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Okarito is one of those places that if you're lucky enough to stumble upon, it will become a highlight of your travel stories. The small town and surrounding scenery will frame your memories of the quintessential kiwi community. Only a country with vast landscapes and few people can fashion a place like Okarito and only those hardy and passionate can call it home.
This magical stretch of land contrasts with the wild West Coast, with the serenity of a calm lagoon which winds its way into the vast kahikatea and rimu rainforest. It is home to a small but vibrant community of 35 people and over 70 bird species. The lagoon is a birdwatcher’s paradise, where black swans migrate from the north and where the surrounding bush is alive with tuis, robins, kereru, bellbirds and the cheeky kea.
Okarito Lagoon is the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand, covering 3,240 hectares of shallow open water and tidal flats making it the perfect place to kayak. At Okarito Nature Tours, Baz and Gem will not only tell you how to navigate the lagoon but they also make superb coffee – a welcome treat after your paddling adventure! I say ‘after’ because you don’t want to get in a kayak with a full bladder!
One of the joys whilst kayaking is to stop paddling, slowly drift through the tea-coloured channels of the lagoon and listen to the varsity of life from the encroaching rainforest. Marvel at psychedelic mirror-like reflections, wild orchids growing on fallen trees and watch the graceful Kotuku fly overhead. It is special to see the Kotuku, or ‘White Heron’, an elegant bird revered by Maori and Europeans – in the mid-20th Century there were only a handful of nests left due to demand for the ornamental feathers. Luckily now the Kotuku breeding sites are reserved and we can all enjoy their graceful nature.
After having experienced the landscape from a kayak it’s nice to put your boots on and head up to the historic trig point where on a good day there are 360 degree views from the glaciated mountains to the coastal edge. It’s not hard to imagine our famous forefathers standing at this very same spot, which in the 1860’s was a vital hub for the first survey network. Surveyor explorers such as Julius von Haast, Gerhard Muller and Charlie Douglas viewed the “Full Frontal” of the coastline and the Southern Alps from this exact location.
You can also go on an adventurous nighttime excursion with Okarito Kiwi Tours to see the kiwi bird in their natural habitat. Crouching in the rainforest listening for the kiwi's calls, it's a quick blind scramble through the darkness in order to catch a glimpse of the elusive rare brown kiwi, also called the rowi.
Services in Okarito include a self-catering lodge and an excellent campground, managed by the local community. Be aware there are no shops so you will need to bring supplies. If you prefer, you can also choose to stay in the nearby town of Franz Joseph and make a day trip.
When I work as a guide during the summer months we visit Okarito on a number of Active Adventures New Zealand trips. It's one of my favourite stops!
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