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Okarito and Whataroa

Ōkārito
Ōkārito was originally a Maori settlement. For early Maori the lagoon was a rich source of food while they hunted for pounamu (jade or greenstone).

When the European settlers arrived here they pursued flax milling, gold mining and farming up the Whataroa Valley. The gold rush turned Ōkārito into a boom town.

The site of the Ōkārito Trig viewing platform was once a vital hub for the first survey network. Surveyor explorers such as Julius von Haast, Gerhard Muller and Charlie Douglas viewed the full expanse of the coastline and the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana from this exact location.

Until 1920, Ōkārito was the social heart of South Westland. People from Hari Hari through to Haast would come to race days, sailing regattas and balls. Ōkārito remained the main service town for South Westland until the inland road through Harihari and Whataroa meant that a port was no longer required. It is now home to around 30 permanent residents.

Ōkārito Wharf and Boat Shed
During the gold rush of the 1860s the Ōkārito wharf saw over five hundred miners disembark in one day. Vessels arrived from New Zealand, Australia and the rest of the world. In December 1865 eight hundred people lived there; by the end of that summer the population had mushroomed to over 1500 people, with a further 2500 people living at the Three Mile and Five Mile mining sites. The main street was lined with over thirty stores and hotels. The local saying was, “If you didn’t dig you sold grog…the bar owners won in the end because the diggers drank gallons”. There was even a daily newspaper and the fully surveyed plans for the ‘Colonial University of Okarito’.

The resident harbour master strictly enforced maritime law and ensured there was no loose behaviour. Ōkārito grew to be the third largest port on the West Coast. For over a decade there were regular services sailing directly to Australia.

The sand bar across to the Okarito Spit is still treacherous. The Waipara, which served the community for years, sank in the Okarito channel in 1873. You can see a picture of the shipwreck on the information displays in the boat shed, which also detail the history of Ōkārito.

It is also worth taking a closer look at the Department of Conservation display board set outside and around the corner from the main door of the boat shed. It gives an introduction to the biodiversity in the Ōkārito Lagoon, which is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland.

Donovan’s Store
Donovan’s Store is the oldest wooden commercial building still standing on the West Coast and takes pride of place in the centre of the Ōkārito village. It was once the Club Hotel, built in 1865. It was rumoured that the bar girls offered the services of a brothel to selected customers in its gabled roof.

In the 1890s James and Eva Donovan converted it to a general store and its doors were kept open on a regular basis right through to 1987. Mr Donovan was a well-respected member of the community and even stood for local government.

The Okarito Community Association and the Department of Conservation have worked hard to restore and preserve the building. It now hosts many lively community events and a small library.

The Old Schoolhouse
The building you can see today was constructed in 1901. The original school-house was built in 1867 and was once the centre of a thriving community. As the population dwindled, so did the school roll. In 1946 the school closed its doors for the last time at the start of the long summer holidays. The next year the school-aged children travelled to either Whataroa or the Franz Josef Waiau village.

By 1958, the paint was scabbing, the foundations sagging and the building was on the verge of demolition. The local community with the help of the Greymouth Youth Hostel Association (YHA) undertook a major restoration project and the building was reopened as a YHA shelter for travellers in 1960.

In 1990, the Department of Conservation, the Okarito Community Association and the Greymouth YHA initiated a complete restoration project. The modern kitchen facilities were added, and the bathroom area remodelled. All the money for the project was raised by the Okarito community. Today travellers from all over the world stay in the historic building.

Tasman and MacKay Monument
Abel Janszoon Tasman went in search of a promised land with rich trading potential for the Dutch East India Company. His two ships, the Zeehaen and the Heemskerk, landed at Punakaiki on the West Coast of the South Island on December 13 1642.

The cenotaph on the edge of the Ōkārito village green is a monument to both Abel Janszoon Tasman and Judge James MacKay. Tasman was the first European to sight New Zealand and Mr Mackay was key in encouraging the European settlement of the West Coast. In 1858, he was the government agent in the Crown purchase from local Maori of the whole of the West Coast region from Kahurangi south to Milford, apart from small areas reserved for local Maori. Some 7.5 million acres (3 million hectares) were purchased for £300.

Find out more about the history of the Ōkārito area from the display boards in the historic boat shed.

Whataroa valley
There were once well defined cattle tracks in the valley, used by prospectors and stockmen to get their pack horses to Barrowmen’s Flat and Scone Creek.
Gold miners scoured the creeks and beaches of the lower valley in the 1860s and during the 1930s and the depression years.

Scone, Top Butler, Butler Junction and Whymper Hut were all built in the 1970s by the forestry service; the Nolan family of Whataroa erected Nolan’s Hut, and the Stan Peterson Hut on Gunn Ridge is managed by the New Zealand Safari Club.

 

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