My Guide: with the SL Roadster on the Karamea Highway.
Leaving civilization from Nelson.
The first thing to know about driving the Karamea is that the ride is almost as good as the destination itself. Heading out from Nelson (the nearest major population centre) we find ourselves immersed in an exhilarating three-and-a-half hours of mountain climbs in our 350 SL Roadster as we head into the breathtaking Buller River Gorge and out to the west coast. We leave behind Nelson’s wineries, art galleries and restaurants and plunge deep into nature’s realm. Squeezing under giant uplifted rock outcrops like Hawks Crag and roaring through tunnel-like dense forest overhangs, this is the perfect build-up to that moment when we emerge onto the coast and roll into the remote township of Westport, the entry point to the Karamea Highway and our logical overnight stop. This is also the place to provision up for any adventure, sport, hunting or fishing activities along the Karamea Highway.
It’s a very remote part of New Zealand’s South Island and it is sacred country, home of the brave, so best to be prepared. There’s plenty to see and plenty to do so we take an early meal and an early night.
Wilderness and ghost towns beyond Westport.
Daybreak is the best time to drive this road and, save for the odd milk truck, we will have it all to ourselves. Mountaintops reach up through early morning clouds, mists hang in the valleys and the result is enchanting. The super-fresh dawn air floats down from the mountains and these conditions are custom-made for open-top driving. The 350 SL is in its element. We’ve been told it’s a four-hour round trip from Westport to Karamea and, heading out from Westport, the first sector of the road runs past a procession of small towns and the bones of a once-thriving coal mining community. This was once a haven for a high-risk and high-reward life, carving black gold from pitch-black caves dug high in the mountains, all of which can be seen and experienced in ghost form today.
Mokihinui and Lake Hanlon - oases of dreams.
But the heart of our motoring adventure starts at Mokihinui, about half way up the map, where the road turns its back on the water and heads for the sky. Mountainous rain forest country opens out to inland valleys cradling morning fog and all teaming with bird life. The scenery is mesmerizing, the road is exhilarating and this is enticingly beautiful country. This elevated section of the road takes on a fascinating scale, switching from grand to intimate and the 350 SL from 1973 is a car that quickly finds its natural rhythm here. It’s right at home as it climbs up mountains and dances up the hairpin bends.
It tucks into tight corners, powers into sweeping bends and launches out into throttle-opening, pedal-to-the-floor coastal straights. We make a stop at Lake Hanlon, formed after an earthquake in 1929, a beautiful oasis that is easily accessed with a track that takes us just 15 minutes to climb. At its end, a mirror-like lake of meditative tranquillity sits perched in amidst a beech forest on the back of the Karamea Bluff. The trees, mountains and bright blue sky all reflected so perfectly; it is humbling to see nature in full stride.
Sights and snacks along the final stretch.
From here it’s a short run down to Little Wanganui where the road re-joins the Tasman ahead of the final 20 kilometres stretch to Karamea itself and the end of the road. Whitebait is in season and we pull into the town’s picture-book hotel for one of the most simple and delicious roadside snacks. These tiny fish are a national delicacy and this west coast location is as close to the source as it gets. We cruise content up to Karamea town and, whilst the highway stops here, for some the adventure is just beginning. It’s a step-off point for a range of famous walks and tracks, access to pristine national parks and wondrous limestone caves including the largest natural limestone arch in the southern hemisphere, a far cry from the man-made coal mines we left way back near Westport.
Beaches on the return along the Karamea.
Gentle Annie Beach calls on the return run. This unique meeting of the tranquil Mokihinui River and the rugged coastline of the Tasman Sea draws us in from the roadside as it opens out to the vastness of the blue seaward sky. We head back to Westport with plenty to reflect on as the sun fades over the sea and pull in at Carters Beach, just to the south of town. It’s been a full day’s drive and this piece of sandy shoreline is the perfect place to take in nature’s colourful finale as the sun’s light fades on the rugged and rhythmic Karamea Highway. The route, including travel tips, can be found at Mercedes me “My Guide” and downloaded as a GPX file.