Many tourists speed past Okarito on their way to see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. However, this small community and the lagoon that takes its name, offer visitors a quiet peace and closeness to nature that can often be difficult to find in today’s modern world.
I first visited Okarito in 1983 and simply enjoyed a break from travelling, sitting on a bank and staring across the lagoon to the wonderful views of the Southern Alps. Nowadays you can take a guided kayak trip and glide through the still, shallow waters to get a close up of the surrounding rainforest and the many native birds who make their home in the vicinity – an experience I would encourage everyone to enjoy.
Where is Okarito?
Okarito is a magical spot for nature lovers and those that are ornithologically inclined. Set on a sandpit snug beneath the Southern Alps, 25km from Franz Josef Township, the land folds towards Okarito Lagoon, combining rainforest and wetland to great effect. It covers an area of about 12 square kilometres (4.6 sq mi), making it the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand. The Okarito settlement is located just inland, on the banks of the Okarito river.
History of Okarito
The Maori made regular visits to the area since their arrival an estimated 600 years ago, in order to fish and harvest the natural food sources from the land. In fact Okarito is Maori for “place of the young bulrush shoots” which apparently were very tasty.
Like most places on the West Coast in the post-colonial period, the discovery of gold in the 1860s saw Okarito become a bustling hive of industry.
With hordes of gold miners all seeking their fortunes, it’s said a record-breaking 500 men arrived on one day alone.The main street was lined with more than 30 retail establishments. By Christmas, 1865, Okarito’s population was 800 and by the end of that summer the population had virtually doubled, making it the third largest port on the West Coast, with regular direct services coming all the way from Australia.
By the end of 1867, the miners had worked out the black sands. Those who stayed moved back from the beaches and built massive water races to aid sluicing and later to run dredges.
But with the fading of the gold rush, the town almost disappeared, and in the 1880s just 12 families were left. The hotels of old , The Royal and the Caledonian have long since gone . The population has not greatly changed since that time with about 30 residents who now call Okarito home.
A Sense of Community
For a small town there is a lot going on. The main hub is Donovan’s Store, a beautifully restored historic building, the oldest remaining commercial building on the West Coast.
Today it’s the community heart, where you can go to concerts or take yoga classes, there’s even a small library. New houses are often brought in pre-made by truck and swiftly erected on a bought plot.
With such stunning natural scenery, Okarito also attracts many photographers and gallery exhibitions are always worth a view.
Okarito Lagoon and Birdlife
The star attraction of the area, the lagoon is home to many species of native bird including the White Heron (kotuku), which is extremely rare in New Zealand. Other birds include migratory waders, gulls, shags and terns on the mud flats as well as black swans, scaup, crested grebes, and ducks in freshwater areas. Tui, bellbird, kingfishers, pigeon, crakes, fern birds, and bitterns and crakes inhabit the wetland areas.
The rare rowi kiwi can also be found here, and thanks in part to Operation Nest Egg undertaken by the Department of Conservation, they’re being brought back from the brink of extinction.
Things to do in Okarito
Walks in Okarito
Okarito Beach – Wander along the magnificent beach
The Trig Track – Climb up a steep hill to view the Southern Alps in all their glory to the south and the Lagoon to the north . The start of this track has been greatly improved by the placement of a boardwalk by the Department of Conservation (pictured above) – 45 mins to an hour
Three Mile Lagoon Track – Walk along the Okarito Beach at low tide or through the bush on a well-formed track – 3 hours return
As you would expect, nature tourism plays a large part in the local economy and a number of small operators (nearly all owner-operated) offer travellers the opportunity to enjoy the flora and fauna of this stunning natural area. Here is a list of the main companies:
Operated by Ian Cooper and his guides, who take clients out after dark to look for the kiwi, and by all accounts have a pretty good track record of seeing and hearing these rare birds in their natural environment.
As the name suggests, Okarito Kayaks give you the opportunity to kayak out on your own in the lagoon or enjoy a guided experience. At the end of your trip ( and/or before!), you can have a slice of homemade cake along with a cup of their outstanding coffee.
These tours take you to the nesting site of the White Heron deep within the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve which is only accessible by boat. Royal Spoonbill (kotuku nutu-papa) and Little Shag (kawapaka) also nest in this reserve. The preserved rainforest and its surroundings is also home to a great array of other bird life.
This company offers a range of tours by boat through the main lagoon channels to where the best sightings are. Early mornings are the best time of day in the Spring and Summer seasons, not only to see the birds but to be treated to the most amazing views and reflections of the Southern Alps.
Accommodation in Okarito
There is a campground at Okarito and a wide range of holiday homes and cottages available to rent. Pictured below is the Okarito Beach House:
As you’ve probably gathered, we rate this little “township” on the West Coast highly and even if you can’t stay overnight, you’ll have time to take in one of the tours we’ve highlighted en route to the Glaciers. You won’t be disappointed!
These trips can be included in any tailor-made tour by Silver Fern Holidays or you could pre-book with one of the operators before you arrive in the area.
We would also like to thank all the operators and people of Okarito for the use of their information in the putting together of this article.