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Okarito Lagoon – Jewel of the West

 Geoff Marks

 

Located 130km south of Hokitika and about 30-minutes’ drive north of Franz Josef, Okarito is truly one of New Zealand’s most remarkable hidden gems.  Ōkārito Lagoon is the country’s largest unmodified wetland and covers 3,240 hectares encompassing complete sequences of forest which have been lost to human development across other parts of the West Coast.

Part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Area), the Lagoon is a sanctuary for over 70 different species of bird, and the forest surrounding the wetlands is home to endangered rowi kiwi and kea. The Ōkārito area is also part of Predator Free South Westland, an exciting and ambitious conservation project aimed at eradicating invasive predators like stoats, rats and possums from over 100,000 hectares to help protect the region’s native birdlife and biodiversity.

This conservation work means that visitors to Ōkārito now have a greater chance than ever before to see some of it’s unique and rare wildlife.

A kayaker wit reflections of the Southern Alps, Okarito Lagoon, West Coast, NZ

Kayaking on the tranquil waters of Okarito Lagoon with panoramic views of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, from the Tasman Sea up to Aoraki / Mount Cook. (Credit: Geoff Marks).

Experience the Lagoon

 

One of the best ways to experience the Lagoon is from the water. Ōkārito Kayaks offer guided tours and freedom rentals and Ōkārito Boat Ecotours run nature cruises on the tranquil waters. As well as the myriad of birds you can see from a tour, the panoramic views of the Southern Alps which are perfectly reflected in the water on a calm day are absolutely stunning, so remember your camera!

Okarito Lagoon West Coast New Zealand

Okarito Lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland environment. (Credit: Geoff Marks).

Spot the rare Kotuku / White Heron

 

One of the Lagoon’s most famous inhabitants is the rare kōtuku or white heron which only breeds near Whataroa, just north of Ōkārito Lagoon, between September and January. This colony is in the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve and guided tours with White Heron Sanctuary Tours Whataroa take visitors to view the birds from an observation hide. During the breeding season time, the birds feed in the large coastal lagoons in the area, particularly in Ōkārito Lagoon and are regularly seen by kayakers.

White Heron Okarito Lagoon, West Coast, NZ

The rare Kotuku or White Heron which only breeds near Whataroa, just north of Okarito Lagoon. (Credit: Geoff Marks).

Walking & Hiking Tracks

 

The Ōkārito area has a selection of great walking and hiking tracks which include walks through rimu, rata and silver pine forest, wetlands and along the rugged coastline. A must do walk, especially for photographers at sunset, is the Ōkārito Trig walk. On a clear day, this 4.2km / 1h30min return walk offers unbeatable views overlooking Westland Tai Poutini National Park from the snow-capped Southern Alps across extensive native forest to the lagoons and beaches of the coast.

Wild West Coast Beach, Okarito, New Zealand

Okarito Trig offers the best panoramic views of the Southern Alps in New Zealand including Aoraki / Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. (Credit: Geoff Marks).

Learn about the History of Okarito

 

Guided walks in the Ōkārito area, as well as throughout Franz Josef and Fox Glacier region, are provided by Glacier Valley Eco Tours. These tours give a fascinating insight into not only the natural history of the region, but also the human history of Ōkārito. From the early Maori where Ōkārito was an important mahinga kai (food-gathering site) for local iwi Kāti Māhaki ki Makaawhio, to the West Coast Gold Rush of the 1860’s when Ōkārito had a population of several thousand people and over 30 hotels. Today, the population of the settlement is about 30 people, but historic buildings from the boom days are still preserved in the village.

Coastal Views, Okarito, West Coast, NZ

Expansive coastal views from Okarito Trig looking north towards Abut Head. (Credit: Geoff Marks).

A Photographers Dream

 

Ōkārito Lagoon is a fantastic destination for photographers and photography tours. It offers a diverse range of landscapes from mountain panoramas, to rugged coastlines and crisp reflections in the tranquil waterways. The abundance of birdlife also makes the area ideal for wildlife photography, not to mention the world famous West Coast sunsets.

 

Sunset over Okarito Lagoon, West Coast, NZ

Okarito Lagoon is a photographers dream destination. A dramatic winter’s sunset over Okarito Lagoon and the old wharf. (Credit: Geoff Marks).

Okarito, a jewel of the West Coast

 

With its unique biodiversity and ecosystems, pristine wilderness and fascinating cultural history and heritage, Ōkārito is truly the jewel of the West Coast and an place you will want to visit again and again.

 

 

If you’d like to help contribute to the conservation of Ōkārito Lagoon, then Ōkārito Kayaks run an annual project called Gorsebusters to help remove invasive weeds and gorse from the waterways. You can sign up to volunteer or make a donation here.