Okarito is off the beaten track well hidden by stunning native bush clad hills on one side and the Tasman Ocean on the other. As a New Zealander if you have never been to this little gem in Godz Own may I urge you get on your horse and go!!
I recently made this journey and from Auckland it was easy... from Invercargill it is easy - so it is easy from virtually anywhere.
Get yourself to Christchurch and collect a rental car or catch the Alpine Express and head for the West Coast. I chose to drive from the garden city through Arthurs Pass where the Keas make a fuss of you as though you are the first tourists ever to set foot in their territory. They are so friendly that they offer to share ‘your’ lunch at the roadside cafe. The coffee is superb and the rain comes down in buckets - not your normal home handyman buckets either - but buckets they use to fight fires with ...huge buckets! This does not dampen my excitement as I drive to Otira. The landscape has 500 waterfalls bursting from the side of bush clad mountains from small ravines not normally seen. It is also spectacular on a sunny day so if it is not bucketing down do not stress!
Arthurs Pass bach through the rain.
I stopped a night in Greymouth but you can turn left and head south to Okarito if you so choose. I suggest you stop in Whataroa and talk to the wonderful lady at the White Heron’s Tour office. Okarito is famous for the nesting site of the Kotuku or White Heron. You may decide to book this tour to the nesting site of some amazing birds. The day we went the Spoonbills were having a domestic and the Herons were nest building. I believe this tour offers excitement right through the nesting season until the chicks are large enough to take off. We went up a long creek through nondescript farmland by jet boat, before a short boardwalk through the forest brought us to a specific purpose-built hide. Along the boardwalk are numerous little treasures such as our native kidney fern so keep your eyes and ears open and you will hear/ see bell birds and tuis. It was a great trip.
The Whataroa Pub is pretty quaint but their whitebait fritters were excellent - served outside at the most magnificent slab of stone I have ever seen. The bar is a real ‘blokey’ bar where the local farmers congregate to tell yarns and watch sport on a small TV perched above the Speights tap! No good coffee in this small town but I did discover one of the world's best small museums... even listed by Amex as such! It is a Maori Museum and the artefacts will surprise you. Ancient whale bone beautifully carved, early New Zealand Crown Lynn china with Maori motifs, modern exquisitely carved jewellery – and a few good yarns to be told while you check out the war canoe!
Okarito has a small nondescript signpost just south of Whataroa. It is easy to miss the turnoff, so be warned. The narrow road winds for 30 minutes along a gentle river and there are real ‘beware the Kiwi’ road signs. As you approach Okarito you see an old wharf building on your right and then the town appears ...after that is the end of the road! And guess what! there are no shops, no fuel stops, no traffic lights and not even a church. There is actually an airport; only recognisable from the wind sock! The kayak hire-shed makes the best coffee on the West Coast - well, Richard does!! Funnily enough they also rent kayaks, and trips out on the magnificent Okarito Lagoon. Swade and Paula take you out in a large, ugly but very safe flat bottomed boat, out to where the birds are feeding. Swade is an enthusiast and his tours are educational and personal. He knows this area intimately and it shows. We saw Godwits, Spoonbills, and White Herons (Kotuku) feeding, some at close range. We also saw Wood Pigeons, Tuis, Bellbirds and many species of Shag. We had a cuppa on the banks of the lagoon with home-made cookies... not a sound anywhere - this was real peace! http://okaritoboattours.co.nz http://www.birdingwestcoast.co.nz
Okarito has no hotels but there are private homes to rent and ours was extremely clean and comfortable - ask Paula. However you need to book in advance as property is limited. The lagoon has a stony shore and this river mouth or lagoon is the home of whitebait during the season and one can see dozens of people out with their nets scooping up this great New Zealand delicacy. There are several coastal walks and one for the energetic is up to the trig station where you obtain spectacular panoramic views! One can see Mt Cook and the Southern Alps. One enterprising local runs a DOC approved night-time Kiwi walk and they boast an 85% hit rate.... well sight rate! http://www.okaritokiwitours.co.nz
The closed and historic General Store every so often opens it's doors for very small concerts or performances, so if you time it right you might meet the locals!
There are two plaques hidden amongst the trees to those unfortunate souls who drowned at sea; a stark reminder that what can be idyllic on a calm sunny summer's day can be a frothy violent ocean on a different day! There are open spaces to play Cricket or throw a Frisbee, there are no cell phones or hooning V8’s, and on rare occasions you see a local, but they are a shy lot. There are artists in residence and one such person is Andris Apse who has a very sophisticated Photo Gallery – open by arrangement, so ask a local. www.andrisapse.com or contact him in advance. Andris is one of New Zealand’s leading landscape photographers. His books are readily available in shops everywhere.
Okarito is one of those towns where you can recharge your batteries and read several books in peaceful and beautiful surroundings. We drove into Franz Joseph township for dinner one night – less than 30 minutes away so if you are needing civilisation it is not far away!
Until you visit this hidden away corner you haven’t seen New Zealand!
An old world clothesline in Okarito sums up the Okarito charm.
Photographs and story by Lynn Clayton