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PICTURE: A C Graham Collection, courtesy of the Hokitika Museum
Heavy equipment is moved from Okarito to the Five Mile dredge site, via a
beach highway, in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
ast year, the Department of Conser vation engaged
Emma Clifford and Katherine Watson from
Underground O verground Archaeology Ltd to
inspect the historic pack tracks at Hari Hari, Three
Mile and Gillespies Beach.
Their research took them back to the days when people
would travel on the beach highway, which linked small
goldmining settlements from the Wanganui River at Hari
Hari to Bruce Bay and beyond.
Clifford and Watson sur veyed old tracks along three
separate sections of the West Coast — the Hari Hari pack
track, which is now part of the Hari Hari Coastal Walkway,
ending at the Poerua River.
The also did the Three Mile pack track, now part of the
Okarito Coastal Walk; it runs up and over Kohuamarua Bluff,
as far as the Three Mile Lagoon.
Finally, to the south the Gillespies Beach pack track today
forms part of the Gillespies Beach Miners’ Tunnel Track.
When the first European settlers arrived in 1865 seeking
gold - which they found in rich patches on the beaches at
Okarito, Five Mile, Waiho, Gillespies Beach, Hunts Beach
and Bruce Bay - they also found in abundance, lonely beaches
and forests so dense they deterred all but the most intrepid
So beach travel it was, albeit with dangerous bluffs to
negotiate between tides. Before long came reports of the first
drownings, in November 1865, when one man was swept
away in the Wanganui River and two at Saltwater Creek.
Ferries were soon established at the river mouths to help get
the foot traffic across safely. The first was probably the Waiho
(Waiau) River, fed by the Franz Josef Glacier and ice-cold
right all the way to the surf.
By June 1866, an estimated 3090 people were recorded in
the wider Okarito (South Westland) area. The Okarito Road
Board was established two years later, along with other road
boards, and the construction of the first of the bluff tracks
dates to this time.
By April 1872, the beach route from Ross to Okarito
could be travelled even at high water, with the exception
of the Wanganui Bluff, which was described in 1875 in the
West Coast Times: “ The sacrifice of human life that those
treacherous bluffs have been the cause of is something
terrible. Many we could name have met the King of Terrors
while attempting to rush past the rocks between each
Clifford and Watson believe the tracks were first built
around the face of the bluffs, not over the top of them.
Work on the track between the Wanganui and Poerua rivers
was approved by the Westland County Council in 1873.
The first serious discussion of a road through the interior
of South Westland appears to have come in 1869, although
the road boards had noted a year earlier that “a grand trunk
line of road should be made, running north and south of the
country, three to four miles inland from the beach”.
The county turned its attention to the Bowen-Okarito Road.
Bowen was a small settlement on the Mikonui River,
just south of Ross, that today has even vanished off the
Work started in 1874, and the route was finally completed
in 1879, when the ferries across both the Whataroa and
Wanganui rivers were moved inland to ser vice travellers along
the new route. Yet, the beach route and bluff tracks continued
to be used, and ser viced.
By 1886, work extending the Bowen-Okarito Road — now
known as the Main South Road — was under way at Fox
Glacier on the section from the Waikukupa River to the
Cook River Flat Road. Some work had also been carried out
on the section between the Waikukupa and Waiho rivers, and
there was also a road between the Waiho and lakes Wahapo
and Mapourika, inland from Okarito.
By 1902, the Main South Road was completed as far as
Karangarua, near Bruce Bay, but the beach and bluff tracks
continued to be used and maintained until at least 1905.
In the 1920s, the track between the Wanganui and Poerua
rivers was still being used to move cattle up and down this
part of the coast.
Twice in the 1930s, improvements were made to the Three
Mile Track, near Okarito, for miners working at the Three
Mile and Five Mile beaches, a little further south.
Right up into the 1950s, Okarito storekeeper Jimmy
Donovan would pack stores to the remote beaches, including
in earlier times the gold dredge that also worked the Five
The notable exception to the simplicity of the tracks is the
tunnel on the Gillespies Beach track. No other 19th century
tracks with tunnels are known on the West Coast.
Today, they are used by visitors to South Westland, forming
part of the Department of Conser vation network of short
walks and day tracks, and providing a valuable reminder of
the challenges the early settlers faced.
As the settlers rushed to South Westland looking for gold 150 years ago,
they found their way blocked by towering forests and steep sea bluffs. So
those early settlers hacked out tracks, initially around, and then over the
bluffs. Even after the inland road (now State highway 6) was built, the
old routes remained in use. Today, it is tourists, not gold prospectors, who
tramp the trails, keeping part of the past alive. LAURA MILLS reports.
Three Mile Lagoon, south of Okarito.
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