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Westland District

History of Westland

Westland District is on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The District covers a long, thin strip of land spanning approximately 450 kilometres in length between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea.

Westland is one of the most sparsely populated parts of New Zealand, with an area of 1,186,272 hectares and a population of less than 10,000 people. Approximately 33% of the population lives in Hokitika. The remaining 66% live in small villages and rural areas such as Ross, Franz Josef and Haast. Around 84% of the total area is managed by the Department of Conservation.

In its early years of European settlement, Westland’s fame was due to the gold rushes of the 1860s. After the discovery of gold in the Taramakau valley in 1864, prospectors started arriving at the Hokitika River mouth, the closest anchorage to the diggings. At that time, Hokitika was part of Canterbury province. The town was laid out by surveyor John Rochfort, and many street names commemorate Canterbury politicians of this period. 

In 1864, a roadway between the East Coast and West Coast was surveyed by Arthur Dudley Dobson, and Arthur’s Pass was constructed within a year. This remains the main access route today. 

During 1865, a flood of gold prospectors and traders arrived, and the town was occupied and booming within less than a year. While most miners lived close to the diggings where they worked, Hokitika was the town they went to for supplies, recreation and to sell gold. For a short period, Hokitika had a population of over 4,000. As gold mining declined, it dropped to 2,000 by the end of the 19th century. The river port at Hokitika was hazardous and was barely used after the main gold rushes. 

When the gold rush subsided, Hokitika became a service town for forestry and farming in the first part of the 20th century. State Highway 6 from Greymouth to Hokitika was sealed (one lane only) for the first time in preparation for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the West Coast in January 1954. The southern opening of State 9 Highway 6 through South Westland and over the Haast Pass in 1965 gradually led to an expansion in the number of tourists. 

With the growth of accommodation and outdoor recreation, tourism continues to grow in importance, with drawcards such as the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, Hokitika Gorge, Okarito Lagoon, Lakes Kaniere, Matheson, and Mahinapua, rivers throughout the region, day and over-night tramps, and popular events such as the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival. Westland is also known for pounamu that can be both bought and carved here.