State Highway 6, Barrytown, West Coast © Raimund Linke

State Highway 6: roadtripping at its best

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The Wild West? Fill ’er up at Blenheim, where it says its goodbyes to State Highway 1, and hit the track, Jack.

The longest single highway in the country carves a track from the northeast of the South Island down the West Coast, across the Alps and then all the way to the bottom, pretty much. That’s a big road in a small land.

Is State Highway 6 better than Route 66? Take to the road and come to your own conclusions. And come to a handful of amazing little towns along the way, that used to be big towns until the gold mining dream went south. Well, went nowhere, really. But they’re reminders of the spirit that went into making a buck in this seemingly forsaken place.

‘Glaciers to my left, ocean to my right . . .’ is a pretty phenomenal way to drive.

What’s amazing about this long, lean laneway is that there really are no dull parts. It’s so varied. The wild winding of the Buller River, squeezed out onto the coast away from those imposing mountains, then the spray of the Tasman Sea as you keep close to it for over 100 km. The swing inland, across that seemingly endless bridge at Haast, then a change of scene as you hit the heights of the road into tussock country, then alpine country, windows up and make your way towards Wanaka and the scenic beauty of Central Otago. Then on through Southland, the land flattening out, the atmosphere new again, until you trundle into Invercargill.

But down the West Coast it’s at its magnificent best, always the alps watching over you, and that stretch of ocean keeping you at bay with its surf spray, endless sweeps of driftwood-dotted beaches and a building and profound respect for the Tasman Sea and those who have plied it for reasons of commerce, craziness or both. Yep, let’s not beat around the (endless swathes of) bush, it’ll likely rain a fair bit, even in summer. But that’s the context, the atmos, the eerie uniqueness: that’s the West Coast.

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