With our glaciers, mountain peaks, forests and farmland in Franz Josef, there is plenty to see right here. When the pull to explore kicks in, we are fortunate that just 17 kilometres away lies Ōkārito, tucked just a little way off SH6, right here on the South Island’s West Coast.
Ōkārito is home to just a few dozen people, but over 70 species of birds. Once a gold mining town, like so many West Coast settlements, it’s surrounded by ocean, wetlands, cliffs and native forest, with the mighty Southern Alps as a backdrop.
We regularly traipse out there and never tired of it. It is a unique place, unspoiled and close to nature. Taking the short, steep uphill trig walk, the views from the top of the lagoon and the Southern Alps are astounding and if I had to tramp for a few hours to see them, I would do so happily.
To get up close and personal to one of the last un-modified places of wetland biodiversity, the Ōkārito boat tours is an experience I would encourage everyone to enjoy. Following the still, shallow waters of the lagoon, the boat allows close-up views of the surrounding rainforest and the many native birds who make their home is the way to go. The enthusiastic owner operators Paula and Swade are passionate about sharing their knowledge on board their boat Explorer Douglas. This flat-bottomed open-air boat custom is built for the lagoon, cruising along at slow speeds and often drifting alongside birds that live here, feeding in both a fresh and saltwater environment.
On a mid-tide, with the lagoon tidal flats exposed, there are a variety of wading birds - from the little banded dotterels, to the intrepid bar tailed godwits that fly here from Alaska, to those oh so beautiful Kotuku - great white herons, and the quirky royal spoonbills. The lagoon is home to many species of native bird which include migratory waders, black backed gulls, shags and terns on the mud flats as well as black swans and scaup in freshwater areas. Tui, bellbird, kingfishers, pigeon, fern birds and bitterns inhabit the wetland areas.
The rare rowi kiwi can also be found in the area, and thanks in part to Operation Nest Egg undertaken by the Department of Conservation, they’re being brought back from the brink of extinction. The recently rediscovered Ōkārito gecko is an exciting new addition.
To protect the lagoon and surrounding forest, a $45m Predator Free South Westland project aims to eliminate possums, rats and stoats from a 100,000-hectare area bounded by the Whataroa and Waiau Rivers, the Southern Alps and Tasman Sea over five years. The project builds on Zero Invasive Predators’ (ZIP) successful removal of predators from the 12,000 hectares Perth River Valley which borders the new project area.
Our favourite of all (apart from Swade’s delicious homemade cookies for morning tea) was watching the rare black billed gulls, the most threatened species of gull in the world. We watched them feeding on cicadas, using aerial acrobatics on the wing to catch them. Paula explained they were starting to breed here. In these days of uncertainty, it is great to be in the largest unmodified wetlands in New Zealand seeing species coming back from the brink.
Keen on the outdoors, we often hike around our local area so we can pass on all our knowledge about Westland Tai Poutini National Park.