Okarito is located on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Greymouth is the largest township on the West Coast, with Hokitika next to the south. One and a half hours drive south of Hokitika on State Hwy 6 is the turnoff to Okarito. The roads run through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and the drive along the coast is rated as one of the Top 10 Best Drives in the World by Lonely Planet.
Okarito is a small township located on a sandspit adjacent to the wild Tasman Sea on the West Coast of the South Island. Located just 27 kilometres north of the bustling tourist town of Franz Josef Glacier, as soon as you turn off State Hwy 6 and head towards the coast, you are transported into a different environment. Twelve kilometers of sealed, winding road follow the path of the rushing Okarito River towards Okarito Lagoon and the coast. Tall kahikatea and rimu trees are fronted by manuka, pungas and flax – all offering both food and shelter for many native birds.
As you pass The Forks and over the Okarito River, you soon see roadside signs indicating Kiwi, you are travelling through habitat of the most endangered kiwi, the Okarito Brown Kiwi, or Rowi. Join Ian Cooper and Okarito Kiwi Tours on one of his nocturnal trips into this kiwi habitat.
Soon, you will see the Okarito Lagoon emerge through the trees and the Historic Wharf building. This is where the local boat and kayak tours on the Lagoon depart from, Okarito Boat Tours and Okarito Nature Tours. In the 1860’s Okarito boomed as an extemely lucrative gold mining area and the main street, The Strand, housed a number of hotels and shops to accommodate the thousands who flocked here. The Strand as you see it now, is quiet, often with native Paradise ducks, oyster catchers or godwits wandering nearby. Okarito is now home to approximately 30 permanent residents who proudly act as custodians of this special environment.
The Okarito Community Association has been largely responsible for retaining the atmosphere, history and environment of the village, including the restoration of the Old Schoolhouse, now available for accommodation, the creation of the Okarito Campground, and the restoration and preservation of one of the oldest buildings of its type on the Coast, Donovans Store. You can visit the Okarito Community Association website to see more photos and local news.
The majestic Southern Alps, with the highest peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, frame the village and are stunning backdrops on a clear day with rainforest canopy in front. The village sits upon a small sandspit and is bordered by sand dunes and beaches, home to banded dotterals, terns, gulls and oyster catchers. Many walks are available here, from beaches to forest and the famous Okarito Trig walk offering views of the Alps, Franz Josef Glacier, the Tasman Sea and beaches and the Okarito Lagoon. You are likely to be accompanied by native fantails, tomtits and hear bellbirds, Tui’s, warblers amongst others on this 1.5 hour return walk in the forest.
Okarito Lagoon and Wildlife
Okarito Lagoon itself remains New Zealand’s largest unmodified natural wetland. This becomes of even greater significance as wetlands in New Zealand and around the globe continue to struggle for recognition and protection. Home to many species of native birds, the lagoon is also the feeding ground for many migrants, including the Eastern bar-tailed godwit. The icon of Okarito would have to be the Kotuku, or Great White Heron. Although found in abundance in other areas of the world, this is likely the most severe climate the Kotuku can be found in. Their sole breeding ground in New Zealand is located on the Waitangi-roto River near Whataroa, and the Lagoon is the main feeding area during the breeding cycle when the birds arrive in numbers from August and remain on the Lagoon until April They then disperse up and down the coast, with about 6-8 birds remaining on the Lagoon year round.
The Godwits arrive in August/September and are distinctive for having the longest non-stop migratory flight of any bird. They land on the tidal flats exhausted, losing their feathers and having lost nearly a third of their body weight. It is a delight to observe them throughout the summer months as they transform to their larger selves and prepare for the long journey back to Alaska and Siberia in April.
Other wading birds of the Lagoon include Pied Stilts, Royal Spoonbills, numerous shags and cormorants, oyster catchers, banded and New Zealand dotterals, australasian bitterns, white faced herons, gulls, caspian and white fronted terns, paradise shelducks, grey ducks and the New Zealand shoveller amongst others. In the waterways leading from the Lagoon into the forest, you can see New Zealand kingfishers, South Island fernbirds, New Zealand wood pigeon, bellbirds, tuis, tomtits, silvereyes, warblers, brown creepers, fantails and more.
These forest waterways are stunning, with reflections of ferns and rainforest reflected in the still waters. Kahikatea trees are related to rimu and miro and is New Zealand’s largest tree reaching heights of 40 metres or more. It’s ancestry dates back to the forests of Gondwana over 100 million years ago. The Okarito River which you can travel up by boat or kayak offers a rich variety of plant life, from these ancient giants to delicate orchids.
Okarito offers travellers a variety of accommodation and helpful locals are happy to guide you to best viewing points of a variety of birds. Its location provides peaceful exploration of the area, yet remains handy to those wishing to visit the more populated and bustling tourist town of Franz Josef Glacier. New Zealand holiday houses are a great way to get off the beaten track while staying in comfortable self-contained homes and Okarito has a few on offer. Check the Holiday Homes website for listings.