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Take a kayak or a guided tour to explore New Zealand's largest unmodified estuarine lagoon - home to more than 70 bird species, including the beautiful kot

At Okarito lagoon, on the west coast of the South Island, there's a huge area of shallow open water and tidal flats just waiting to be explored. It's the perfect location for sheltered water kayaking, and there is plenty to see as you paddle along.

The lagoon is surrounded by lush native rainforest, above which rise the towering snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps. The area is an important feeding ground for thousands of wading birds that seem relatively unruffled by the wide-eyed people drifting quietly by in kayaks.

The kotuku (whi

te heron) is very rare here, as New Zealand is at the edge of the bird's climatic and geographic range. Each year adult kotuku come from all over New Zealand to the country's only breeding area on the Waitangiroto River. The Okarito lagoon is their main feeding ground and the permanent home for some of the population.

The kotuku is sacred to Maori people. Kotuku feathers were highly prized and used to adorn chiefs in life and death. In Maori oratory, one of the highest compliments that can be made is to liken someone to the kotuku. Maori people believe the kotuku is an inhabitant of the spirit land of Reinga and an old Maori funeral chant ends with these words 'Ko to kotuku to tapui, e Tama - e', which means 'Kotuku is now thy sole companion, oh my son'.

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