South Island West Coast: A roadtrip to Ōkārito reveals pure magic
Miranda Spary says there’s no time like the present to explore the glitter and fritters of the South Island’s West Coast.
Ten years ago, I drove the 803.8 km from Nelson to Queenstown on the West Coast road and vowed never to do it again. Admittedly, I’d chosen the busiest time to be on any road – just after New Year. It was nose to tail the whole way, boiling hot, and every ice cream, fuel and loo stop involved a very long queue and a lot of impatient (and anxious, in the case of the loos) waiting.
But the day we dropped to Covid Level 3, my husband and I leapt in the car and drove from Arrowtown to the Abel Tasman National Park up that same coast. We didn’t see a single car from Hāwea to Haast. And we probably saw about 20 cars from there all the way up to Punakaiki. It was so wild, empty and beautiful that my sweatier, grumpier memory started to fade. And that time we were on a mission with no time to stop.
More recently, I only got as far as Ōkārito, a couple of hours south of Hokitika, but with two West Coast virgins on board who’d never driven this road before, there was nothing but stopping.
The West Coast scenery switches at every turn, from alarmingly dramatic canyons and cliffs to tranquil mirror lakes and every type of falling water: silvery dripping moss walls through to pounding cascades that make enough noise to drown out the car’s motor. Oh, and rain. It seems every hour it changes from sunshine that makes the whole place glitter to thumping great downpours that bring visibility to almost nil.
It’s no wonder there are so many artists, writers and other creative types in this remote bit of the country. Property is ridiculously cheap. Houses for less than $250,000 aren’t a rarity, and when we visited, even Andris Apse, one of New Zealand’s most famous photographers, had his clinging-to-a-cliff Ōkārito haven above the Tasman Sea for sale for a relatively puny $850,000. It’s hard to say whether the views out the window or the photos he has in his gallery are more beautiful. I couldn’t afford the photos, so I don’t think I’ll be affording his magical house anytime soon either. Life is so unfair!
Everything about Ōkārito is magical. The funny little township of some 40 souls is enormously proud of all its community projects. Their predator-free status is almost perfect and someone must have informed the birds. There’s even a road sign warning people not to run over kiwi.
We didn’t run over any, but we didn’t see one, either, even though most people do, apparently. Maybe we were too busy chatting. We went out kayaking with superguide Baz Hughes, who owns Okarito Kayaks, and almost instantly saw white herons – and more white herons.
Don’t the herons know how rare they are? All sorts of birds entertained us as we paddled along the lagoon and we tried not to keep stopping to take photos, but it’s just so difficult with so many wows at every turn.
Baz is a smart guy – he could see how much we were enjoying the place. A few days later, an email arrived. “We’re organising a conservation week and need some volunteers. Look up our Okarito Kayaks website.” So I did. How could I resist the idea of a return trip to Ōkārito? Baz nearly convinced us to stay in one of the many local B&Bs but we’d had such rave reviews about a place 30 minutes down the road that we were unable to be persuaded.
Rainforest Retreat lived up to the hype. It’s set in five hectares of bush just north of the Franz Josef township. General manager Oscar Morgan has been there for 14 years and his pride in it is palpable. I don’t think he’ll be heading back to Wales any time soon.
I’d checked the website, and there was every level of luxury available – campervan parks (no trailer trash here – it’s pristine and they were some of the prettiest sites I’ve ever seen) with brilliant barbecue areas, kitchens, laundries and playgrounds, through to flashpackers (posh hostels) and motel rooms. I was very keen to stay in one of the old Ministry of Works huts that are now tiny hotel rooms but Oscar insisted on showing us all the options.
My friends Sandy and Ayla went for the top-of-the-range choice, which had its own private spa pool, complimentary wine and a coffee machine. I still wanted the MOW hut, though, and it was bliss, totally private and I couldn’t think of a thing it lacked. There was even a lovely breakfast basket with freshly baked bread, crisp apples and warm cookies waiting for me. Poor cookies – they didn’t even get a chance to get cold.
After wolfing them down, I met up with the others at Monsoon, Rainforest’s restaurant and bar. Wednesday night with all our borders closed and it was packed, the fires were roaring and so was the bar. It’s a great location – the glaciers are just down the road, and there are oodles of lakes and rivers to fish in, and trails and mountains to hike on. No wonder people book in for a night and end up staying a week.
Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki was next on our agenda. It’s been there for more than 30 years but the same passionate owners still run it. All their lives, Anne Saunders and Gerry McSweeney have been infuriating those who’d pillage the pristine West Coast forests, and they set up their own nature tourism business to protect this part of the world.
We arrived just in time to head for a walk through the bush. The couple have created a sort of “hide” so the local penguins don’t know you’re there, or at least don’t mind, and it was so much fun watching Fiordland crested penguins waddle in and out of the sea to feed their babies tasty meals of vomited-up raw fish. Delicious.
Every time we were about to head back, another penguin or two appeared, and we needed to take more photos and laugh at them. Even after deleting some, I still have 50 penguin snaps, and they all still amuse me. I wonder if the penguins go home and have their families in fits of laughter at the comical humans sitting on the beach with cameras while drinking hot drinks and eating round brown things?
Back at the lodge, it was cocktail hour and time for Gerry’s whirlwind talk about trees and birds and conservation and pounamu and politics, and he promised us lots more treats after dinner. Dinner with the other guests was sensational. All but two had stayed here before and often – it’s a bit addictive.
The post-dinner activity involved high-vis vests; Gerry said we’d be doing a nature walk on the highway. What?! He put up a road sign that said “Walkers ahead” (which some locals tease him they’re going to change by replacing the “l” with an “n” ) and we walked along State Highway 6, listening to moreporks’ mournful hoots across the lake.
We found freshwater crayfish in the stream beside the road, and the one vehicle that came along slowed right down, obviously mystified at what we could possibly be doing out there in the night. Poor them – they had no idea that the dark road they were driving on had so many wonders. When Gerry turned off his torch, the roadside bank lit up with thousands of tiny white stars on the finest of threads – the glow-worms were putting on their evening show.
Next day, the morning show starred every bird within 100km singing as loudly as possible. And thank goodness – if I’d slept in, the other guests might have eaten all the warm and crispy raspberry friands. We needed the sustenance, as Gerry soon had us back out in the bush, exploring the hydro dam that powers the entire place and visiting nearly 1000-year-old trees (some of which have superstar status after their appearance in blockbuster movies), the tiniest ferns and other natural curiosities.
He painted Sandy’s nose (that’s her on the right) with a fuchsia flower that turned it deep violet – it did come off, but we didn’t tell her straight away!
Before we knew it, it was time to hit the road home. We stopped in Haast at the Hard Antler for whitebait fritters and found it busy with locals doing the same. The signs in the loos are for “Men”, “Women” and “Wounded”, while elsewhere signs warn parents not to put their children on the pool tables or dartboards. Whenever I head up the West Coast highway, I’m reminded how utterly weird it is and love it even more. Next time I’ll get further than Ōkārito.
THINGS TO DO
- Andris Apse Franz Josef Gallery
- Okarito Kayaks
WHERE TO EAT
- Hard Antler
WHERE TO STAY
- Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki
- Rainforest Retreat
PHOTOGRAPHY MIRANDA SPARY, GETTY, ALAMY & SUPPLIED