A West Coast odyssey

To call it an “odyssey” is, without question, embellishing slightly, given that it was less than a day. But today, I had the great privilege to travel to the West Coast (Hokitika and Greymouth) for work reasons, and although our time there was regrettably brief, I relished every moment of this beautiful, complex and historically rich landscape. [Photo above: A solitary kahikatea standing by the roadside just before the entrance to the Hokitika Gorge Scenic Reserve (click here to view approximate location).]

While, like anyone else, I enjoy the more primeval, purely indigenous landscapes of the West Coast’s national parks and reserves (which comprises 83% of the region’s land area), it is the “working landscape”, with its mix of indigenous and “productive” landscapes that most intrigue me and draw me in, prompting questions such as, “Why were those trees left there while the rest of the forest was destroyed?”, or “What important purpose did that building [or other human artefact] once have, and why was it abandoned?” or, “What was the final trigger that prompted whoever owned this land to give up farming and let it revert back to bush?”.

And even a short drive through a West Coast landscape prompts many such questions.

But, my final and perhaps most important question was, “When can I come again?”

Photos above and below: “Landmarks” of the Koiterangi (Kowhitirangi) township – the settlers’ hall and the lichen-covered goal posts of the adjacent rugby paddock. Of this settlement, the “Cyclopedia of New Zealand” stated in 1906: “Its population at the census of 1901 was eighty-five. The district began to be occupied as a farming settlement about the year 1880, and a a large extent of the country has recently (1905) been thrown open for selection, including ordinary Crown lands, private lands, a municipal reserve of 2,000 acres, and other areas resumed under the Land for Settlement Act. The district has a creamery owned by the Kokatahi Dairy Factory Company, a small lime-burning plant, and a sawmill. There is also a local public school, which is attended by about thirty pupils. There is a considerable amount of good timber in the district, and there are good gravelled roads. In the year 1903 a fine bridge was erected over the Koiterangi river to connect the settlement with Kokatahi and Hokitika.”

While hard to imagine now, given the tranquility – even sleepiness – of this place, but Kowhitirangi was the scene of one of the largest manhunts in New Zealand’s history. In 1941, local farmer Stan Graham, convinced that someone was poisoning his cattle and sabotaging his milk and cream, went out on a shooting rampage, killing two locals and four policemen. He was eventually shot by police on 20th October, and died the next day. His house was burnt to the ground 4 days later.

Photo above: Stand of trees on Kokatahi farmland, Kaniere-Kowhitirangi Road [click here to view approximate location]. The car at the far left provides some sense of scale and grandeur of these trees. Much of the West Coast plains was once covered in wetland forests, the canopies dominated by the towering kahikatea (New Zealand’s tallest tree, at up to 60 metres). Farming in the area started in the late 1860s, when the mining industry was burgeoning. Important crops were oats and vegetables, which were required to feed the gold rush miners and their horses. (All photos: C. Knight.)

Sources/further reading: Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1906); Illustrated history of the West Coast (2005), by Anna Rogers. Anna Roger’s Illustrated history is a very readable social history of the West Coast, and includes numerous historical photographs – many of which tell a story in themselves.

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