West Coast hospitality, includes home baked snacks and a hot drink. Caving helmets and lights to see in that ‘eternal darkness’ are provided but make sure to bring your own camera. Here you will see a large collection of sub fossil bird bones, many of which are extinct; including the famed Moa, a giant flightless goose and the giant New Zealand Haast eagle. There are also bones of frogs, lizards and snail species. Some of these are perfectly preserved and date back 20,000 years, which is of immense interest and value to the scientific community. Bookings on these tours are essential and can be done via phone, email, or the website.
Ph: + 64 37826652
Our arch experience was over and we drove back to Karamea.
Leaving the following morning, the sky was clear and the day was bright. The drive home was long and enjoyable as we reminisced on our journey, the experiences, food, weather, and the people we met.