Hokitika to Okarito South Island 4th to 5 November 2007
15 Nov 2007
Back on the SH6 and heading south on a very rainy foggy morning, we saw a sign for Lake Mahinapua and turned on to another narrow gravel road, this time at least it was a one way road so I knew we would not meet anyone coming the other way. We pulled up by the lake and had a walk down to the edge to take some photos. Close by the lake were the remains of an old steamship that had once plied between the logging areas and Hokitita port. Once the railway was opened these old steamships became surplice to requirement and this one was scuttled near by. With the resurgence in the areas local history the remains were raised to be preserved by a local group.
After a quick look around we returned to the highway and continued on to Ross, the next town. Ross was another gold mining town where the largest gold nugget, the 2.772kg named 'Honourable Roddy' was found in 1907. After being in the hands of a few owners, 'Roddy' was finally given as a gift to King George V in 1911. A model of it is in a reconstructed miner's cottage in the town. We visited the tourist office which is in the middle of renovation so many of the exhibits were not working, but there was quite a detailed model of the village as it was during the gold rush. We set off on the Water Race walk, which started off by the river where we passed one of only two sites in NZ, where the public can pan for gold without having to first obtain a licence. I will not reveal if we were successful in any panning we might have done as it would spoil the surprise of some of our Christmas presents. The walk continued on through the bush area and passed many of the old diggings, caves, and tunnels and took us through the old grave yard. Like many old grave yards it gave a social history of the life and times of the people in the area, one grave was of a young woman called Sarah from Aberdeenshire.
After lunch we continued our journey passing through rainforest over rivers but with the low clouds we had very few views of the mountains. Our stop for the night was at Hari Hari a small hamlet that made headlines in 1931 when swashbuckling Australian aviator, Guy Menzies, completed the first solo trans-Tasman flight. He flew from Sydney and crash landed his plane, the Southern Cross Junior, into La Fontaine swamp, flipping it over. When he undid his safety straps he fell into the mud, and ignominious ending to a record breaking flight. Apart from a couple of motels there did not appear to be much else, but due to the rain we never made it out to do any exploration.
At one of the tourist offices we had visited, we had picked up a leaflet about the White Heron Sanctuary tours at Whataroa. So on Monday morning I drove the 22 miles down to the office in time for the first trip of the day. The tour was full but we were lucky as two people failed to show so we got there places. This is the only area in NZ where the Kotuku (White Heron) nest between November and February, after which they fly off to various locations around NZ for the rest of the year. The tour consisted of a short mini bus ride down to the jetty on the Waitangitaona River where we boarded a jet boat for a 20 minute scenic ride down the river across the estuary and then up the Waitangiroto River to the nesting area.
I had seen these jet boats on TV programmes and was not very keen to go on one and be subject to all the throwing around and near misses with rocks that seemed to be part of the thrills. The jet boat is a NZ invention thought up by CWF Hamilton in 1957. It has an inboard engine that sucks water into a tube in the bottom of the boat and an impeller driven by the engine blows it out of a nozzle at the stern in a high speed stream. The boat is steered simply by directing the jet stream. The jet boat was designed to open up the back areas and rivers in NZ due to its ability to make short work of shallow and white water because there are no propellers to damage. With the better clearance under the boat the jet can be reversed for instantly quick breaking. On the journey down Jeff and I sat in the front and got plenty of thrills as the driver sped along the river missing fallen tree branches and swinging us around bends. Once we entered the nature reserve he slowed the boat right down and it felt as if we were hardly moving or at least going at a snail's pace. We reached the jetty and then took the short board walk through the Westland Rainforest to reach the hide.
The sight that met our eyes was truly spectacular. Just across the narrow river was the nesting place for White Heron's, Royal Spoonbill's and the Little Shag. Some of the birds had already hatched out some chicks and we could see these clearly bobbing up and down in the nest as the parents returned with food. Other birds had just arrived and were busy collecting material and building nests. Most were displaying the most beautiful plumage which our guide told us only grow at this time of year. Altogether we spent 40 minutes at the hide it seemed over in a flash. Most of the other people on the trip were from NZ, including one gentleman proud to tell us he was 91, and many were doing the trip for the second time. On the return journey I sat at the very back of the boat and experienced a very exhilarating ride back, I am told that my hair had the wind swept look when we returned. I don't know about that but it certainly gave me a rosy glow and a wet face.
Our final destination of the day was Okarito, a small township 8 miles off SH6 and on the coast. Another leaflet we had picked up indicated that there was a gentleman running Kiwi tours from here and after a phone call this morning we were booked on tonight's trip. The leaflet indicated there was an 85% chance of seeing a kiwi, good odds I thought. The only camp site at Okarito is a breezy patch of community managed greenery near the sea. To call it breezy was an understatement as when we arrived it was very windy and our van was rocking and rolling about. I managed to find a row of tall trees and tucked it in behind these giving us a bit of shelter. Later we were joined by a number of other campers also trying to find a nice sheltered place to park. Once on site we walked through the hedge across the grass runway and on to the beach. That was our first mistake as the wind was worse down here and the sand was blowing about making walking difficult. We managed to get around the corner and discovered a small museum offering information about Okarito and respite from the wind.
Although there was little gold found here the town had developed in the gold rush days as people sought areas to prospect. It had been quite a bustling town but it did not last more than two years. Today only 30 people live here and one of those is Keri Hulme, the Booker Prize Winner for her book The Bone People, set in this area. Near by there is a large lagoon which is popular with tourists who visit to go kayaking around the tidal flats amongst the rain forest.
But we were here to do some kiwi spotting. The national bird of NZ, the kiwi is a flightless, hairy looking offshoot of the rattie birds - Moas and Ostriches. They have now discovered there are 6 species of kiwi and tonight we were hoping to spot the Okarito Brown Kiwi, which was only identified as a distinct variety in 1993 and is the most endangered species of kiwi. They are mainly nocturnal so at 7.30 we walked around to meet Ian, our guide for the night, who kitted us out with a fluorescent jacked in bright yellow, (kiwi's do not have good sight and cannot see yellow) a torch, for our journey back out of the forest, and a mossie hat. Ian had a special red torch which he would shine on any birds we might spot. I was given a whistle and Jeff and Ian had two way radio, these were to contact each other when we heard noises that indicated a kiwi was about. There was only Jeff and I on the trip so off we went. We had a short drive up the road then just over a mile walk to the Kiwi's favourite hunting area. Ian explained that they are creatures of habit so knowing where they might be gives him a head start, but it does not guarantee a sighting. Ian also explained that a successful encounter with a bird was to leave it without it realising we had been there and that when he asked us to move away it was to give the bird space. Ian is the only person licensed in the South Island to take groups into kiwi territory.
Once in the area we were allocated a length of path to patrol and told what to listen out for. Jeff was to patrol the first section, I had the middle section where BQ and BZ lived and Ian took the third section. We had not been there very long when Ian heard the first noises of a kiwi. They have very big feet and make quite a bit of noise as they walk. We could hear him walking about but no sightings, then it went quiet. Our evening progressed like this for quite a while and despite hearing calls we had no sightings until Ian called us down and shortly after, in the glow of Ian's special red torch, a kiwi appeared. It was much bigger than I had expected and it turned to give us a profile of its distinctive long slender bill before disappearing off in the bush once again. We hung around for a while but it did not make any more appearances. On our way back down the track Ian walked in front listening out for more birds. He spotted a number of possums and then luck was with us and we got a second sighting of another bird. Our luck was really in tonight and we went home happy. It was about 11.30pm when we finally got back to our van and we sneaked around the campsite so as not to wake our neighbours. What a great day we had, first of all the heron nesting trip and then spotting two Kiwis', it will certainly stay in my memory for a long time.