Behind the lip of sea-washed level land on which stands the town of Westport rises the abrupt Paparoa Range, the country’s principal source of bituminous coal. The town itself is marshalled by the mouth of the Buller River, the natural anchorage that gave it birth.
Cement carriers are frequently in the port, to ship the output of New Zealand’s largest cement works, an industry based on the ease of access to harbour, limestone and abundant coal slack. Westport, whose name is appropriate to its situation, is said to be called after a locality in Connaught, Eire.
A salubrious setting
Prepared to extol the virtues of Westport, a booklet published in 1907 earnestly proclaimed: ‚Owing to the porous nature [of the alluvial flat] Westport enjoys a very healthy existence. By the rise and fall of the tide, its sewerage system is flushed twice in twenty-four hours, with the result that its death-rate is the lowest in the world.‘
The Coast’s soils are potentially its most important asset, yet to the visitor the often unkempt appearance of farmland suggests either impoverished or badly managed land. In fact it is neither. The mild, humid and wet climate encourages growth where plant nutrients are available, but the decomposition of vegetable materials in some areas is retarded by the high moisture content of the soils, limiting the kinds and numbers of soil organisms. Thus organic matter tends to accumulate in a peaty layer above the mineral soil. This encourages both acid leaching (as water trickles through the soil, dissolving such constituents as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, nitrogen, iron and cobalt from the upper layers) and waterlogging (as water is trapped on compact older subsoils) to create what is locally known as pakihi (barren soil).
Conventional farming methods are unable to cope with the extensive pakihi wastelands of fern, mosses and rushes. Excessive water and soft surfaces handicap grazing, even though heavy topdressing can produce excellent growth. The high-silt composition of the soil makes mole draining unstable and the structureless subsoil renders channel drains ineffective.