Thomas Bywater mines for tourist treasure on the West Coast
My only prior experience of Hokitika was through reading The Luminaries. Well, a couple of hundred pages of it, anyway. I've no shame in admitting it is still on the to-read pile. The story about West Coast miners quickly found a reputation with some readers - myself included - as being as dense and impenetrable as the Hokitika bush.
Much like Eleanor Catton's Man Booker winning-novel, the West Coast has a reputation that is unavoidable, but few Kiwi travellers find the time to persevere and push through to the other side.
You need time. A long weekend is barely enough to scratch the surface. But on two wheels you can make some headway.
Easy rider: Coasting on an E-bike
The West Coast Wilderness Trail is a 133km cycling route from Greymouth to Ross.
Since its completion almost five years ago, it has been one of the biggest revolutions in opening up the scenery and the experiences along the Podocarp rainforest belt. And more recently a secret weapon has been opening up the trail to more first-time cyclists: the e-bike.
Donna Beard, owner of the West Coast Cycling & Tours, has banned the term.
"E-bikes make it sound like you're cheating," she says. "We prefer the term 'Pedal assist'."
While the four-day trail can be comfortably done on a regular trail bike, a boosted bike puts many of the most exciting sections within a day's hire.
For a taste of adventure and West Coast history, Donna recommends the downhill section from Cowboy Paradise to Hokitika. Here the track follows a water race built by gold miners in 1885 to sluice their gold.
As promised the cycling is varied and exhilarating, and the cyclists we encounter range in age from pensioner to freshly off stabilisers. Though not everyone agrees with Donna's view on e-bikes.
"You should be ashamed!" chided passers-by. "Using an e-bike, at your age?"
On the other end of the spectrum is the easy cruise south to Ross. Following the flat wetlands past the Treetop Walkway, you can be in Ross and the Empire Hotel by lunchtime.
The menu? Whitebait of course. Everything you've heard is true about the West Coast's obsession with the tiny, translucent fish fry. Whitebait fritters, sandwiches... Hokitika's local pizzeria, the Fat Pipi, even does a whitebait base special.
Whitebait and waterways
The sheer volume of whitebait consumed between Reefton and Haast, makes it easy to see why four of the six whitebait species are under threat of extinction. This topic of conversation is unlikely to win you many friends, but you'll quickly discover that the waterways around Hokitika are some of the best protected for the wriggly young fish.
Whitebait refuges are already in place on the West Coast. Stretches of pristine waterway, like the Māhinapua Creek, are areas where they can flourish without fear of ending up in a net or a fritter. Though they remain fair game for the kōtuku white heron.
Travelling on a scenic waterways cruise, we see one standing serenely in the water. As it waits for us to flush tiny fish for it to catch, the bird is surprisingly serene. Surprising, because of just how close we pass by, but also because the Eco Adventurer might be the ugliest ship ever built. Part barrel raft, part jungle gym, the Adventurer is low to the wetland flax and has a viewing platform for an egret-eye view of the waterways.
This is also easily dismantled, as we find out when navigating the tides and a low bridge.
In short, it's perfectly adapted for the West Coast waterways. Like the kahikatea, it would look out of place anywhere else.
Before the Wilderness Cycle Trail, before the railways or highways, these amazing natural canals were the only way to get around. The Luminaries-era gold miners and loggers would have set off down these ways in search of fortune.
Finally, by sunset, we come to Lake Māhinapua. With a cup of tea boiled up in a billy, we catch the final light of the day and a glimpse of the Southern Alps. Under bruised, red skies on the calm wetlands, Kevin, our guide shares some grisly stories to reflect upon.
This was the landscape of "shooter" Stanley Graham's murderous seven-man spree. And
long before that, the lake had been jammed with bodies and the overturned waka taua of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Wairangi in one of the deadliest battles ever recorded.
By nightfall, blood thoroughly chilled, we moor up at Kōtuku cottage. The only heron that hasn't gone away to roost is an artfully rusted sign, showing us the way out of the flax.
At the crossroads of the waterways and cycleway, the bike trail goes right past the front door.
Ever since they learned the Wilderness Trail would be going through their lifestyle block, owners Cindy and Gavin Hopper had high hopes for a pivot to tourism.
"It was the combination of the cycleway, the waterway and the granny flat," says Cindy.
Today Kōtuku is just one of five units on the plot let out to cyclists and holidaymakers. Set above the waterways, space for another block of accommodation has been marked out.
What began as a modest BnB has become a bicycle trail boomtown.
Not only the river cruise, which the Hoppers took on with the cottage, there's now a confluence of businesses where the river and trail meet. From grassroots catering by the Te Rere Gardens, through to a dramatic 20m-tall Treetop Walkway, the region south of Hokitika has changed a lot in the past decade.
Like the arrival of gold miners and prospectors before, it is driven by a new rush of new people riding through.
In New Zealand, fossicking for gold is now an activity only for tourists or hobbyists. Washing rocks in a pan is a therapeutic pastime, but hardly productive.
West Coast greenstone on the other hand is plentiful. A piece of polished pounamu can be a meaningful souvenir, especially if you found that stone yourself, says Steve Gwaliasi of Bonz and Stonz.
Carving pounamu at the workshop on Hokitika's Hamilton St is the perfect activity for a wet day - and the Coast has plenty of those.
Steve and his apprentice Melvin walk you through picking and shaping your stone.
A simple toki (adze) will take a couple of hours to carve. "Really advanced work - a manaia or tiki - could take five to six hours, a full day," Steve says.
The workshop can supply pounamu, but welcomes guests to bring their own stone to shape. However, when fossicking, bear in mind there are some important rules to follow.
You can only take your pebbles from the beach in designated areas. From Greymouth in the north to Milford Sound in the south, they are plenty of places to go looking for jade legally. Make sure you take only as much as you need to carve (the most you can take is what one individual can carry on their person or in a backpack within a 24-hour period).
But how do you know when you've found a piece?
"Hold it up to the light," Steve says. Pounamu is translucent, letting some light pass through it, which distinguishes it from other greenish stones.
Beware of Serpentine stone. Like the "fools gold" of pounamu, this rock is similar in colour, but is brittle and can shatter when carved.
Getting a guide can help, and there are plenty of tours on the Arahura River sanctioned by Ngāi Tahu - the Kaitiaki of the resource. The misleadingly named Serpentine Beach, between Greymouth and Hokitika, is Steve's top tip.
However this is not completely foolproof, as one of the previous guests found out.
With his three decades' experience, Steve has seen people turn up with serpentine many times before. He replaces the crumbly stone with a piece of Putiputi pounamu.
"We want people to leave with a piece they are happy with."
Air New Zealand flies daily links between Christchurch and Hokitika. airnz.co.nz
Hokitika was recently voted Booking.com's Most Welcoming Towns in their Traveller Review Awards.