rom Westport either turn inland and travel on
to Nelson via Inangahua, named for and once famed for its whitebait, or continue north
along State Highway 67 to Karamea, a relatively easy drive of 98 kilometres.
The Karamea road offers a variety of scenery, ranging from forested to
broad surf-swept beaches, but the flax, nikau palms and cabbage trees growing almost along
its entire length give it a sort of visual unity. Apart from the climb over the Karamea
Bluff it hugs sea level throughout the entire distance along the coastal strip jammed
between mountains and sea. It also runs through what is, along with Fiordland and the
Urewera country, some of the remotest and least populated land in New Zealand. This
remoteness and emptiness has, however, had its compensations, preserving the scenic beauty
of the region from the sometimes questionable 'development' that has been the bane of
other areas closer to populated centres.
'Winterless' Karamea benefits from a warm micro-climate which gives the
area some of the West Coast's best climate and supports a flourishing dairying industry
along with some horticulture. Although much has been made of building a connecting road to
Nelson this has so far come to naught, so to get there you must either walk by way of the
Heaphy or Wangapeka tracks or take the road back south to Westport, then northwest through
If the prospect of a five-day walk doesn't exactly fill you with
rapture, at least consider tackling the 15-kilometre coastal section at the south end of
the Heaphy Track, which is just up the coast from Karamea, at the Kohaihai River.
The highlight of the Karamea area is undoubtedly the Oparara Valley
which is reached by way of a logging road which runs off State Highway 67, nine kilometres
north of Karamea. Here there is a spectacular assemblage of caves, canyons and arches
carved from the natural limestone and backed by granite ranges. At Honeycomb Hill, in a
13-kilometre labyrinth of caves, one of the most important assemblages of bird fossils has
been found. These caves and crevices acted over thousands of years - 16,000 it is
estimated - as a huge trap for hapless birds which fell through pot-holes and also for the
carcasses of those swept in by streams.
So far the bones of some 52 species have been identified, of which 26
are those of species now extinct. Also identified from the caves have been the remains of
lizards, frogs and land snails.
Living creatures also occur in the caves, the most imposing of which is
probably the gradungular spider with a span of some 12 centimetres which preys on cave
weta. There are also native fish such as the kokopu and the koaru, now rare elsewhere, to
be found in the streams of the Oparara Valley.
If you wish to visit the caves, apply to the ranger at Karamea for a
permit and go properly equipped. Also, watch out for trucks on the logging road.
And nearby also is one of the highlights of New Zealands natural
world. Nikau palms have their southern limit not far south of Karamea, making these the
most southerly palms in the world. The meeting of the 'Ps' at this point- pigeons,
parrots, palms, penguins and even possibly possums - make for a fascinating mixture of
sub-tropical and sub-Antarctic, indigenous and exotic elements that is uniquely New