Arches and whitebait on the west coast

Cape Foulpoint WavesFor regular readers, don’t panic, despite the title, there is a lighthouse featured later on in the post.

However, today’s lighthouse tale is more of a side jaunt and less the main attraction – the cress as it were on the meat of today's post sandwich.

Because in this post I really want to talk about the weirdly laid back town of Karamea and its rather epic surrounds.

Tucked away in the far north west corner of New Zealand’s south island, this town is as far as you can get on the northern shore of the west coast – in a vehicle at least. It is possible to continue on foot by taking the 82km great walk called the Heaphy’s Track, which many choose to do.

Although, if it was me, I would choose to start the track from the other end, and arrive, 82km later, in the laid back town of Karamea, home, amongst other things, to its own seriously funky radio station. Good going for a town with a population of around 650.

Foamy beach near Karamea

There are a number of things that make Karamea into a place that accounted for more than a day of our trip. The laid back vibe was certainly one part of it. The pub, which provided plentiful and cheap fish and chips, and of course the local specialty, whitebait, was another.

And it is whitebait that draws Kiwis to Karamea in their droves in the whitebait fishing months, which are in the deep of Winter. Here, from the stories I have been told by local whitebait experts (of which the town appears to have plenty), hordes of wannabe whitebait anglers descend on the town for almost three months, all keen to nab a few kilos of these tiny fish.

Vera trying a whitebait sandwich

The main reason for this is of course financial – whitebait fetches crazy prices in this country, ranging as high as $150 a kilo. Which isn’t to be sniffed at. Even if the end result (deep fried pub grub) doesn’t seem to match up to this price point. Still, it makes for entertaining chatter in the pub.

Whitebait wasn’t the reason we came to Karamea of course. The main draw was the national park a few kilometres north of the town itself, which is where the Heaphy Track starts, and where the geological marvel that is the Oparara Basin exists.

Moria Gate Arch

Here, there are truly cavernous delights to be had. There is the Oparara Arch for example, which is Australasia’s largest limestone arch, coming in at a truly colossal two hundred metres in length. It was one of those sights where the scale boggled the imagination – even with tiny people wandering around underneath it.

Inside the Oparara ArchJust near the Oparara Arch is the Moria Gate arch, which was named for Tolkien, many years before Peter Jackson got in on the New Zealand Middle Earth thing. The whole area being liberally coated in moss probably helped.

Moria Gate Arch from outsite

Also in this area are two easily explorable caves – the Box Canyon cave which yawns mightily into the mountain, and the Crazy Paving cave, who’s floor looks, as you might imagine, like crazy paving. Only in mud.

Beyond the caves, we also took the opportunity to walk the first few kilometres along the Heaphy Track to see what that was like. In conclusion – stunning. It is a seriously isolated bit of walking, with just the sound of the waves and the intensely primal forest all around, with glimpses of endlessly deserted beaches through the vegetation. Not a bad way to spend a few days, if you were so inclined.

Oparara Arch

Well, that was Karamea. And now, on to the lighthouses. The next town down the coast from Karamea is the town of Westport, about which the Lonely Planet does not wax entirely lyrical. This is probably because it is mostly a coal mining town, and whilst fairly pretty, doesn’t hold much in the way of attractions. Unless the smell of coal in the air is something that attracts you.

Just a bit south of Westport though is the quite frankly awesomely named Cape Foulwind, home to a fur seal colony, spectacular coastal views and, of course, a lighthouse.

View from Cape Foulpoint

We spent some time exploring the cliff edges and walking track, admiring the seal colony (with endearingly cute half grown seal pups thrown in for good measure) and of course, peered at the lighthouse with eyes that have now seen many examples of this fine construction.

Wooden bird sculpture on beach Next up, we’re continuing down the west coast to see rocks that look like pancakes, glaciers, and I expect, more lighthouses. Stay tuned!

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