The rain pelted down with such force as I drove between the towering beech trees of Victoria Forest Park. My wipers, even set to high, could not keep up, and I only got mere glimpses of the road between swipes. I pulled over into a small layby to wait out the downpour until I could better follow the road. An oncoming semi pushed through despite the foul weather, producing a slight tidal wave from his tires.
Finally, after fifteen minutes, the storm passed, and I was able to merge back onto the road. Large raindrops continued to fall from the tall, dark trees draped in lime green moss, giving the forest that enchanting, ethereal quality. A quick right and left through Reefton township and then it is only another hour drive through the Buller Gorge to Westport.
Westport is an old coal mining town and fishing port, a town where the boom and bust pendulum swung strong. When I arrived in 2016, the cement factory had just shut down and another coal mine had closed. The town just felt “forgotten”, like so many of the logging towns in the Pacific Northwest of America. Daily, I would take a stroll down Palmerston Street, Whanake mocha in hand, and count the “Business for Sale” signs in the dusty windows.
The resident homes were the same. In my hikes through town to the Kawatiri Trail and Lost Lagoon, no matter what street I took: Queen Street, Peel Street, Russell Street, there was one miner’s cottage after another up for sale. Going cheap, too. With the acrid smell of coal smoke hanging in the air, I often stopped to give a friendly kitty a head scratch, humming the Go-Go’s song, “This Town” and in particular the lyric, “Discarded stars, like worn out cars, litter the streets…”
However, things have improved quite a bit in these last two years. There has been a considerable drive by Development West Coast and Advance Northern West Coast to bring more tourists here, both international and domestic. Coasters have come together to clean up the town, paint the weathered and peeling buildings, wash the windows, and weld the rusted pieces back together.
Entrepreneurial workshops are periodically offered by Co-Starters and held at the co-working space, Epic Westport. Nine weeks devoted to developing careers and new job avenues.
And it has paid off. Now when I window shop along Palmerston Street, there are bright new stores opening up: a retro men’s barbershop, a yoga and health collective, a new alterations shop, a community-minded organic food shoppe, a fancy tattoo parlour, and even more places to buy my mochas. Where there used to be just rows of A4 paper “properties for sale” in their windows, Ray White and Property Brokers Realtors now have whole windows dedicated to “Sold” stamped across those sheets.
The NBS Theater hosts a food and music event once a month called “Chips n Jams” that seems to have a decent turn out of Coasters who want some pulled pork sandwiches and guitar strumming.
I attended my first Whitebait festival in 2016 with another town newbie; after our third stroll along the main street, stopping to listen to the bands play, we both shrugged and said: “Is that it?” But 2017’s Whitebait Festival had more stalls and events, more enthusiasm. Maybe 2018’s festival will compete with Hokitika’s Wild Food Festival.
Then, there’s beyond Westport. Farther north along the ever winding coast are the coal mining townships of Waimangaroa, Granity, Ngakawau, and Hector before the road ends in Karamea. Rustic and rusty, I definitely feel like I have stepped backward in time with all the Nikau Palms, giant ferns and Punga trees lining the hills along the tar seal. An occasional wild blue hydrangea peeks out amongst the fronds and a wily weka chances a sprint across the highway. Go up for a day hike in the Oparara Basin or a mountain bike trip along the Ghost Road and on the return, I recommend a stop at the Mokihinui Pub for some burgers or in Little Wanganui Pub for a few games of billiards by the fire.
Also, speaking of Epic Westport, I dubbed it a coworking space before, but it is actually developing as a tech hub. They host coding or robotics classes, and general “how-to” social media courses to serve local businesses. Owners, Ben and Tash Dellaca, and their crew are pushing for Westport to become a cryptocurrency or blockchain hot spot. Hot damn! They are attracting money and fresh faces into town. I am already seeing new folks at the supermarket and more activity on the local Facebook pages.
There is so much potential here in Westport, so much moving forward, yet still, a ways to go. Drawing in fresh faces and great talent is the start, but Westport needs to work on how to keep them and their money here in the town. Our local Mitre 10 and New World can only provide so much; therefore, we are either ordering online or driving to Greymouth, Nelson or Christchurch to get supplies.
That said, though, the Coast Road to Greymouth is incredibly beautiful, and there’s usually a rainbow arching over the hills in the Paparoa National Park when I drive it. Not to mention that I can listen to “This Town” along the way. “Bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us.”