Okarito – in many moods

Storm over Okarito

Wild, white-capped seas froth onto the pebbled shore under a menacing sky, hailstones whipped by a strong sou-westerly pelt bare legs as I beat a hasty retreat from beach to campervan.

West Coast magic!

I’d been looking forward to getting back to the South Island for months –a year-long trek having been cut short by a challenged bank balance.  My ‘snail’ home was abandoned in Nelson for a few months while I took on a couple of writing contracts in Auckland. The first, ironically, was researching and writing about New Zealand’s wealthiest for the NBR Rich List. Not quite evidence for a ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics – but the nine-week injection of funds was welcome.

Snail’s dollar-a-day storage at Tahuna Motor Camp was reasonable and, as it turned out, the area’s notoriously high sun hours meant her battery (drip-fed by solar panel) was never in danger of going flat. Meanwhile, there were four issues of two magazines (D-Photo and Tone) to complete before I could get back on the road.

Finally, by early November, snail was re-stocked, re-started and heading down the West Coast – into a whole series of squally Spring-time fronts.

Wild West Coast surf

Majestic alpine scenery stayed hidden from view. Plans to kayak Okarito lagoon looked less and less promising. Ploughing into yet another downpour, I even considered early escape over Arthur’s Pass to kinder eastern climes.

But over the Main Divide, dark clouds drifted downward. In the friendly warmth of Kumara Junction café, there was a warning that snow had already started falling up at the Pass. It looked clearer toward the coast.

By the time snail reached Okarito campground, the sun was shining. But not for long.

A foreshore walk is continually interrupted by a series of furious hailstorms. It’s cold, wild and totally wonderful.

In a wind-rocked snail, sleep comes quickly and deeply and by morning, the sky is washed clear. And there, in startling white silhouette, rising over a still lagoon, the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps. A brisk walk up to the Trig Point above Okarito reveals the sharp white slice of Aoraki, the dramatic bulk of Tasman.

Now you see them....

This is where surveyors like Haast once stood to chart the bright peaks that stretch far to both North and South. Their sudden appearance is like a conjuring trick. Now you see them …..

By afternoon they’d retreated under cloud again. But the rain held off for a walk over the ‘pack track’ to Three Mile Lagoon and back along a beach littered with driftwood,  the odd resting seal and an arresting wealth of stones, sea smoothed and streaked with hard white quartz or glittering mica.

Rock waves

Further back, on a windswept foreshore, banded dotterels have only camouflage to protect the eggs laid near driftwood or pingao clumps and fluffy sand-shaded chicks that are born knowing the skill of stillness.

Banded dotterel with chick

In this West Coast outpost, the 70 or so bird species regularly found here now outnumber the 35-strong permanent population – but it wasn’t always that way. In the late 1800s Okarito’s population swelled to a gold fever pitch. For a while the small town hosted 1500 diggers and boasted a main street lined with supply shops and grog vendors.

Donovan’s store is still there – the oldest wooden building on the coast and now venue for musicians like New Zealand’s Don McGlashan.

The West Coast's oldest wooden building

The old schoolhouse has also been preserved and, overlooking the estuary, the wharf shed offers a picturesque reminder of what was once was a thriving port.

The old wharf shed

Those drawn to Okarito today are attracted by riches more enduring than gold. Out on the 3240ha expanse of unmodified lagoon, birdlife thrives – including the graceful Kotuku (white heron) which breed in nearby Waitangiroto and stalk the shallow flats to feed.

It’s a fantastic place to kayak. Okarito Nature Tours rents out craft on an hourly or daily basis as well as offering overnight stays or guided tours. Just a few strokes of the paddle take you into another world.

At water level the lagoon stretches forever. It’s easy to become lost in the vastness of water and sky – captivated by the sight of herons dancing that bright line between air and liquid.

Heron dance

Strategically placed sticks mark the channels and river systems that take you under arches of tall kahikatea where shags preen and scaup nestle on dead logs in the still waterways. Gliding silently past, you stop feeling like an intruder and are gently drawn into a quietness of being that has no end.


More precious than any metal, Okarito’s natural magic will draw this visitor back again .. and again. Whatever its mood.

About vjayne

I'm a writer / photographer usually based on Waiheke Island in New Zealand but currently traveling the country in "snail" - my mobile home and office. Along the way, I'm telling stories about the places I see or people I meet and building up a beautiful library of photos - of New Zealand's coastline and mountains, its walking tracks and wildlife. I'm happy to supply illustrated stories to New Zealand and offshore publications. My work background includes editing business and lifestyle magazines, crafting features on topics ranging from management and marketing to frogs and fashion, creating organisational narratives and promotional literature. Please visit my website for more information. www.writeawaycommunications.co.nz
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