Hokitika, New Zealand

Hokitika, New Zealand The epitome of a Gold Rush ‘boomtown’, Hokitika, on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand is now officially known as the ‘cool little town’, an ideal gateway for…

29 May 20 · 5 mins read

Hokitika, New Zealand

The epitome of a Gold Rush ‘boomtown’, Hokitika, on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand is now officially known as the ‘cool little town’, an ideal gateway for the spectacular scenery of the Southern Alps.

The town lies at the mouth of the Hokitika River, which rises in the Southern Alps and flows north 40 miles to meet the Tasman Sea. The town is virtually situated on Hokitika Beach, which is marked by the iconic driftwood ‘Hokitika’ sign, while on a clear day, the summit of Mount Cook/Aoraki can be seen looming behind the town.

The town was founded with the discovery of gold in 1864. Growing rapidly, it reached a peak population of 50, 000 in 1866, with the ‘Australian invasion’ of prospectors seeking further gold fields (by contrast, the population today is just over three thousand!). By 1868, when the town was made a borough, the population was already in decline. Recently, the Hokitika Gold Rush memorably provided the setting for Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries (2o13).

In subsequent years, Hokitika grew as a service centre for the surrounding area of dairy, beef, and sheep farming. Gold mining on the nearby Taramakau River continues; while a lumbering industry thrives.

Hokitika township, c. 1870s.

Hokitika’s Gold Rush history can be explored at a number of sites around town. The Hokitika Museum, located in the grand Carnegie Building (a former public library!), has displays devoted to the Gold Rush.

More historic sites can be seen in the nearby towns of Kumara and Ross. 28 kilometres to the north of Hokitika, Kumara boasts a a historic streetscape. Ross, 26 kilometres to the south, is known as ‘Gold Town’. It was the centre of one of the richest goldfields in the 19th century, and is famed for the largest gold nugget ever found (2.8 kg), discovered 1909. It was named the ‘Honourable Roddy Nugget’, after Roderick McKenzie, then the New Zealand Minister for Mines. Today, visitors can buy a pan and try their luck in the surrounding goldfields.

Before the Gold Rush, Hokitika was a centre of trade around another precious gemstone – Pounamu, also known as New Zealand jade or greenstone. The stone was sourced from the Arahura River, which enters the sea just north of town. Used by the Maori for weapons, tools, and personal ornaments, the stone was recognised for its beauty and durability and connoted great status. Today pounamu jewellery or art is a popular New Zealand souvenir.

Typical Maori pounamu.

Hokitika offers a number of experiences around pounamu. Head into a craft centre or gallery around town, and see a master carver at work with the material (and maybe have a go yourself!), or join one of the pounamu guided tours that explore the town. The Carnegie Museum also has a display devoted to pounamu. Small pieces can even sometimes be found on Hokitika beach, washed down river. Please note that you need permission to take pieces from a river bank.

Beyond pounamu, Hokitika is a creative hub, with the highest number of galleries and studios per capita in New Zealand, including photographers, painters, sculptors, glass-blowers, jewellers and textile artists.

The town is also home to the National Kiwi Centre, which gives visitors the opportunity to see New Zealand’s most iconic – and sadly endangered – native bird, along with other native animals including the tuatara, a lizard-like creature dating back to the age of the dinosaurs.

Hokitika is also a fantastic point from which to explore the stunning scenery of New Zealand’s west coast. About a 40 minute drive from Hokitika, the Hokitika Scenic Gorge Walk, takes around 15 minutes. It takes you through native bush and over a suspension bridge, from which you’ll see the incredible turquoise waters of the Hokitika River. The vivid blue colour comes from ‘rock flour’ – mineral-rich schist rock and sandstone, so fine that, rather than sink to the bottom, it remains suspended in the water as it flows down from the Southern Alps.

Hokitika gorge
Hokitika River Gorge.

Hokitika is only twenty minutes from Lake Kaniere, considered by many to be among the most beautiful lakes in New Zealand. Framed by mountains and bush, the lake offers a range of walks for different activity levels, ranging from the two-minute walk to Dorothy Falls, to medium-grade walks around the lake, to more challenging hikes up Mount Tahua and Mount Brown. In summer, the lake offers kayaking and swimming opportunities.

15 minutes south of Hokitika, Lake Mahinapua is another pretty and popular lake. The lake offers swimming and kayaking, as well as the West Coast Treetop Walk, a 450 metre forest canopy walkway, 20 metres above the ground. Pass through the canopies of ancient Rimu and Kamahi trees, and look down on giant ferns. The Hokitika Tower allows you to climb 40 metres above the forest floor, offering panoramic views of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea.

Hokitika is also the launching point for scenic flight journeys above the glaciers of the Southern Alps – Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier – as well as the snowy landscapes of Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Odyssey Traveller visits the South Island as part of our New Zealand tour, An Odyssey Down Under. Our tour takes you through the highlights of both the North Island and the South Island. We begin in Auckland, where we learn about the history of New Zealand, before heading to Rotorua, a centre of Maori culture and home of the Te Puia Thermal Springs. We then pass through some of the North Island‘s best scenery, including the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley, Lake Taupo, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, on our way to Wellington, New Zealand‘s windy capital.

From Wellington we head to Christchurch, on the South Island, passing through the seaside town of Kaikoura on the way. We then head to Dunedin, a university town with a Scottish twist, before visiting Te Anau, the gateway to Fjordland National Park and Milford Sound. We end our trip in Queenstown, situated among some of New Zealand‘s most striking natural beauty.

Every Odyssey Traveller guided tour is designed for mature and senior travellers, who seek an authentic experience of their destination. Our tour of New Zealand is led by an experienced tour director/tour guide. We’re not your standard New Zealand vacation tour operator: our groups are genuinely small, between 6-12, and we give you plenty of opportunity for independent exploration.

Odyssey Traveller has been bringing Australian travellers to the world since 1983. In recent months, with the Covid-19 pandemic and associated coronavirus restrictions on travel, we have reoriented towards tours of Australia and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand – along with a number of other small countries, including South Korea and Taiwan – have been largely successful in containing the number of coronavirus cases and are starting to lift strict lockdown measures. We hope that Australians will be able to travel around the country by domestic flight soon, and that – with talks between Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Australian government – that trans-Tasman travel may also be a possibility. So, while you might have to postpone that United States adventure, cruise ship holiday, or Russian visa application until after the virus, that doesn’t mean you should put away your passport just yet! There’s never been a better time to explore Australia and New Zealand.

Lake Kaniere
Lake Kaniere, New Zealand.

Articles about New Zealand published by Odyssey Traveller

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

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