Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – New Zealand chapter on The West Coast has to say about:
“Welcome to the ‘Big Smoke’ of Westland. Crouched at the mouth of the imaginatively named Grey River, the West Coast’s largest town has a proud gold-mining history, and a legacy of occasional river floods, now some-what alleviated by a flood wall. On the main road and rail route through Arthur’s Pass and across the Southern Alps from Christchurch, Greymouth sees its fair share of travellers. The town is well geared to looking after them, with all the necessary services and the odd tourist attraction, the most famous of which is Shantytown.
Kiwis really are a mad bunch. Take, for instance, the annual Coast to Coast, the most coveted one-day multisport race in the country. Held in mid-February, the race starts in Kumara on the West Coast. Intrepid racers start in the wee hours of the morning with a gentle 3km run, followed by a 55km cycle. Next it’s a 33km mountain run over Goat Pass – you know any pass named after a goat isn’t going to be flat. From there all there is to do is ride your bike another 15km, paddle your kayak 67km and get back on the bike for the final 70km to Christchurch.
The strong, the brave and the totally knackered will cross the finish line to much fanfare. The course is 243km long and the top competitors will dust it off in just under 11 hours – with slowpokes taking almost twice that.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We didn’t know what to expect when we reached Greymouth, and old gold-mining town on the West Coast. We were heading there to drop off our rental car and take the TransAlpine train across the backbone of the island to Christchurch. I guess the line was built in order to move the coal to the ports for shipping, so many trains around the world were built to transport minerals of one sort or another.
We’ve read in our guidebook that Greymouth is the nickname for the town is ‘Great Smoke’, but for us, ‘Great Rain’ or ‘Great Downpour’ would have been more appropriate. A huge storm was barrelling in from the Tasman Sea just as we were arriving and fortunately the motel we’d booked for the night was at the south end of town. We could hardly clear the windshield of all the water in order to stay on the road. It was coming down so hard, the wipers just couldn’t keep up.
We couldn’t see the sign but our Google Map app told us where to turn and we were able to get into the parking lot and under an awning near the office. We drove to a spot in front of our room and were almost completely drenched just running from the car to the sliding glass door. We didn’t really mind though, we were out of the wind and the torrential rain, and we just stood at the window with our jaws dropping.
The scene outside our window was something to behold. We were facing a large parking lot filled with camper vans and motorhomes. People were scurrying back and forth between their vehicles and a nearby common kitchen facility. We had arrived around 7:45 and many of the travellers had been busy cooking their meals in the kitchen, with the intention of eating outside at picnic tables next to them. They could hardly stand up against the fierce wind, and they ran with their heads hunched over their pans of just-prepared dinner.
We had planned to eat out that evening, but there was no sense in trying to go anywhere. Fortunately, we always travel with what we refer to as ‘emergency food’, cheese, olives, bread and red wine. We certainly had enough to get us through the night, and hopefully the storm would be over in the morning and we could go out for a hot breakfast.
As it was the storm raged throughout the night, rattling the sliding glass windows, and making for a fitful night’s sleep for the two of us. Fortunately it was winding down in the morning and when we packed up the rain had softened to a slow drizzle. We drove into central Greymouth, dropped off the car next door to the train station and went out to a nearby café for breakfast.
I had a good laugh when I saw a painting on the wall depicting a child with boots and an umbrella, splashing in a puddle of water. The words written on the umbrella said “The Best Things In Life Are Free”. Clearly, it rains a lot in Greymouth, and often!
Our train wasn’t scheduled to depart until 2:00pm, so we had some time to kill. We walked around the historic district and over to the floodwall that had been constructed after a serious deluge in 1988. Apparently, the town has been spared the destruction that used to occur periodically before it was built. Visitors can take a short 10-minute walk and see a lovely memorial to the miners who perished in the nearby coalmines, or if they have the time, they can walk for a full hour on a sunny day.
It wasn’t that pleasant outside, so we kept our walk to a minimum, but I must say it was something to see how much water was rushing by us out to sea, and how high the water level was that morning. We spent the balance of the time poking into some of the lovely gift shops in the historic area, I even bought a small silver bracelet to remember New Zealand by.
We headed over to the train station about an hour before departure time, just to ensure they had our reservation and our seats assigned properly. The station had a very interesting gift shop and I managed to resist making more purchases because we still had another five weeks of travelling ahead of us in Australia and we didn’t want to be weighed down with ‘stuff’.
Besides, we had decided the best way for us to return home was on Air New Zealand, flying out of Auckland to Vancouver, so I’d have another chance to purchase local merchandise before leaving. We were excited to see the train pull into the station at last. It had departed early that morning from Christchurch, we would be travelling back over the Alps on its return journey. All aboard!