Cruising the Coast
On the shores of Lake Mahinapua, canoes were overturned, warriors drowned and their severed heads taken as trophies back to the East Coast.
ended in 1906 with the opening of the rail link to Ross, and Lake Mahinapua became the domain of recreational sailors.
Our cruise follows the Mahinapua Creek, past saw and flax-milling remnants, and a goldmining-dredge site, and allows me to relive history.
The turn-off to the Okarito village is well signposted after a 90-minute drive from Lake Mahinapua. In 1868 Julius von Haast wrote that ‘‘the view from Okarito Lagoon cannot be surpassed by any other landscape on the globe’’. Paula Sheridan and Swade Firth, who run Okarito Boat Tours, say that the consensus of passengers is that ‘‘Julius was not exaggerating’’.
The dramatic change between the coastal environment and the mountains leaves me staring till my eyes hurt.
Scientists think an earthquake in the 1500s triggered a tsunami which helped form the Okarito Lagoon. This area includes 3000 hectares of pristine wetland, the largest of its kind in New Zealand still in pristine condition. Over 70 species of native and migratory birds can be found here, including the kotuku (white heron).
Maori used the pa site at Okarito to gather food while on greenstone and moa-hunting expeditions. By 1865, 800 Europeans also called Okarito home, and soon the population mushroomed to 1500 people by summer’s end. Today’s quiet coastal village was once the third largest port on the West Coast, with direct sailings to Australia.
Our boat trip follows the main channel through the lagoon and the tributaries of the Okarito River into the rainforest. Firth has lived on the Coast for over 40 years and was once a deer culler. His interests switched to conservation, and he spent many years working as a wilderness guide and outdoor instructor.
An eagle-eyed bird spotter, he points out white herons, godwits, and pied stilts, otherwise invisible to my untrained eye.
Lake Mapourika is 8 kilometres north of Franz Josef Glacier village, and a Glacier Country Lake Tour is next on my list.
In 1887, the road from Okarito reached McDonald’s Creek, and Lake Mapourika linked Waiho Gorge with the port. This is the largest lake in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the Maori translating as ‘‘Flower of the Dawn’’. The lake has a similar creation story to Lake Mahinapua. When the Franz Josef glacier, Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere, made a slow melting retreat, the lake began to form.
The Graham brothers, owners of the Graham Hotel, ran the first scenic cruises in the area in the 1920s. Before the advent of courtesy cars, guests were taken by a horse and cart to ‘‘The Landing’’,where they boarded a small wooden cruise boat and travelled to Otto’s Corner for a picnic lunch. On a clear day the picnickers enjoyed ‘‘splendid views of the Franz Josef Glacier’’, and the three-echo ‘coohees’ never ceased to entertain the guests’’.
Today, the Hanna K and its skipper, Trevor Willetts, take modern guests on lake tours. In a previous life, Willetts worked as a commercial fisherman based in Fiordland, and he has always been a keen hunter. He’s the perfect person to show us this bird watcher’s nirvana. The rainforest and surrounding wetlands are home to several rare avian species, including rowi (the rarest kiwi) and crested grebes.
After looking at the Franz Josef Glacier reflected in the lake, Willetts turns off the engine, and all I can hear is the tui calling in the flax bushes.
The coffee and biscuit in Cup o’ Tea Bay, with more natural silence, is another welcome treat.
Our group sits quietly on the way back to Jetty Bay, staring at the views as if we are early surveyors exploring the countryside.
Two hours south of Franz Josef village is Haast and Waiatoto River Safari. This is New Zealand’s only ‘‘Ocean to the Alps’’ jet boat ride, the name ‘‘safari’’ being appropriate because the tour runs 23 kilometres up the Waiatoto River. Passengers get to cruise past the Haast-Tokoeka kiwi zone, ancient podocarp forests and waterfalls.
Views unsurpassed: Okarito Boat Tours on the lagoon lionised in 1868 by Julius von Haast.
Meal time: Aheron at Okarito eats a young eel. Mahinapua waterway. Photo: Sarah Bond