Top 10 NZ roads: Number 5

THE GRAND FINALE: The Karamea Highway ends at the beginning of the Heaphy Track.
THE GRAND FINALE: The Karamea Highway ends at the beginning of the Heaphy Track.

5. Westport - Kohaihai

Distance: 117km

Calling the Karamea Highway a dead-end road doesn't do it justice.

It's alive with beautiful scenery, funky little coal-mining towns and locations worthy of an entire feature in National Geographic.

In some ways, this road is special because it's a "road to nowhere", ending spectacularly as the southern access point to the Heaphy Track.

The local flora and fauna along the highway gives it an otherworldly feel.

The region is full of palm-fringed sub-tropical rainforest and wild birds, and home to weird and wonderful animals like huge carnivorous snails - Sir David Attenborough would feel right at home.

Leaving Westport with the compass needle pointing straight to the top of the dial, you quickly encounter one of the most interesting diversions in New Zealand motoring.

Eight km into the drive lies the turn-off to the Denniston plateau, and the spectacular gravity-powered railway that used to extract some of the most energy-rich coal ever mined out from those rugged hills.

(The Royal Navy valued Denniston coal above all other supplies because it made its ships go faster.)

It's well worth taking a wander around the location that inspired Jenny Pattrick's book The Denniston Rose.

Driving north again, you can put the cruise control on, and enjoy mostly straight-ahead running as the quaint coal towns of Granity, Ngakawau, and Hector slide by.

Enjoy those straights while you can, because the climb over the Karamea Bluffs is via a spectacular 40km stretch of winding road.

Do the drive in the height of summer and you'll be rewarded with views of the rata trees in full flower (especially now that the contentious 1080 poison drops have culled the region's possums).

Upon reaching Karamea, the 1870s-vintage pub is the place to find what are quite possibly the best whitebait fritters in New Zealand.

But don't make that the final point of the drive - the spectacle of the Kohaihai river mouth and the amazing limestone formations of the Oparara Basin still beckon.