March 19th – Rest day in Okarito
A few days prior, we ran into Hendrik on the West Coast highway. We had left Punakaiki that morning and he was heading there from the South. We knew he was on the coast somewhere but still, quite the chance encounter and exciting to have a surprise roadside visit with a friend. Hendrik told us about some of the places we had ahead of us and gave special mention to Okarito. Fortunately so, or we may not have visited it otherwise. (Thanks Hendrik!)
Okarito is about 10km off the main highway – not much of a detour in a car, but riding a bike, easy to skip. Like so many towns we passed through, it was pretty bumping in the gold mining days but has since dwindled to a population of about 30 people and no services save for a campsite, a few beach houses for rent, a hostel that also sells coffee and locally-made energy bars, and tours of the Okarito Lagoon, breeding grounds for the rare white heron, and of the surrounding rain forest, the Okarito Kiwi habitat.
Despite these attractions, Okarito was extremely quiet and seemed cut-off from the rest of the world. Did the lack of shops and restaurants keep a large portion of the tourists away? Or maybe it was the proximity to Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers, the primary attractions in this area of the West Coast.
It was rainy the evening we arrived but come morning, we woke up under a giant blue sky. I think we both sensed that the place would offer something we had been looking for on our tour but hadn’t quite found yet. So we decided on a short day on the bike, preceded by a morning hike.
Across the street from our campsite was the trailhead for two walks to the Three Mile Lagoon: one through a forest and over Kohuamarua Bluff and another around the Bluff, along the coast, but only traversable within 2 hours either side of low tide.
The high tide forced us through the forest, abundant with birds including fantails, tomtits, and two bird sightings exciting enough that I’ll have to write about them in a separate post, the tui and the morepork. There was an occasional glimpse of the blue blue ocean down below, but most of the view was reserved for the end, on the other side of the bluff where the trail headed down to its destination – the Three Mile Lagoon.
The lagoon water, with its red hue, was ruby clear and surrounded by sand dunes and smooth-rock beaches. The snowy Southern Alps stood in the background and Tasman Sea waves provided our soundtrack.
We had lunch by the ocean, watching pairs of oyster catchers march by. Besides one other party heading back, the place was deserted. There was definitely something special about it, a paradise indeed. So…enjoy it for another 20 minutes, then head back to continue our tour?
Luckily, Aaron is pretty good at recognizing opportunities and proposed staying in Okarito another night so we could enjoy the paradise a while longer.
I love cycle touring and I love the ability my bike gives me to travel from place to place. But I do need reminders to occasionally forget about making distance, to stay and give a place time to make its impression on you.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the dunes, swimming in the lagoon, and meandering back along the coast, the tide having become low.
Back at camp, we ate our “spare food” – emergency spaghetti and a can of tuna. (A tip: aside from the energy bars, there is no food to be bought in Okarito. Make sure you stock up beforehand.)
In the evening, we played guitar on the beach and watched the sun dip into hiding for the night.
There’s a lot of beauty to behold in New Zealand, but if you want an especially concentrated package of that beauty, Okarito is the place to be.