Glaciers & Heritage
Before the Europeans arrived the South Westland region was sparsely occupied by Maori, mainly refugees from the tribal wars in the East.
Abel Tasman first encountered Westland in 1642 but it was not until 1859 that any ship's log recorded the sight of the great glaciers. Explorers seeking fertile farming land and geologists drawn by the wilderness landscapes explored and named the glaciers but South Westland's solitude remained almost unbroken.
Gold, discovered in 1864, brought huge changes. Okarito, Five Mile and Gillespies goldtowns boomed with around 16,000 hopeful diggers - some vast fortunes were made but a mere 18 months later most miners were to drift away, disillusioned, leaving a hardy few to continue to work the beaches and gorges. Those who stayed eventually looked beyond the gold to seek a living from the land. These early settlers turned to farming, saw milling and offering accommodation and guidance to tourists.
The earliest travellers stayed in guestrooms in local farmer's houses. Eventually hotels were built, but the warm and friendly atmosphere remained. Enterprising young men saw a future in operating excursions up on the ice and by the 1900s tracks and bridges were built to provide access onto the glaciers. Formal clothing and inadequate equipment did not deter the early visitors. With a few temporary nails in the soles of their shoes, ladies and gentlemen adorned in long dresses and bow ties were soon regularly exploring the glaciers, carefully assisted by early mountain guides.