Friday, 29 July 2016

Okarito- West Coast

Catch-up - still on the Coast

There are a number of reasons we need to return to the West Coast at a different time of the year and it hasn't anything to do with the weather. Just north of the Glaciers there's a very big lagoon, Okarito Lagoon and just off the northern tip of Okarito Lagoon there's a very special sanctuary; the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve White Heron/ Kotuku Sanctuary, the only place in New Zealand where White Herons breed. Unfortunately it's not the breeding season and the boat tours (which leave from Whataroa) to the nesting site, run only from mid-September through until the end of February. We also missed the Westland Petrel's breeding season the last time we were on the Coast so we now have two reasons to return.

In the meantime we did a tiki-tour, visiting the seaside settlement of Okarito on a day that couldn't decide what weather to throw at us- one minute is was torrential rain, the next overcast, then blue sky and sun, but always with a cold wind blowing. 

You can see how much rain we've had, Lake Mapourika's jetty is nearly under water!

We stopped to check out the double DOC camps at the northern end of the lake; Ottos Corner & MacDonalds Creek. The top three photos are of Ottos Camp, the bottom three of MacDonalds, which is just a short bush walk away.

There were two small pup tents set up in areas of Ottos, along with some fold up chairs and rain jackets under the sink in the shelter. And nobody about. Which in itself isn't unusual, but the tents were open and flapping in the wind and there was no personal gear inside, just a bit of bedding. They looked as though they'd been abandoned.

We've come across this a few times on our travels. Tourists leaving their cheaply(and not so cheaply) purchased camping gear behind after their last night in the country. Which isn't a good idea because the police are usually advised (in case they've gone missing on a walk or in the bush) and they have to keep checking back for any sign of the missing campers. There were 'missing posters' still tacked to the trees at a campsite at Lake Monowai, where we visited, 5 months after the tent had been reported empty. We later spoke to a DOC Ranger who visited the  MacDonalds Camp while we were there and he told us he'd be clearing the gear out later in the day, it had been reported deserted a few days previous.

On our way out of the camp, a falcon dived in over the top of the ute and swooped up into a nearby tree. It sat there for a good 10 minutes surveying the scenery and quietly watching me as I tried to sneak up on it. 

As I was inching my way forward around the bushes a tiny little male Tomtit/Miromiro landed on a flax leaf right beside me. Oh so cute! I willed him to stay put because I could see him ending up as Falcon dinner if he made a wrong move. Thankfully he disappeared back into the undergrowth behind us before he was spotted.

We turned off the main road and headed towards Okarito 13kms away right on the coast. These kiwi signs appeared all the way along the road beside bush. It's the first time I've seen a kiwi painted on the road. This is the home of the Rowi; the rarest kiwi of them all, with a natural population of just 450 birds. 

The Rowi is only found in this small area of lowland forest near the Okarito Lagoon. Rowi vary from other Kiwi species in a number of ways; they are quite grey in colour and often have white patches on their face, they feel softer to touch as their feathers aren't as coarse. And the male & female take turns in looking after the egg. They also have a longer lifespan.

The seaside village of Okarito, with a permanent population of just 28 people, has the usual collection of rustic cribs and cottages mixed in amongst the more modern and architecturally designed holiday homes.

There are also a few historic buildings in the main street including Donovan's Store which is one of the oldest buildings in the South Island. Built during the 1860s gold rush it started life as a hotel and finally closed its doors, as a grocery store, in 1985. It's since been restored and is used as an event venue for travelling musical acts and exhibitions. 

You can read about Jimmy Donovan and his wife Eva, on this information panel (click to enlarge) The Donovans were fair dinkum Kiwis and loyal Coasters.

Just down the street is Alberts Hut, a tiny, tall and very narrow rough-sawn hut. I couldn't find any information about Albert or his hut anywhere on the 'net so this one's a mystery. Although one blogger thought 'Albert either lives here or just keeps his toilet here'. (A reader has now added interesting information about Albert's Hut in the comments below)

I'm sure someone reading the blog will be able to fill me in. I did notice thought, that many of the sections along the road were long and narrow, so perhaps Albert's hut was the forerunner of the village's narrow building sites.

We drove around to the Okarito Camping Ground to check the site out and to have some lunch at one of their picnic tables. This lovely large camping ground is run by the community; you check yourself in at the kiosk and then find a spot to suit. There's a communal lounge, coin operated showers, an old wringer washing machine, rubbish collection and even a herb garden. Yes, this will be a place I'd like to spend a few days.

The camping ground is right along side the beachfront, although there's a bit of a walk through a reserve and coastal planting to get to the surf itself. It's cold and blustery and not very pleasant at all today. The rugged and wild West Coast is living up to its name.

We pass a 'marooned' lagoon on the way to the surf; a sand bar separates it from the ocean and the main Okarito Lagoon. The only sign of life we see while visiting the village are two children in the reserve, who tell us they're building a flax raft to float on, around the pond. They've already built the jetty to launch it from. Flax? Good luck with that one I say.

There's a fabulous view of the Southern Alps from the beach and the campground although I only had a short glimpse before the cloud settled down over the top of the mountains again. There's lots of green spaces around the village and in this one there is a very tall memorial obelisk. Of course I was thinking it would be a war memorial...

...but in fact it's a memorial to two great explorers and the many West Coast pioneers that settled the land. A rather nice way to acknowledge their achievements I thought.

And across the road from the memorial is historic Okarito School House which was built in 1901. From 1960, for 30 years, it was run as a YHA shelter before being restored by the community & DOC. Now the 12 bunk School House can now be booked by groups for overnight stays.

Three walks of varying lengths leave from the carpark beside the school house; the Okarito Wetland Walk, the Trig Walk & the Three-Mile Pack Track/Coastal Walk. We wanted to check out the wetland walk for birds, we'll leave the other two for another day.

And we weren't disappointed, in fact we were especially thrilled to locate the very elusive & shy Fernbird/Matata moving about in the wetland rushes and low scrub on the fringes. 

Extremely well camouflaged, Fernbirds spend most of their time hopping about on the ground weaving their way through the tangled vegetation. They are usually in pairs and you'll hear them before seeing them, they constantly call to each other with a "u-click" call and although shy they can be encouraged to check who has arrived in their territory by clicking two stones together to emulate their call. They'll then pop up for a quick check before disappearing again. 

Most people passing through would be totally unaware of this endemic little bird, known by early Europeans as the swamp sparrow because of it's likeness to that bird (they must have been blind!). Fernbirds have beautiful markings and the most unusual tail feathers, looking like ragged fern fronds. This photo (included so you can see the tail feathers) was from another sighting we had near Lake Manapouri a few months ago. 

We found it fascinating watching one of them move off through the rushes at ground level. From our vantage point on the boardwalk we could see a very slight rustle of the reed as it moved through the dense plants and on a very winding route too. One or two reeds at a time waved in the air as it progressed, the direction changing often. I've heard them likened to a mouse and I can see why- if I didn't know any better I'd have thought it was a mouse (or rat) making it's way past.

Checking us out and wondering what all the fuss was about, was this lovely male juvenile Bellbird/Korimako. The cream cheek stripe tells me it's a juvenile, males are all green with a purple-ly coloured head & no cheek stripe, females are brown with a whiter cheek stripe.

On our way out of the village later in the afternoon we stopped at the old historic wharf and boat shed on the edge the Okarito Lagoon. 

We also found another Fernbird (after hearing the familiar 'u-click') in the long grass beside the carpark, it shot away into the undergrowth as I approached for a photo. 

The Okarito Lagoon, at 3240 hectares, is New Zealand's largest unmodified coastal wetland (click photo to enlarge and read). The lagoon is a very popular area to explore by kayak and boat and I'm sure we'll be back to check it out in the Takacat dinghy.

The old boat shed has been restored and the inside has been fitted out as a shelter from the elements, with seating, a picnic table and lots of information panels telling us about the history of the area.

During the 1860's gold rush, the Okarito wharf saw over 500 miners disembark in one day from vessels arriving from around New Zealand, Australia and the rest of the world. Okarito grew to be the third largest port on the West Coast during the gold rush days. A far cry from the serenity of today.

There was one more short walk we did on the way back to the main road, the Pakihi Walk to a lookout that usually has 360 degree views of the mountains, lagoon and coast. It's also a place to watch the magnificent sunsets that the West Coast is famous for. Right time, wrong day.

No matter, we will be back. Okarito was a place I felt in tune with, next time we'll stop for a time and really explore.


  1. Such a beautiful area and a wealth of fabulous birds. I am intending to visit the area in November.

    1. It sure is Carol, and hopefully you'll have better weather than we did. Although as I (and everyone else)keep saying to anybody who'll listen "you can't have a rainforest without rain'. Safe travels.

  2. Well written and great photos - Heritage Hub Tuapeka Mouth

    1. Thanks, much appreciated. And I look forward to revisting your special corner of NZ sometime in the future.

  3. What lovely memories your blog has stirred up. I see the old boathouse is the same. We were there approx two years ago. Beautiful photos.

    1. Thanks Nancy, glad you enjoyed it. I guess it'll be the same in 20 years- time moves very slowly on the Coast.

  4. Nice to see some new bird photos again, looking for my third candidate now...

    1. Good on you Offstone, you are very talented.

  5. Great blog. Another place for my list next year. Thanks great work.

    1. Thanks for your kind words Ron, much appreciated.

  6. My son & I stayed at Okarito for a couple of days on our summer holiday a few years ago. I was booked to do the early morning boat tour that is catered towards photographers & bird spotters but unfortunately it was cancelled due to the weather. The highlight of our stay was a nighttime trip into the bush to meet one of the Rowi in the wild - it almost ran over Matthew's foot! You don't want to miss this trip, the guide Ian is excellent and has an over 95% success rate at spotting a kiwi in the wild.
    I think we will definitely make another visit to Okarito sometime in the future.

    1. Hi Lisa, I must keep that tour in the 'to do' list, it sounds fabulous. All the tours were closed when we were there.

  7. Alberts hut used to be quite a lot larger, but the old fella that lived there (Dave Hardstaff) would pull bits from the walls to burn in the winter and so he only ended up with one room. He sold up a few years ago, the lovely old couple next door own it now and have a dummy they sit outside on summer days. Okarito is a great place always full of interesting people. I lived at Lazy Acres for 6 years 2 doors down from albert :)

    1. Hi there, thanks so much for the letting me know the background, that's wonderful and very interesting information indeed. I'll have to visit in the summer to see the mannequin. Lazy Acres was my pick of the baches too! Best regards, Shellie


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