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Westland (West Coast) New Zealand

Geographers style it Westland, but for most New Zealanders it remains 'the West Coast', more often 'the Coast', as if no other coast rated a mention.

Its people are simply 'Coasters'. Native New Zealanders are reared on the folklore of this lean western shore of the South Island, running five hundred kilometres from Jackson Bay in the south to Karamea in the north.

Outsiders too may soon find themselves talking of the Coast and Coasters with good reason. Never more than fifty kilometres wide, the region has hardly any hinterland – and much of that is forest and peak.

The region commands the affections not only of its thirty three thousand inhabitants; 'the Coast' may belong to the South Island, but it has a claim on all New Zealanders.

Many New Zealand families can name a Coaster or two as ancestor; a gold¬digger or tree-feller who started out on the land. Some return here much as Irish Americans do to Ireland, looking for their beginnings.

The Coaster lives up to legend: gritty, resilient, enterprising, hospitable, a sardonic teller of tall tales, and never quite at ease with twentieth¬century New Zealand.

Wherever visitors move in Westland, they will find the land's pioneer past alive and still in business, not so much in the mocked-up facades of pioneer villages as in its people.

For adult New Zealanders a visit to the Coast peels away the decades: its time warp takes them back to their childhood.

Yet in 1642, when Abel Tasman saw mountain ramparts rising above rainforest, he immediately turned north.

In 1770 Captain James Cook passed it by too: 'No country on earth can appear with a more rugged and barren aspect than this doth from the sea…'he wrote.

French voyager Jules de Blosseville in 1823 saw 'one long solitude, with a forbidding sky, frequent tempest, and impenetrable forests'.

His countryman Dumont d'Urville used one word: 'Frightful'.

When Europeans at last arrived in Westland, they remained unpersuaded of its virtue. Sealing parties from Sydney survived loneliness and hardship.

At least one party was consigned to the cannibal ovens.

The first European to travel the length of the coast looking for potential pastoral land after the cramped community of Nelson had been established in 1842 - was Thomas Brunner.

His epic five-hundred-and-fifty-day journey confirmed that the wilderness was as formidable as passing mariners had judged.

'For what reason the natives choose to live in Westland, I cannot imagine,' the explorer said in his journal. 'It is a place devoid of all value or interest.

Brunner's most telling journal entry was a howl of pain: 'Rain continuing, dietary shorter, strength decreasing, spirits failing, prospects fearful.'

Without his diligent Maori guide Kehu, along with the kindness of other Maoris they met, and a diet of fern root, penguin, rat and his own dog, the ailing and often near¬demented Brunner might never have seen civilisation again.

Emaciated, barefoot and in rags, he had long been given up as lost when he staggered back to Nelson. He reported: 'There is nothing on the West Coast worth the expense of exploring, but I certainly think the natives there require something to be done for them.

For more than a decade the region remained the lonely realm of the few Maoris who dwelled on its shore and along its rivers.

Though Brunner had tallied fewer than one hundred living between Karamea and the latitude forty-four degrees south, it can be assumed that their numbers had once been much greater.

For Maori the length of New Zealand, the West Coast's greenstone (nephrite or jade) had virtually been a currency and often a cause for conquest. The beds of two great Westland rivers, the Arahura and Taramakau, were rich in greenstone.

Those Maori found by Brunner were a mix of Ngai Tahu (who had come as conquerors from Canterbury and were now known as Poutini Ngai Tahu) and the survivors of the defeated Ngati Wairangi, who discovered the greenstone of Westland and kept it profitably under control between 1400 and 1700, trading it off to North Islanders.

By the time Brunner blundered into their territory, steel was replacing greenstone as the material to make tools. By the end of the eighteen-fifties, with increased European migration to New Zealand, Westland began to seem more promising for settlement and mineral exploitation.

Traces of gold and deposits of coal were found. 'Instead of the wilderness,' predicted geologist Julius von Haast, 'we shall have the dwellings of men; instead of a few birds, now its only inhabitants, we shall have a busy population of miners enlivening the country; the shriek of the locomotive will resound through its valleys, and busy life and animation will everywhere be seen.

Also found, and also destined to bring revenue in the twentieth century, were the great glaciers creeping almost to the sea in the south.

For just three hundred pounds - about three pounds for each Maori inhabitant - the government brough seven and a half million acres (three and a quart million hectares) from the Poutini Ngai Tahu, between Kahurangi Point in the north and Milford Sound in the south.

Westland's Maori however, cannily retained considerable reserves. On the other side of the South Island's alpine divide, in Canterbury, people were already pondering what wealth and wonders Westland might hold.

One was the future Victorian write then a dusty young sheepman, Samuel Butler. He wrote (in 1860) of'the West Coast, that yet unexplored region of forest which may contain sleeping princesses and gold in ton blocks, and sorts of good things.'

Gold, yes. And if not in tonne blocks, at least in kilograms. The Buller area, in from Westport, was the first worked, though not particularly profitably.

Diggers were soon drawn away by impressive finds in Marlborough and Otago. But in January 1864, two Maoris, Simon and Samuel, out looking for greenstone on the Hohonu Stream near Greymouth, levered up a block of the stone and revealed coarse gold beneath.

Reporting to their chief Tarapuhi on the desirable block of greenstone, they mentioned the gold. More interested in the greenstone, Tarapuhi set off to get a heavy iron hammer and drills to split it in manageable pieces, and in passing mentioned the gold to a pair of prospecting Europeans.

Within months, as find after find was turned up, diggers were storming Westland by boat an across blizzard-prone alpine passes. By the end the year there were nearly a thousand prospectors and the future boom town of Hokitika had been founded among 'a vast pile of driftwood' at the Hokitika River mouth.

The scene was set for on of the Pacific's great gold rushes.

In the first half of 1865, enthusiastic skippers: wrecked twenty-seven vessels at the mouth of the Hokitika River. By the end of 1865 they had successfully landed fifteen thousand people, and before much longer, between thirty and forty thousand were on the fields of Westland.

The sodden terrain, with its heaving forest and glittering snowfields, was unlike any the seasoned miners from California, Victoria and Otago had worked.

The vegetation suffocated and strangled, and flooding rivers could snatch the unwary away. Diggers were confined to shingly streams.

But town after town rose and passing vessels observed lantern-lit settlements glowing and campfires blazing along nearly two hundred kilometres of recently uninhabited coast.

Hokitika typified Westland's wildest years, Until 1864 a mere name on a map, it was a town of eight to ten thousand people by 1866, with thousands more near by using it as a base.

Auckland aside, it was the busiest port in New Zealand. In 1865-67 more than thirty-seven thousand people disembarked; in 1866 close to half New Zealand's new settlers were landed at Hokitika.

It was the colony's sixth largest settlement and, claimed contemporary chroniclers, the fastest growing place on the planet. 'San Francisco did not rise so fast,' said the visiting English politician Charles Dilke.

The town had a fourteen-hundred-seat opera house, hundred and two hotels and too many wrecks to count - some threatened to sail up the main street on a high tide.

Human wrecks, drunken disappointed diggers, were conspicuous too. Said one sniffy Canterbury journalist of Hokitika: ‘I could not wish my worst enemy there.

Today the traveller might stand in sleepy Hokitika and wonder where the San Francisco of the South Sea went; the opera house, the hundred hotels, the gambling tables, the bushrangers, dancing girls?...A memorial or two; rotting wharf timbers beside a river no ship now negotiates.

Nearby communities, once hundreds, sometimes thousands strong, have even less to show; often an overgrown graveyard is all that remains.

Westland was losing its golden lustre by the of the eighteen-seventies, and diggers were already moving on, leaving Chinese migrants to pick over their tailings. Before the century was over, giant dredges too would grind over the ground.

At Reefton and other inland areas, quartz reefs would be worked. But the rapture of the great rush was soon gone, and Westland's timber coal began to seem more significant. A modest amount of farmland was hewn from the forest, and drained.

At its peak, Westland had close to fifteen per cent of New Zealand's population; now it supports just one per cent.

Coasters, like the Maoris Brunner found here, have become something of a lost tribe too. But since the nineteen-sixties, their numbers have been slightly swelled by young refugees from city tower blocks.

With its cheap houses, space, and slow rhythm, Westland has become a haven for craft workers and others seeking peace. The rain - no inhabited region of New Zealand is wetter - soon sorts the dedicated latter-day colonists from mere dreamers; this is no Riviera.

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