The best wildlife experience on the West Coast? Sea Kayak Okarito Lagoon.

Is this the best wildlife experience on the West Coast? Guided sea kayak on Okarito Lagoon for a close up wildlife experience in this stunning setting.

In the heart of Southwest New Zealand world heritage area and the ‘wild’ West Coast of the South Island where we discover one of New Zealand’s most colourful areas and enjoy a gentle sea kayak amongst the unique birdlife of Okarito lagoon, all in the shadow of New Zealand’s highest peaks. 

Many travellers to New Zealand say that they want to minimize time spent in transit and maximize time outside enjoying ourselves.  Luckily for all of us, this is very easy to do in New Zealand due to our relatively small size, the diversity of landscapes within close proximity of each other and the excellent roads that are not busy at all by international standards.  We know it’s the outdoors that people are interested in, we love the outdoors too and the whole reason we have put these tours together is to showcase this wilderness to our guests.

Getting to Okarito is half the fun - down the West Coast

If you are travelling down the West Coast from the Punakaiki / Paparoa National Park area to Westland National Park and glacier country you are passing through some very contrasting countryside that will add so much to your journey.  If we think about these two environments - one a semi tropical rainforest dotted with palm trees, sandy beaches and an underground labyrinth of limestone caves, the other an area of temperate rainforest, alpine parrots, an array of mountains over 3,000m (10,000 feet) and permanent glaciers over 20km (12 miles) in length. You could be forgiven for thinking that the driving distance between these two environments would be long and arduous.  The good news is that here in New Zealand, you can easily travel between these strickingly different areas over an easy half day journey on amazingly scenic roads and through areas with colourful local histories that bring the trip to life.  As is so easy in New Zealand, most days that involve travel can be filled with the perfect mix of half a day in transit and the other half outside enjoying the best of the great New Zealand outdoors.

The West Coast’s location on the western side of the Southern Alps has made this area unique in many ways - geologically, economically, socially and climatically.  Your guide will enlighten you as you travel through small towns like Hokitika (the jade capital of New Zealand), Greymouth (coal mining) and REALLY small towns like Ross and Harihari.  From the earliest human habitation in New Zealand, the west coast has always been a route of discovery and commerce, with the Maori sourcing their treasured pounamu (jade) here and the early European settlers mining gold and later coal.  In early European settlement, Okarito was one of the main ports on the West coast and in the township and surrounding areas around 4000 people made their homes here - a far cry from today where the population is around only 30 people!  Another interesting note about Okarito - New Zealand author Keri Hulme, winner of the 1985 Booker Prize, lived in Okarito for many years and for those who have read her award winning novel, the Bone People, this is the area she drew inspiration from and actually lived in while she wrote her book.

Okarito Lagoon - a haven for wildlife

Back to our lagoon though, with an area of 3000 hectares (7400 acres) Okarito lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland and home to more than 76 species of native birds, most notable of which are the white heron/kotoku (Eastern Great Egret), royal spoonbill and Okarito brown Kiwi (Rowi).  Our afternoon activity today is a mix of wildlife and adventure, as we view and learn all about the avifauna we encounter on our gentle afternoon paddle with local expert nature / kayak guides like Richard in Okarito, who has been living and working here for many years.  He’s built up expert local knowledge and really knows the winds and currents, not to mention the wildlife.  The role of a good outdoor guide is two fold - first is the more overt guiding and interpretation part of the role - there is so much to learn and see that we would otherwise miss in an area like this and it’s immediately obvious Richard knows this area like the back of his hand and it shows as he easily identifies different birds and tells us all about the conservation projects going on in the area.  The second, less obvious role of a good outdoor guide is to make safety and support decisions behind the scenes and there is no better place than Okarito lagoon where this adds to the enjoyment of your trip.  Being a coastal lagoon, there are obviously tides to consider and Richard and his team are on top of this details and plan our afternoon kayak with the conditions in mind.  Another little bonus is that you have full backup support, should you need any help at all one of the team is only minutes away in the inflatable zodiac.  The perfect setup for us to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of our kayaking.

The physical environment, the expert guiding and support all help make this an afternoon you will remember for a long time.  Paddle on the gentle waters of the lagoon savouring the views up to Mount Cook in the distance, then pause and take the the grace of the Kotoku in flight just a few metres in front of you - that’s your Okarito lagoon experience.

These are the highlights of day four of our 13 or 11 day New Zealand Walking Tour - a fully guided walking tour starting in Christchurch and finishing in either Queenstown or Christchurch.  We have carefully planned this itinerary to include some of the best walks in New Zealand, iconic activities you’ll never forget and all the while enjoying accommodation offering all the comforts of home.  Walking highlights are day hikes on the Milford, Routeburn and Hollyford Tracks plus in Mount Cook and Arthur’s Pass National Parks.  Your tour includes bucket list activities such as the TranzAlpine, Nile River glowworm caves, Fox Glacier hiking, Okarito Lagoon kayak, Lake Wanaka cruise, Queenstown winery walk, helicopter flight from Milford Sound to Martins Bay, Fiordland back country jetboad and Mt John observatory in Tekapo.  There is no camping or staying in huts on this tour, accommodation is at a four star standards and we sample the best local cuisine and wines on route.  For more information please visit us at NewZealandTrails.com

by Andrew Wells - New Zealand Trails

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