“Ko to kotuku to tapui, e Tama – e”
Kotuku is now thy sole companion, O my son!
– Maori saying
Okarito? You can’t get there without a car, someone told me. Nevertheless, I wanted to get there. I called ahead and booked a room at the Royal hostel in Okarito, bought a bus ticket as far as the crossroad called “Forks” then figured I would either walk, or get lucky, lift my thumb, and get a ride down the road. It was a bit unnerving, for just a microsecond, when the bus pulled away and left me at the Forks. There was a large rusty barrel attached to a post by the highway — the Okarito communal mailbox and parcel drop. Tree frogs, songbirds and cicadas were loud all around me — a proper rain-forest lushness of sound! A colder version of Florida. In the distance, the southern Alps of New Zealand raised sharp snow-covered beaks above the green forest, hinting at storms. I dragged my pack down the road, so as to be visible only to drivers who’d turned in, heading to Okarito. As hitchers go, I’m not very assertive — when I heard someone coming, I’d raise my thumb like it was a question mark.
As it turned out, the third car that drove down the road had room — a sweet young couple from the Czech Republic who were in New Zealand on a work visa, and touring the west coast to see it up close, just like me. “We’ve needed rides too” said the young man. They drove me all the way to the Royal hostel and refused any gas money. The Royal hostel was the third building in town, I think — third of about 30. Okarito consists of a handful of cottages and homes along the “Strand” – including one tourist lodge (Kotuku), a kayak rental shop, a rustic campground by the beach, the Royal hostel/motel, and a historic 1-room schoolhouse-turned-hostel. There are 35 permanent residents, including one of New Zealand’s best-known authors, Keri Hulme, author of the Bone People and Stonefish (nope, I did not run into her). But it was wonderful to see the place through her eyes — another layer of meaning.
I hiked out of town, that night, following an old pioneer horse-route into the forest that dates to the NZ goldrush, when boomtowns sprang up on the coast just south of Okarito. A branching route led to a local viewing hill that is now known as “Trig” (from an 1800’s surveying team who used the local hill to get clear sight lines of the valley and the distant peaks of the Southern Alps). The Trig ascent is a long series of wooden-box steps, cut into the hillside and filled with rock, decaying and moss-covered. Climbing the Trig is easy enough — like climbing a sprawling pyramid one might find in the middle of a rainforest.
Magical. I watched the golden sun set, clouds blowing down and obscuring the alps, and finally a near-full moon rose over the pink waters of the Okarito Lagoon, spread out behind me.
The next morning I packed and went kayaking in Okarito Lagoon, in the rain. It rained for the rest of the day. The Lagoon is a huge wetland (with tidal backwaters where only salt-tolerant plants can flourish, and mountain river currents running in turbulent chalk-gray channels through a labyrinth of channels in the lagoons). At low tide, vast mudflats are revealed; at high tide, most are covered by enough water that a kayak won’t get stuck, but it’s close, in spots. It was just me and my kayak, following a water trail of well-spaced manuka sticks which had been driven down into the mud at low tide to mark the deep channel and the paddling route. The lagoon is a feeding home to the white heron (the heron breeding grounds are just north of the lagoon) and the heron is considered both rare, and sacred to the Maori. During my rainy paddle I saw one great white heron lift like a kite from the reeds of an island, and slowly flap away into the gray rain.
Kotuku – The White Heron
It was intensely quiet out in the Lagoon. I also saw black shags, a spoonbill, black swans, and a pair of tiny black ducks, very shy, which darted in and out of the reeds.
My route led up into a lagoon finger where the water ran blackish red at the center — the effluence of a stream, dyed with tannins from the dense coastal forest trees. The edges of the creek were steep, moss-coated ravines hanging with ferns, and at times the water was perfectly still, a blackened mirror where every branch or fern-frond that dropped and dipped below the surface of the water was reflected, symetrically, creating green “God’s eye” weavings at the point where Real and Reflection met.
Okarito Nature Tours (kayaking)
Okarito was a gold rush town in which the “rush” did not last long. It had a real wharf and harbor, but apparently the ships had to struggle to enter the lagoon, navigating strong currents, the wild shore of the Tasman sea, shifting sandbars, etc. The old wharf shed is preserved as a historic building, and inside are old photos and stories and documents that hint at the wild history of the town. Some of the boats, in the photographs, are loaded with bales of New Zealand Flax fiber “hemp”, which was harvested and sent north for use in rope and other industrial needs (I’m not sure if it really was used for fabrics, as real flax fiber would have been). The New Zealand flax is an impressive plant, used for lashing together just about anything, and according to some interpretive signage I read up the coast, the Maori’s limited their harvest of the flax to taking just the OUTERMOST 2 LEAVES OF EACH PLANT, to ensure they would always have enough. I doubt that the flax harvesting in Okarito used similar restraint. In historical images, the town seems to contain no living plants — just stumps in the background and stubble in the foreground (where the flax now thrives, between buildings and the shore).
I spent the next two nights down the road, at the historic schoolhouse hostel, which was built in the 1880’s, served as a schoolhouse until the 1940’s, and reopened as a hostel in the ’60’s. The historic building was quite run down, over the years, and suffered from neglect and the harsh weather, but the “schoolhouse” was restored by preservationists in 1990, and it remains a hostel. Neat, tidy, with three-high bunkbeds along the walls.
In the two days that I was there, I met mostly German tourists: a man vacationing with his grown son (who was about my age) – and a German schoolteacher – a group of German women celebrating their friend’s 60th birthday – and a German woman with two blonde children who fought “Lord of the Ring” type battles with wooden swords. At least with wooden swords, no one dies.