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Nature’s imperfections – wild, unruly, unpredictable. Plans have no place somewhere truly untouched; the environment shapes itself. Pristine nature, the result of time and consequence, is beyond replication. Nature’s imperfections are perfect. 

 

Looking for the less obvious.

 

Barry Hughes (Baz) and Gemma van Beek own and operate Okarito Kayaks in a hidden jewel on the West Coast called Ōkārito. I chatted with Baz just before the Summer season kicked off. 

 

You’re in a pretty unique location. Can you tell us a bit about it?

 

Baz: Ōkārito is a peaceful coastal village just a short drive north of Franz Josef Glacier. Once a bustling mining town, it’s now a quiet spot where only about 40 people live. We operate on the Ōkārito Lagoon, NZ’s largest unmodified coastal wetland, surrounded by pristine native rainforest, rugged beaches, and snow-capped mountains. It would be difficult to find another place this beautiful and unspoilt. 

 

Okarito Lagoon, West Coast NZ

Credit: Geoff Marks

 

How old is the business?

 

Baz: The business itself has been running for over thirty years. We’re the third local family to look after kayakers here, and we’ve been doing so for the last ten years.

 

What services do you offer?

 

Baz: We run nature-focused tours on the Lagoon. Guests can either choose highly informative and intimate guided kayak tours or rent kayaks to explore independently. We provide all the necessary gear and instruction before paddles hit the water. 

 

Apparently, there’s more to Ōkārito than its natural surroundings. I’ve heard rumours of incredible coffee and the world’s best home-made ice cream. 

 

Baz: We don’t like to brag (big grin) …

 

Fair enough (laughing). How many people are on your team?

 

Baz: In Summer, there are four of us, and in Winter, we get down to two. We also have steady “help” from our two young kids, Rowan and Josh (smiles). We’re a tiny family business

 

Okarito Kayaks, West Coast, NZ

 

Can you tell us about your perfect day on the job?

 

Baz: Any time we get to spend on the water is special, and the best part of our work. We’re lucky in that no kayak tour here is ever the same. Depending on environmental conditions and what our guests are interested in, every day is different, which allows us to see the place with fresh eyes every day. 

 

What’s your favourite New Zealand plant, animal or insect, and why?

 

Baz: The Pīwakawaka (NZ Fantail) is a remarkable bird. They literally flit around our faces through autumn each year. Although they can be found everywhere in New Zealand, they’re quite special to us. You’ll even see one featured in our business logo.

 

What’s your favourite part about living and working in Glacier Country?

 

Baz: Being surrounded by unspoilt nature is a real privilege. This entire area is so unique in terms of weather conditions, landscape, and the flora and fauna present. It’s an amazing part of the world! Also, the community. People here thrive on living in such a wild, pristine environment. There aren’t many of us, but there’s a lot of love and passion for where we live, which is evident in how we all get stuck in to looking after what we’ve got.

 

Okarito Lagoon, West Coast, NZ

 

You’re both quite involved on a community level, correct?

 

Baz: We are, yes. From participating on local boards and community organisations to filling potholes when needed, looking after this beautiful place we call home is very important. 

 

That includes environmental efforts as well, right?

 

Baz: Absolutely. In an age where sustainability has become fashionable, our small business has always had environmental care as a core value and we stick to our environmental policy. Regarding waste and carbon in our daily operations, we reach beyond off-setting and focus on minimisation. Also, to maintain a sense of peacefulness in the village, we limit our operating hours to ensure quiet evenings.

 

Okarito, West Coast, NZ

 

You’ve also founded a local conservation project. I’ll be writing more in-depth about this in the future, but could you give me a little insight into what you’re doing just now?

 

Baz: Yes, we founded the GorseBusters project, but it’s taken the support and hard work of much of the local community to make a real difference to it’s success. We’ve also had plenty of help from volunteers from across the country. Protecting the Lagoon and surrounding area from the spread of gorse and other invasive weeds has become integral to Ōkārito’s identity. What began as something small during the quiet days of the pandemic has grown into a major affair with fantastic results, having worked on over 40 kilometres so far around the shoreline of the Ōkārito Lagoon. It hasn’t been easy, but the response has been incredible, and we’re heading into our fourth year! It feels good to be part of something so worthwhile.

 

Is there anything you’d like to add or communicate that hasn’t been covered?

 

Baz: There’s so much to do on the West Coast away from the better-known attractions. If you’re looking for an uncrowded, intimate, and authentic way to meet and interact with locals and the natural environment, this is the place. We enjoy sharing what brought us here with people from all over. We’d encourage visitors to take the time to slow down and look for the less obvious.

 

Okarito Lagoon, West Coast,NZ

 

What are you waiting for? 

 

Okarito Kayaks is located at 1 The Strand, Ōkārito, just as you round the final bend into the town. They have years of local knowledge of tides and weather, and always offer honest, accurate advice for a really great experience. So, drop in to see Baz, Gemma and the team, or get in touch to discover one of New Zealand’s hidden treasures.  

  

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Mike Bilodeau is a freelance writer focused on ecotourism and sustainable travel.