Explore our regions
Stunning and diverse scenery dominates this small and historic coastal settlement: ocean, tidal estuary, imposing sea cliffs, lush forest. On a fine day you get great views of the Southern Alps — Mount Adams in the North, Mount Élie de Beaumont inland and Mount Tasman standing beside Aoraki/Mount Cook in the South.
Ōkārito Lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified estuarine wetland, fed by four creeks and the Ōkārito River. Samples taken in the area by geologists revealed that the lagoon appeared in the 1700s after a tsunami triggered by an earthquake off Fiordland swept through the area.
The lagoon’s expanse of shallow open water and tidal flats invite exploration. Kohuamarua Bluff acts as a natural breakwater, protecting the entrance to the lagoon from southerly storms. It’s ideal for sheltered-water kayaking, and there is plenty to see as you paddle along. The lagoon is surrounded by lush native rainforest, with the towering snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps for a backdrop.
Thousands of wading birds visit and feed here. The lagoon’s 2 340 hectares are home to more than 76 bird species, including the famous white heron/kōtuku and royal spoonbill/kōtuku ngutu papa. The kōtuku is sacred to Maori and people from all over the world come to Ōkārito to catch a glimpse of them. Fish are abundant, and cockles, crabs, and snails creep in the tidal shallows.
The only breeding colony for kōtuku in New Zealand is north of the lagoon on the bank of the Waitangiroto River. It is a nature reserve, open from late October to the end of February and requires an entry permit. Note there is no access to the white heron nesting site from Ōkārito.
A small population of rowi (Okarito brown kiwi), the world’s rarest and most endangered kiwi, live in the surrounding podocarp forest. Here the Department of Conservation manages a kiwi recovery programme working through the Bank of New Zealand Operation Nest Egg Programme to bring rowi back from the edge of extinction. Okarito Kiwi Tours can take you out to visit these kiwi in their home. For more information on all things avian see www.birdingwestcoast.co.nz.
Ōkārito was a thriving town in the gold rush days of the 1860s with 1500 people living here in 1866. This did not last as people dwindled away after the gold ran out.
There are still relics from the boom days at the settlement, including Ōkārito Wharf and Boat Shed, Donovan’s Store (the oldest wooden commercial building still standing on the West Coast) and the Old Schoolhouse.
There is a monument in the village recognising Abel Tasman the Dutch explorer who was the first European to sight New Zealand and James MacKay who encouraged European settlement of the West Coast and was the government agent in the purchase of land from the local Maori
See also: Ōkārito history
Things to do
You can take a guided kayak trip or hire a kayak and explore the lagoon yourself.
At Ōkārito kiwi tours and nature tours are available.
Three walks taking from 20 minutes to 3.5 hours begin at the car park at Ōkārito next to the Ōkārito School House on The Strand.
Check out the historic buildings as you walk around the settlement. Find out more about the history of the Ōkārito area from the display boards in the historic boat shed.
See also: Ōkārito and Whataroa in the Walks, Tramps, Tracks and More’ section.