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.

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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

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