The Great Coast Road that spreads along the South Island’s western coast was nominated by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world, and it is easy to see why, with views of verdant bush on one side and expansive ocean on the other. This is where you’ll find Woodpecker Bay, nestled between Charleston and Punakaiki.
Along Woodpecker Bay, the beach is woven with streams pouring from the mountains, and tinged with pink sand in places by garnet rock. Walking north to the end of the bay you’ll find explosions of yellow gorse flowers and nasturtians, and striking rock pools home to scuttling crabs and starfish.
Walking south at low tide, you can cross Fox River to a mighty cave. Keep going and you will be greeted by Seal Island. When the tide is out clamber up the side of the island with the help of ropes – an exhilarating experience. If you creep quietly through the undergrowth, the seals will let you sit close. Watching them playing in the frothing water is the perfect reminder that we are here to have fun and enjoy the world around us. The seals also share the island with shags who make their nests in the side of the rock high above the sea.
At the heart of Woodpecker Bay, the Fox River flows into the ocean. This is where most of the action takes place. Fox River car park is not only a great place for freedom camping with toilets and running water, but it is also home to a vibrant community center, the mobile Rusty Cup Cafe, and is where the Fox River Cave track begins. This part of the beach is also where the surfers congregate before braving the icy river mouth to reach the western waves.
Fox River is named after the gold prospector, William Fox and Woodpecker Bay received its name from the ship he arrived on. This is a land steeped in hidden histories that only begin to reveal themselves if you listen and look closely.
Miners arrived at Fox River in 1866, creating a small town that disappeared into dust when the gold ran out. Farmers in the 1950s stripped the hills and the land was taken over by cattle. But then came the hippies in the 1970s, buying up the land and letting it return to its wild and wonderful self.
Once again, Woodpecker Bay transformed, this time into a hippy hub, but the blossoming commune also faded fast. Though its members dispersed, many returned years later to build family homes in the hill overlooking the ocean. These locals are rich in stories about this land, a collection of colorful characters that gather together every Wednesday night to share their music and poetry in the Fox River community center. It is a night of jubilant jams, cosy fire chats, dancing, stories, and lots of laughter. Look out for Bill, who sets up the evening antics and sometimes even shares his homemade trifle.
The track that runs along Fox River is a glowing haven of moss. Green archways guide you along to the sound of the river. In autumn and winter, the woods bloom with mushrooms in a myriad of colours, textures, and shapes. This is also where some of the finest limestones can be seen. Walk to the Ballroom Overhang, which is about 500m upstream from Fox River; a lofty outcrop that provides a perfect place for overnight camping.
To reach The Ballroom go via the Inland Pack Track which starts at the Fox River car park. The first part of the track snakes through the bush along the true right of the river. After about 40 minutes, you’ll need to cross the river to re-join the track on the true right of the river. It then continues for 2km through the gorge, climbing and dropping over the bluffs.
Be aware that heavy rain makes the numerous river crossings impassible so check the Paparoa National Park forecast before you head off.
And why not…
Make a beach bonfire to cook your freshly picked mussels from the rocks, or even make a seaweed stew from foraged dulse, kelp or sea lettuce.
Meet the Macra Carpa tree that stands proud protecting the bay holding the ‘slow’ sign. This is a friend that will welcome you to sit and share the ever-brilliant sunsets. Venus will be there to bless your evening, the first and brightest light in the sky as the day darkens.
Things to do
- Don’t miss the Wednesday Music Night when all the locals gather
- The Rusty Cup Cafe in Fox River car park runs daily unless it’s rainy
- Sunday Fox River Market, open through spring and summer
- Visit Seal Island at low tide
- Freedom camp
- Fish Fox River
Woodpecker Bay moves at a gentle pace but don’t let that fool you. It is thriving with life and comes with an enchanting quality; beware for it may capture your heart, as it did mine.