We awoke to rain, but the forecasters were correct, as it cleared by the time we left our hotel. A short drive and walk, took us to the viewpoint for the Franz Josef Glacier, and a chance encounter with Cliff, who has been guiding people on Glacier walks for 14 years. His catch phrase, “Ii you can’t remember my name, look around you", rings true as we take in the magnificent glacial formed valley. The glacier may be retreating rapidly, but the vista is still breathtaking.
Okarito village is where the Okarito lagoon, the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand, covering 3,000 hectares of shallow open water and tidal flats, meets the beaches of the wild Tasman Sea. It is surrounded by virgin rainforest with a stunning backdrop of the Southern Alps mountain range. The natural beauty has drawn a number of talented & creative people to live in this isolated community, including Keri Hulme, author of the award-winning novel, "The Bone People", and Andre Apse, one of New Zealand’s finest landscape photographers.
We join two old friends, Swade and Paula, long term West Coast nature guides who host us for lunch, a guided tour of the tiny settlement and a cruise onto the lagoon. With over 70 species of birds known to visit the lagoon, the trip is a bird watcher’s delight and we see rare birds such as the Kotuku (White Heron), Royal Spoonbill and many more. Swade shares his vast knowledge and is expert at positioning our boat at the best spot so the photographers can get the perfect shot.
We continue northwards and at Pukekura (population two) we meet with more old friends. “Possum Pete” and his lovely wife Justine are drying Sphagnum Moss, they have collected from the forest and they have a lively conversation with the team. Hunters, tourist operators, environmental activists, authors, natural clothing manufacturers and “Possum Pie” creators, they are true “West Coasters”, with an amazing past. One example, when they got married Justine made her own wedding dress out of bleached white possum skins and Pete flew her and the celebrant in his helicopter, to the top of a nearby mountain for the ceremony. Back on the road my group delighted in their story in full, made more impactful by having just met them.
If I were to live on the “Coast” it would be in Hokitika. The coastal town is surrounded by the natural beauty that typifies the West Coast and it has an interesting past. Its local rivers are New Zealand’s main source of Pounamu (Greenstone or Jade) and as such it was a very important trading centre for Maori in pre-European times. As a gold-rush boomtown in 1866 it was the most populous settlement in New Zealand with a population of more than 25,000, and boasted more than 100 pubs. Today some of New Zealand’s best Pounamu (greenstone) carvers have based themselves in the town and their presence has drawn a number of other talented craftspeople to the area. The town has also been in the news of late as the setting for the television series and Booker Prize winning novel, "The Luminaries", by Eleanor Catton.
As we explore the town, we visit Mark (a local carver of Maori descent) and his daughter Caroline, at “Traditional Jade”, their family run Pounamu gallery. At the “Wilderness Gallery”, we meet, Jurgen and Monica, two German migrants to New Zealand, who tell the group of their journey to New Zealand, as we view one of the best collections of New Zealand made art and crafts in the country. Carol talks to us at the “Possum People”, about creating her Opossum fur clothing business and the controversial use of 1080 to control predators. On the streets we meet Phil and Sonja, who have lived in Hokitika all their lives. Sonja runs a small guest lodge and catering business. Phil works at the local Westland Dairy Company and is a passionate local historian. He has just come back from a secret spot deep in the bush, where he measured the circumference of what he believes to be the largest Matai tree in the country. Before leaving town a visit to “Sweet Alices” is a must, for ice-creams and a chance to stock up on her delicious home-made fudge.
A very scenic hour’s drive north of Hokitika is our destination for the next two nights and one of my favourite lodgings in New Zealand, the Punakaiki Resort. We are met by Craig, another typical West Coast character, who has been a porter and gardener at the lodge for years. He helps us get our bags to our rooms, before we enjoy a delicious meal in the restaurant. The sound of the waves crashing on the shores lull us to sleep, as we reflect on another amazing day.