There is much to charm in this tiny West Coast hamlet, writes Elisabeth Easther.

The birds' elegant bodies and bayonet-like beaks draw admiring crowds from around the world.

Okarito is a magical spot for nature lovers and the ornithologically inclined. Set on a sandspit snug beneath the Southern Alps, 25km from Franz Josef Township, the land folds towards Okarito Lagoon, combining rainforest and wetland to great effect.

According to geologists, the lagoon itself wasn't formed until the 1700s when a tsunami rearranged the topography, bringing with it a new network of waterways.


Renowned for its animated estuary and boisterous Tasman Sea beyond, this area has always been a haven for birdlife.

For Maori making regular visits to the area since their arrival an estimated 600 years ago, the region would've been a giant pantry with kai from land, sea and sky keeping the people well provisioned.

In fact Okarito is Maori for "place of the young bulrush shoots" which are said to be rather tasty when picked young.

With the giant moa, thought to have reached extinction about 500 years ago, chances are local Maori would also have enjoyed some mighty large drumsticks with their side salads of bulrush.

Entering the post-colonial period, well after the last moa had succumbed to the hangi, the discovery of gold in the 1860s saw this sleepy little beauty spot become a bustling hive of industry.

With hordes of gold miners all seeking their fortunes, it's said a record-breaking 500 men arrived on one day alone. But in spite of the main street being lined with more than 30 retail establishments, it would've been a harsh and unforgiving life, with many miners seeking succour in the bottle. In fact, selling grog would've been a much surer way to get rich than panning or digging for gold.

By Christmas, 1865, Okarito's population was 800 and by the end of that summer the population had virtually doubled, making it the third largest port on the West Coast, with regular direct services coming all the way from Australia.

But with the fading of the gold rush, the town almost disappeared, and in the 1880s just 12 families were left holding the fort. As for today, aside from holidaymakers, a modest population of about 30 call Okarito home.

On entering the village, set on a sandspit in Okarito Lagoon, you'll quickly realise - for a tiny town, there's a lot going on. Donovan's Store is a beautifully restored historic building, the oldest remaining commercial building on the West Coast. Originally a hotel, apparently "extras" were also served if you knew whom to ask, while later it became the general store.

Today it's the community heart, where you can go to concerts or take yoga classes, there's even a small library. There are also several lovely walks. The steep 45-minute puff up to the Trig Station is the perfect way to get a bird's-eye view of the place, or stroll along the three-hour Three Mile Lagoon Track Loop. With high- and low-tide tracks be sure you check what the sea is doing before setting off. And when night falls, a stay in the historic schoolhouse, also exquisitely renovated by the community, is hard to beat.

The star of this region, however, has to be the 2340ha lagoon, a teeming world of wildlife that's home to 76 bird species. With special spiritual significance to Maori, the elegant kotuku or white heron breeds on the Waitangiroto River to the north, and comes to the lagoon to feed. The large birds' elegant bodies and bayonet-like beaks draw admiring crowds from around the world. The rare rowi kiwi can also be found here, and thanks in part to Operation Nest Egg, they're being brought back from the brink of extinction. With plenty of opportunities to embrace nature, visitors can take a guided night walk in the kiwi sanctuary with Okarito Kiwi Tours. If you keep your chatter to a minimum, the guides boast of an extraordinary 98 per cent chance of sighting one of world's rarest birds. Paddling on these waterways is also an astonishing adventure and Okarito Kayaks offer straight boat hire or guided tours, with the latter featuring guides who share their knowledge about the flora and fauna. Paddling up peaceful tributaries surrounded by virgin rainforest will take your breath away.

If a damp derriere isn't your idea of a good time, Okarito Boat Tours also take visitors out, with the Early Bird Tour ideal for photographers. When the water is glassy the reflections are striking and ideally appreciated during the enchanted hours of sunrise and sunset.

Be warned however, Okarito is highly likely to steal your heart and, despite the gold rush being long gone, there's still plenty of treasure to be found in this charming historic hamlet.

Getting there
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Hokitika, via Christchurch with one-way Seat fares from $128.