The small historic settlement of Okarito is built on a sand-spit within Okarito Lagoon.
The village lies between the forces of the Tasman Sea and a natural landscape of wetlands and rainforests, dominated by the highest peaks of the Southern Alps, including Mts. Cook and Tasman.
Okarito proves that history is not just preserved in museums and its restored buildings can give you an insight to what it was like to live in a gold mining town.
It is hard to imagine this quiet holiday village as a town that was once the third largest port on the West Coast.
In December 1865 eight hundred people lived here and by the end of that summer the population had mushroomed to over 1500 people with an additional 2500 people living at 3 Mile and 5 Mile mining sites.
The main street was lined with over thirty stores and hotels and locals say that “If you didn’t dig you sold grog....the bar owners won in the end because the diggers drank gallons.”
The end of the gold rush saw a declining population like the ebb of a spring tide; by the 1880s the population had decreased to about twelve families and the hotels had reduced to two.
Despite this decrease in size there was still a permanent harbour master, court house, gaol, blacksmiths shop, carpenter, undertaker and a school.
Today the Okarito community has possibly the strongest community spirit of any place on the West Coast.
In the warmer months families from all over New Zealand make the annual pilgrimage to their historic family holiday home known as a bach or a “crib” for the summer.
Talking to a local is highly recommended as you will inevitably be welcomed and entertained. Be careful not to make assumptions though as everyone seems to have an intriguing story to tell about the journey that brought them Okarito.
If you take the time to chat you may meet a modern day gold miner, yoga instructor or a pilot, a therapeutic masseuse, retired doctor, world renowned writer or photographer.
Thousands of native birds (more than 76 different species) visit the lagoon and many make their home in the vicinity, including the famous ktuku/white heron and royal spoonbills.
The kotuku is sacred to Mori and its only New Zealand breeding colony is north of the lagoon on the bank of the Waitangiroto River. The breeding site is a nature reserve, open from late October to the end of February and requiring an entry permit.
White Heron Sanctuary Tours, based at Whataroa, operate trips into the colony.
Okarito Boat Tours take guided trips on the lagoon or you could hire a canoe from Okarito Nature Tours and explore the lagoon yourself.
A small population of Okarito brown kiwi exists in a 98 square kilometre area where the Department of Conservation is involved in a kiwi recovery programme. Okarito Kiwi Tours take you out to visit these very special birds in their home.
Okarito Wharf and Boat Shed
During the gold rush of the 1860’s the Okarito wharf saw over five hundred miners disembark in one day, arriving in vessels from New Zealand, Australia and the rest of the world.
The resident harbour master strictly enforced maritime law and ensured there was no loose behaviour and Okarito grew to be the third largest port on the West Coast. For over a decade there were regular services sailing directly to Australia.
The sand bar across to the Okarito Spit can still be treacherous and the Waipara which served the community for years eventually sank in the Okarito channel in 1873.
You can see a picture of the shipwreck amongst the information displays in the boat shed which also detail the history of Okarito.
It is also worth taking a closer look at the Department of Conservation display board set outside and around the corner from the main door of the boat shed. It will give you some insight in the biodiversity in the Okarito Lagoon which is New Zealand's largest unmodified wetland.
Donavan’s Store is the oldest commercial building still standing on the West Coast and takes pride of restoration in the centre of the Okarito Village.
It was initially the Club Hotel built in 1865 and it was rumoured that the local bar girls offered the services of a brothel to selected customers in its gabled roof.
In the 1890’s James and Eva Donavan converted it to a general store and its doors were kept open on a regular basis right through to 1987. Mr Donavan was a well respected member of the community and even stood for local government.
The Okarito Community Association in conjunction with the Department of Conservation has worked hard to restore and preserve the building and it now hosts many lively community events and a small library.
Be sure to look at the fliers on the main door to see if you can be a part of a yoga class or catch a performance by a travelling artist, poet or musician. For more information please see the Department of Conservation website at www.doc.govt.nz
The Old Schoolhouse
The building that you see today was not constructed until 1901. The original school house was built in 1867 and was once the centre of a thriving community.
Sadly as the population dwindled so did the school roll and in 1946 the school closed its doors for the last time at the start of the long summer holidays. The next year the school aged children had a choice of travelling to Whataroa or the Franz Josef Glacier Village.
By 1958 the paint was scabbing and the foundations sagging and the building was on the verge of demolition. The local community with the help of the Greymouth YHA undertook a major restoration project and the building was reopened as YHA shelter for travellers in 1960.
In 1990 the Department of Conservation, the Okarito Community Association and the Greymouth YHA initiated a complete restoration project. The modern kitchen facilities were added and the bathroom area remodelled.
All the money for the project was raised by the Okarito community.
Today travellers from the world over take up the unique opportunity to stay in this historical building that seems to still ring of the chants and calls of past school days. For more information please see the Department of Conservation Website at doc.govt.nz.
Abel Janszoon Tasman went in search of a promised land with rich trading potential on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. His two ships the Zeehaen and the Heemskerck landed at Punakaiki on the West Coast of the South Island on December 13. 1642.
The cenotaph on the edge of the Okarito Village green is a monument to both Abel Janzoon Tasman and Judge James MacKay.
Tasman was the first European to site New Zealand and Mr Mackay more than anyone helped encourage the settlement of the West Coast.
In 1858 he was accredited with the settlement between the local Maori tribes and the crown for 7½ million acres of land between Kahurangi Point and Milford Sound for a meagre £300.
Drive 15 km north from Franz Josef Township on State Highway 6 to an Okarito Forks turnoff signposted on the left. Drive 13 km along a sealed road to Okarito.
For more information explore the Okarito Community Association website.
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