Okarito Lagoon was once the third-largest port on the West Coast.
Okarito Lagoon was once the third-largest port on the West Coast. Jim Eagles

West Coast nest for the blessed

IT'S hard to imagine now, with more paradise ducks than people in the main street, but Okarito once had a population of 4000, if you include the adjacent settlements of 3-Mile and 5-Mile.

That was back in 1865, says Paula Sheridan, when a gold rush saw 500 miners land in a single day and the town quickly acquire 35 hotels and stores.

Today, the population is more like 30 - including Paula, whose diverse talents embrace running these Nature of Okarito Guided Walks as well as Okarito Boat Tours, massages, yoga lessons and an accommodation agency - and there are no hotels at all.

But there is one survivor of those hectic times, Donovan's Store, the oldest commercial building on the West Coast, built in 1865 as the Club Hotel, later converted into the local store and now serving as a sort of local museum-cum-community centre-cum-concert venue (most recently for a Don McGlashan concert).

Walking round Okarito with Paula brings the area's rich and turbulent history to life.

Up on the trig hill, after a pleasant climb through the bush, part of it along what used to be the packhorse trail for bringing in supplies, there's a wonderful view of Okarito Lagoon.

In its heyday, this was the third-largest port on the West Coast, with direct sailings to Australia, until 1910 when the road opened the only access for tourists heading to the white heron colony at Whataroa and the glaciers at Franz Joseph.

These days, the only vessels are locals going fishing or tourists cruising round in kayaks or the Okarito Boat Tours craft enjoying the magnificent bird life - including elegant white herons, goony spoonbills, nippy kingfishers - and the beautiful bush.

Back down in the village, you can explore a corner of wetland thanks to a newly built boardwalk - I spied one of Okarito's famous whitebait - learn more about the village's history in the recently restored store and savour a very good coffee at the building that houses the boat and kayak tour operations.

Sometimes, apparently, you can also meet Okarito's most famous resident, writer Keri Hulme.

She didn't turn up while I was enjoying my coffee and I've since read that she's leaving, but I was able to watch the antics of a large family of paradise ducks which has taken up residence on a section opposite.

"They seemed to have really settled down here," says Paula cheerfully.

"This summer they raised several chicks, so the family's getting bigger. It's rather lovely to watch them."

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