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West Coast locals open up native forest and caves to visitors

Saturday 7 Mar 2009 4:32 p.m.

The tiny west coast town of Karamea has a new way to attract tourists.

The Oparara track is a 30km network of walkways through a pristine stand of native forest near Karamea, and it was all designed and funded entirely by the locals.

The Oparara valley in the northern West Coast comprises hundreds of hectares of pristine native forest.

Unlike much of the West Coast, it escaped the violent impact of the loggers' saw and gold miners' dredge.

And after six years and millions of dollars worth of work by the locals around Karamea, all the living, breathing splendour is finally accessible to the public.

"You know, it was our patch," says Dulcie McNabb of the Oparara Valley Trust. "This idea has been around for 20-30 years, and we've finally done it."

The Oparara Valley Trust championed a track weaving through the towering rainforest as a way to attract more visitors. But visitors to the secluded valley also have a chance to go under it - the Oparara boasts 15km of spectacular limestone caves carved out over millions of years.

At the moment many tourists shoot straight through Karamea after completing the famous Heaphy track. Now the locals believe the Oparara will attract tourists up from Westport to their remote but charming township.

Although the trust expects around 20,000 to 30,000 people to visit the valley each year, that is just a fraction of the 1 million-plus visitors to the West Coast annually. But they hope as word about the Oparara gets out it will encourage a few more of those visitors to make the trip north.

But creating a world-class attraction is not without its challenges.

"Dealing with the mud, the mosquitoes," says project manager Mel Hanson. "Then more mud and more mosquitoes."

Karamea's isolation also did not help. To lay almost 30km of track, 6500 tonnes of gravel and more than 60,000 slates had to be flown in by helicopter, all in typical West Coast conditions.

"Got out of bed and it was raining, went to work in the rain, went home at night time and it was raining," says Mr Hanson. "Tried to dry their clothes in the rain..."

Those who worked on the track are under no illusions about what they have achieved.

"Oh it's huge," says track worker Dave Guppie, "and what makes it huge is the people. Just a handful of ordinary people."

After an eternity of being hidden away, now everyone has the chance to take in this unique piece of the West Coast.

3 News

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