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Published: 09 April 2022

By Andy Ross

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The town

The main shopping street in town with its wide road and shops. The main shopping street in town with its wide road and shops.Named indirectly after George Grey who was Governor of New Zealand in the mid 1800s, Greymouth is, as the name suggests, where the Grey River empties into the ocean.

Nowadays the name of the town is often doubled up with its Maori appellation Mawhera, the name given to the area before a town was in existence, and also to the river Once there was a pa, and, between the road leading into town along the river bank and a secondary branch curving up over the hill to the bridge entrance to Cobden, on a small patch of green grass and native bush, a stone proclaims the signing of a document that sold most of this land in 1860, except for what is now the central business district.

Mawhera was an important place for pounamu, the green stone that has come to signify the country in the form of necklaces and jewellery. It is a hard stone and was useful for fashioning tools and weaponry as well as being spiritually significant. Across town there are boulders, carved with decoration, at least in part, and some shops and businesses have small rocks of the green stone on their reception counters. These are dedicated to the building and woe betide anyone who attempts to remove one of the stones without permission!

It is a large-ish town, Greymouth/ Mawhera. It has wide streets, similar in size to those of my home town of Bulawayo where , so the apocryphal story goes, wagons could turn with ox in span. Truth be told, it is probably just the endless horizons and level lands that have provided the space to create the wide thoroughfares. Along the main streets, shops and buildings run, many with sheltering porticos and pavement roofing to protect from the heavy rain and hot sun of the West Coast. Its just-over 9,600 inhabitants are protected too from massive floods that used to inundate the town when the Grey River spread, by levees. Now there is talk of raising those banks again. Under the blue sky of a calm day it is hard to believe that the river can flood but there is evidence... 

It was coal and gold and lumber that provided the money for the expansion of the town, and fishing. The Greymouth Bar sits at the harbour entrance, waiting to capsize the unwary, and it is a real danger to shipping. Today the mouth of the river is channelled between the levees and wharf and the resulting squeeze on the water allows waves to travel upriver, crashing against the huge boulders that have been placed to protect the banks on both sides.

The sun sets over the ocean at Serpentine Beach. The sun sets over the ocean at Serpentine Beach. In the autumn light the spine of mountains that runs along the South Island can be clearly seen from a vantage point in town. Aoraki/ Mount Cook towers over the rest and even at this distance of hundreds of miles, the snow that lies on the mountains' flanks can be seen, etched with dark-blue shadows. It is a comforting sight for Mawhera/ Greymouth is surrounded by mountains and high hills covered with bush. In the dimming day's end of the Coast's spectacular sunset, it feels as though this town is cradled and held by nature and light.