Even a place as rugged and remote as New Zealand’s West Coast has a well-established sightseeing circuit. Everyone knows to stop at the glaciers, Hokitika, Denniston Plateau and Punakaiki Rocks, and they’re certainly worth the visit – but these outdoor activities offer a more chilled-out, delightfully Kiwi experience.
Kayak on Okarito Lagoon
Forest and water meet at Okarito Lagoon, New Zealand’s largest intact coastal wetland. Covering 20 square kilometres, this ecosystem is the only place in the country where you can see an almost intact mountain-to-sea ecological sequence. But really, you should also go there because it’s just a darn gorgeous place to spend a few hours.
Out on the water, all you can hear is water lapping against your kayak, birds making birdy sounds, and sometimes the rush of the wind in your ears. The tidal lagoon is a magnet for wading birds, such as royal spoonbills, shags, oystercatchers, and the critically threatened white heron/kotuku with its improbably long neck and elegant bearing. Quietly gliding close to all these birds is a peaceful delight. Then it’s up a series of creeks to explore the forest dominated by kahikatea and rimu. Here, the birds are noisier: tui, kereru, bellbirds, robins and others exercise their vocal chords, secure in the knowledge that they’re living inside a Unesco World Heritage Site and no-one will be chopping down their homes any time soon.
Explore Ship Creek
At Ship Creek without a paddle? Never fear – your feet will serve you well instead. So named because a large piece of a ship’s hull was discovered in the creek in 1867, Ship Creek was for many years a reliable food-gathering site for local Maori. (The hull was later found to be from the clipper Schomberg, which sank off the east coast of Australia 12 years prior.)
Twenty kilometres north of Haast town, two short walks offer easy access to landscapes that once covered much of the West Coast before slash-and-burn settlers intervened. The Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk winds along a flat path next to the tannin-laden water of Ship Creek, through towering stands of kahikatea (white pine). Much of the ancient forest nearby was felled: land was cleared to create farms, and the wood made into crates to transport butter and cheese to England. (If only they’d taken the midges with them.) The Dune Lake Walk traverses coastal forest, a dune lake fringed by kuta (a rush prized by Maori for weaving), and opens out onto a sweeping coastline where you might see dolphins playing in the waves.
Traverse the treetops
The West Coast gets more than its fair share of rainfall each year, and the region’s reward for this is lush, temperate rainforest in innumerable shades of green. Just outside Hokitika, the West Coast Treetop Walkway allows people to experience the forest canopy up close. The steel walkway sits 20 metres off the ground, and meanders for 450 metres past rimu, kamahi, totara and matai.
You get so close that you can touch mosses dangling from tree branches, meaning the air is pretty darn pure up there. Look out for tui, bellbird, wood pigeons, feeding in the trees and flying over nearby Lake Mahinapua towards the Tasman. What’s even cooler is this walkway is wheelchair and pram friendly. After returning to solid ground, consider taking the 30-minute drive to nearby Hokitika Gorge, where a short forest walk brings you to the arresting blue-green waters of the Hokitika River for a #nofilter experience.
Go golfing for gold
The small town of Ross had a second run at gold mining in the 1990s, when an opencast mine was dug to extract more of the glittering metal. After that ended, the mine was filled with water and became Ross Lake. In a stroke of admirable enterprise, in 2017 Jill Waterman (from nearby Hari Hari) set up Golf on the Lake. Stand on the ridge overlooking the lake, line up your shot and try to sink a ball into one of two holes on the floating platform in the middle of the lake. On offer are prizes of cash, a glacier heli-flight, or one shining ounce of gold. If you’re an amateur, no worries – Jill’s easygoing advice will get you started, and she’s fun to chat to. Ross’s Historic Empire Hotel is just across the road in case you’ve worked up a thirst.
Tour a unique bird-nesting site
Some unerring homing instinct brings white herons (kotuku) back to a particular bend in Waitangiroto Stream, every year, to breed. It’s the only place in New Zealand that kotuku breed and no-one has figured out why, ever since Westland’s first district surveyor discovered the colony in 1865.
Maori mythology states that to see a kotuku brings good fortune, but the population neared extinction as Maori and Europeans took their ethereally delicate breeding feathers for decorations. In the 1940s, there were just four breeding pairs at the colony; numbers have now reached triple figures, but the bird is still on the Department of Conservation’s ‘critically threatened’ list.
Part of this colony’s appeal, quite apart from its rarity, is that kotuku happily share their only breeding space with the comical royal spoonbill and the little shag. It’s a treat to see, even if you aren’t a keen bird-watcher. Startlingly white birds perch on makeshift nests against a textured green backdrop of flaxes, kowhai and kahikatea. A constant chatter fills the air, from tiny balls of fluff demanding food and older heron chicks tumbling over each other. Spoonbills knock their knobbly black beaks together, and little shags weave through the air. They all seem to get on just fine. Tours to visit the colony, in the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve, run from mid-September until the end of summer.