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.