Explore The West Coast
South from Greymouth, SH6 hugs a desolate stretch of coast with little of abiding interest until HOKITIKA, 40km away. “Hoki” is infinitely more interesting than Greymouth, due to its location on a long, driftwood-strewn beach, some engaging activities – including the strangely seductive sock-making machine museum and an atmospheric glowworm dell – and proximity to good bushwalks in the surrounding area, not least of which is the spectacular Hokitika Gorge.
Despite its beautiful beach, the town is primarily renowned for its crafts scene, and is becoming something of an artists’ enclave, with a slew of studios, galleries and shopfronts where you can see weaving, carving (greenstone or bone) or glass blowing in action or buy the high-quality results of the artists’ labours. The National Kiwi Centre, a privately run aquarium and nocturnal house combination, is also here, but it’s difficult to justify the high admission price.
Like other West Coast towns, Hokitika owes its existence to the gold rushes of the 1860s. Within months of the initial discoveries near Greymouth in 1864, fields had been opened up on the tributaries of the Hokitika River, and Australian diggers and Irish hopefuls all flogged over narrow passes from Canterbury to get their share. Within two years Hokitika had a population of 6000 (compared with today’s 4000), streets packed with hotels, and a steady export of over a tonne of gold a month, mainly direct to Melbourne. Despite a treacherous bar at the Hokitika rivermouth, the port briefly became the country’s busiest, with ships tied up four deep along Gibson Wharf. As gold grew harder to find and more sluicing water was needed, the enterprise eventually became uneconomic and was replaced by dairying and the timber industry. The port closed in 1954, only to be smartened up in the 1990s as the focus for the town’s Heritage Trail.Read More
Some of the best bush scenery and walks around Hokitika are 30km inland where the dairying hinterland meets the foothills of the Southern Alps. Minor roads (initially following Stafford Street out of town) make a good 70km scenic drive, shown in detail on DOC’s Central West Coast: Hokitika leaflet. The road passes the fishing, waterskiing and tramping territory of Lake Kaniere, a glacial lake with fantastic reflections of the mountains in the crystal water, several picnic sites and primitive camping along its eastern side. The most popular walk is the Kaniere Water Race Walkway (9km one-way; 3hr; 100m ascent), starting from the lake’s northern end and following a channel that used to supply water to the goldfields, through stands of regenerating rimu.
Lake Kaniere’s eastern-shore road passes the magical Dorothy Falls, with giant moss-covered boulders in unearthly shades of green, and continues to a side road leading to the dazzling Hokitika Gorge, where a gentle path leads to a swingbridge over the exquisite turquoise-coloured Hokitika River.
Maori revere pounamu (hard nephrite jade) and tangiwai (softer, translucent bowenite), usually collectively known as greenstone. In Aotearoa’s pre-European culture, it took the place of durable metals for practical, warfaring and decorative uses: adzes and chisels were used for carving, mere (clubs) for combat, and pendants were fashioned for jewellery.
In Maori, the entire South Island is known as Te Wahi Pounamu, “the place of greenstone”, reflecting the importance of its sole sources, the belt from Greymouth through the rich Arahura River area near Hokitika south to Anita Bay on Milford Sound – where the beautifully dappled tangiwai occurs – and the Wakatipu region behind Queenstown. When the Poutini Ngai Tahu arranged to sell most of Westland to James Mackay in 1860, the Arahura River, their main source of pounamu, was specifically excluded.
Greenstone’s value has barely diminished. Mineral claims are jealously guarded, the export of greenstone is prohibited and no extraction is allowed from national parks; penalties include fines of up to $200,000 and two years in jail. Price is heavily dependent on quality, but rates of $100,000 a tonne are not unknown – and the sky’s the limit when the stone is fashioned into sculpture and jewellery. Many of the cheaper specimens are quite crude, but pricier pieces exhibit accomplished Maori designs.
Hokitika is the main venue for greenstone shoppers: keep in mind that the larger shops and galleries are firmly locked into the tour-bus circuit so prices are high. Big shops are fine for learning about the quality of the stone and competence of the artwork but smaller places have more competitive deals. Buyers should ask about the origins of the raw material – insiders suspect that lots of greenstone sold in New Zealand is cheaper jade sourced overseas.
In the last decade or so, Hokitika has become synonymous with the annual Wildfoods Festival (second Sat in March; wwildfoods.co.nz), when the population quadruples to celebrate bush tucker. Around fifty stalls in Cass Square sell delicacies such as marinated goat kebabs, smoked eel wontons, huhu grubs, “mountain oysters” (a.k.a. sheep’s testicles) and, of course, whitebait, washed down with home-brewed beer and South Island wine. The feasting is followed by an evening hoedown, the Wildfoods Barn Dance and bonfires on the beach.