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The Ōkārito Coast: Lagoons at the Feet of Glaciers

Published
October 9, 2021
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A public map at Franz Josef/Waiau: North is roughly to the left

HALFWAY down the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand is one of the best places to base yourself for a tourism experience. I am talking about the little camping ground at Ōkārito, next to the unspoilt Ōkārito Lagoon.

On a clear day, the views of the Southern Alps are epic. There are scenic forest lakes, and other camp grounds, all the way up and down this stretch of coast.

From Franz Josef/Waiau, just a little further south, you can observe the glaciers that descend into the rainforest and catch scenic and ski-touring flights up into the alps, even to the doorsteps of high alpine huts such as Centennial Hut and Pioneer Hut.

Also from the same map, with north roughly to the left once more

I will be talking about that area of the coast in my next post. This one will be about the Ōkārito area, including Whataroa and Lake Mapourika.

Ōkārito

Here are some photos I took at Ōkārito, including pictures of the Ōkārito Community Campground, which is the cheapest place to stay at only NZ $15 a night plus $2 for showers. It also has an enclosed kitchen and is the site of the old historic storehouse, the oldest known building still standing on the South Island’s West Coast. The store was originally erected as the Club Hotel in the first months of a gold rush that began early in 1865, and then became a store serving the shrunken, post-gold-rush community that stayed on.

The Ōkārito Community Campground

The Kitchen and ablution blocks at the Community Campground

The old storehouse, at the Community Campground

Monument sign next to the storehouse

On the foreshore next to the old jetty, with snowy mountains behind

On the old jetty

The Beach and a bluff

On the Jetty

For those who don’t mind spending more, there is an old schoolhouse next to the campground which is now an upmarket hostel, the Ōkārito School House, and a private hostelry with high rankings, the Ōkārito Beach House.

Another local business worthy of mention is Ōkārito Kiwi Tours, which takes visitors into natural kiwi habitat.

And you can go kayaking. I bumped into someobody from my own old home town of Hastings who now runs Ōkārito Kayaks, and I duly went kayaking!

There is a lovely three and a half hour low-tide coastal walk, a twenty-minute walk through the local wetlands, and a one-and-a-half hour return climb to the top of a local hill with good views called the Trig Track. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) has a web page on Ōkārito walks, here.

On the Trig Track, it is best to go in the morning before the clouds arrive. At that time of day you can usually see Mounts Elie de Beaumont and Tasman, which are nearly as high as nearby Aoraki/Mount Cook, the loftiest peak in New Zealand, in addition to a sweeping view of the lagoons. According to the DOC page on the local tracks, as of the time of writing,

On a clear day, the view is unbeatable overlooking Westland Tai Poutini National Park from the snow-capped Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana across extensive native forest to the lagoons and beaches of the coast.

Though it has seen better days from a population point of view, with fewer than thirty permanent residents at the moment, the Ōkārito community is really well developed for tourism, with arts and crafts. Quite a few old, historic building have been preserved as well, such as the aforementioned school house and Donovan’s Store.

Local monuments, including the Ōkārito Memorial Obelisk, highlight European history and discovery. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much about local Māori history, the township’s Māori name notwithstanding.

Officially, the name Ōkārito is said to held to mean a place of young, edible bullrush shoots (kārito), a name that is certainly plausible in view of the fact that they grow there in abundance.

Here is part of the wetland walk at Ōkārito

Having said that, Keri Hulme, a writer of South Island Māori heritage who wrote the 1985 Man Booker prizewinner The Bone People at Ōkārito and who still lives there, points out in editor Susheila Nasta’s 2004 connection of interviews, Writing Across Worlds, that Kārito was also the name of a former local rangatira or chief, the father of a daughter named Mapourika after whom Lake Mapourika is known to be named, and that in her opinion the name Ōkārito honours the chief.

As soon as I arrived at Ōkārito I started making short videos. I start off by interviewing a local goat belonging to some whitebaiters (people who net tiny larval fish for fritters) and then pan across the lagoon, showing some of the snowy mountains. In the next scene, you can see the beach and the bush-clad cliffs.

The West Coast is famous for its whitebaiting, but the numbers of whitebait are in decline, like most other things it seems, partly due to the whitebait catch and partly due to the pollution of the rivers in which the whitebait mature and breed. This is also an issue for the kōtuku, which partly live on whitebait themselves.

A lot of whitebaiters use farm machines to go up and down the beach where the godwits and other birds feed, and this can be a problem as well. Dogs are allowed on the beach, so there is a bit of an environmental conundrum there too.

There are a lot of international visitors from places such as Canada who have come to reside on the West Coast and this has made this once resource-oriented areas more environmentally-conscious. There was a scandal a couple of years ago over the fact that an old, closed, rubbish tip was eroded by a river and all the historic rubbish started going into the sea.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the tip had only contained rubbish from the age of interesting old bottles, but unfortunately it also contained rubbish from the age of plastic! Volunteers picked up the rubbish, while the local council said that they did not have resources. Maybe the New Zealand Government’s current plan to centralise responsbility for water management is a good idea.

Here is another pair of scenes showing more of the decaying old jetty, and then a description of my ascent of the local Trig Track, from which you can see more of the mountains.

The name Trig Track refers to the science of trigonometry, a branch of mathematics which involves measuring the angles of triangles and the use of these measurements to work out distances and positions.

Early government surveyors took bearings off the lofty peaks that could be seen from the top of the hill at the top of today’s Trig Track in order to figure out where the hill was, and then left a ‘Trig’ marker for local surveyors to use.

I also made a video of scenes showing seals on the beach at Ōkārito, including a sad-looking little pup that looked as though it was sick or hungry. I wonder if the Department of Conservation rangers would have done anything if I had told them, or if their view is that nature should take its course?

Whataroa

Whataroa lies a short way inland from Ōkārito. The area around Whataroa is famous for containing the only long-term nesting place, in New Zealand, of the kōtuku or white heron. This is a great egret that is fairly common in some Asian countries but hardly ever seen in New Zealand, where it has a special significance for Māori as a symbol of things rare and beautiful.

A fading information sign on the crumbling jetty at Ōkārito supplies the following information:

From Whataroa, you can do some gnarly tramps inland up the Whataroa River, Perth River and Butler River. There is a DOC page on these tramps, and a hike up and over the Adams Range, here.

If you go further north, past Harihari, you can also hike up the Wanganui River: not to be confused with the Whanganui River in the North Island, which I have blogged about elsewhere! About fifteen minutes from the road end, you come to the Amethyst Hot Springs— you might not want to go any further!

All of these hikes are very weather-dependent, as it rains hard in the mountains and the rivers rise rapidly. The relevant DOC brochures have more to say about what precautions to take.

Another good walk, closer to Whataroa and less epic, is the Waitangitāhuna Wetland Walk, which you get to from Ōkārito by going through the community of Whataroa, some way inland as you can see from the dioramas above. The walk proceeds through wetland forest to a viewing platform with spectacular views of the mountains.

On the road to Whataroa from Ōkārito, you cross the Waitangitaona River, which is famous for fly fishing.

While at Whataroa, you can also do tours of the South Island’s Alpine Fault, and visit the breeding place of the enigmatic kōtuku or white heron, which I also have more to say about below.

We didn’t see any kōtuku when we were passing through, not specifically touring the breeding area, but we did see a lot of kereru, or wood pigeons.At Whataroa, I took a photo of the frontage of the breeding sanctuary, which shows you how impressive the male kōtuku look when they are in breeding plumage. Not to mention the fact that there are tours, motels and cabins!

Lake Mapourika

Between Ōkārito and Franz Josef you can camp on the shores of beautiful Lake Mapourika at the Otto/MacDonalds Campsite, which seemed to be deserted when I visited in September 2021. Is Covid and lack of tourism making everything go bust, I wonder? Anyhow, this campsite, which is actually two campsites side by side, has flush toilets, which is something to bear in mind when thinking of a place to stay.

Lake Mapourika

See, further, my new book The Sensational South Island: New Zealand’s Mountain Land.

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