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Exploring New Zealand


Mark Brownlow - February 7, 2007

Hokitika was our first introduction to a typical New Zealand town. We'd spent the previous night in Christchurch, but such large towns are few and far between, and Hokitika is more representative of the small town landscape we were to encounter many times later in the trip.

Coming from crowded Western Europe and Japan, it's the wide streets and open planning that grabs the eye. And the lack of substantiveness. Buildings tend not to have the built-for-a-thousand-years look of a central European town.

But perhaps the biggest shock is a somewhat banal one: parking. When you're used to circling the block twenty times to find a decent parking space, the richness of roadside parking opportunities in places like Hokitika is manna from heaven.

We drove straight into the centre on arrival, simply because we missed the turning to our accommodation. The Shining Star Motel complex was ostensibly on the edge of town, but with the distance from the edge to the centre a matter of a few hundred metres, it didn't take long to find our way back.

A friendly welcome awaited us, as well as a surprising query about our milk preferences: skimmed or whole? Not the vague questioning of a curious proprietor, but merely another example of how New Zealand's tourist industry tries to focus on visitor needs. Many places gave us fresh milk when we checked in, for use with in-room tea and coffee making facilities.

Hokitika beach, looking north away from the town

We had a two-bedroom semi-detached log cabin within a short walk of the beach and a slightly longer walk into town. After dumping our bags, we took the car into Hokitika proper to explore the fabled craft shops before closing time.

Although not a huge place, Hokitika has all the facilities you need as a traveller: a chemist, banks, an information centre, Department of Conservation office, and a large supermarket for stocking up on essentials before leaving for the south. It also has a Caltex petrol station on Fitzherbert Street which is open until 10.45pm; a welcome source of snacks and essentials for those out at night after the shops have closed.

Aside from those practical resources for the passing visitor, the town also possesses a reputation as an arts and crafts mecca.

This reputation has its origins in the local supply of gold and pounamu (also known as greenstone, jade or nephrite). Although the mining industry has lost much of its fire, its legacy is a town full of craft shops and galleries. In fact, it was quite hard to go more than a few metres in the centre without encountering another studio, workshop or art store.

The focus is on handicrafts and sculptures. And not just using gold and greenstone. Wood, glass, seashells, bone and a host of other materials contribute to a town-wide collection of arts and crafts to rival many major cities elsewhere.

The dominant theme, though, is greenstone. This has a strong link to the Maori culture, where the stones fulfil both practical, decorative and spiritual roles. A Maori man, for example, might court his loved one with the help of a carved jade pendant. And the same material is used for tools and weaponry.

The shop collections make marvellous viewing. The quality is high and this is reflected in the prices. A full-sized jade weapon carries a four figure price. Greenstone jewellery pieces start from around NZ$80.

Goodletite and gold pendant from Ruby Rock Gallery, Hokitika

One issue we were warned about is that of authenticity. Don't buy any greenstone items without checking the origin. Not every piece is local to New Zealand and the cheaper stuff may have been imported from elsewhere. To be fair, we only saw New Zealand items ourselves, and many store owners would take umbrage at the suggestion that their products were anything other than locally produced.

Ruby rock gallery, Hokitika beach

We found greenstone items sold almost everywhere in New Zealand, but Hokitika has its own gemstone, too. One which is unique to the region. We learnt about this through a visit to the Ruby Rock Gallery on Tancred Street (the street is one long row of art stores and galleries).

Goodletite is New Zealand's only precious stone and found only in the Westland area. Originally discovered in the 19th century, it was largely forgotten until a Dutch-born master gem cutter rediscovered the stone and began working it into items of silver and gold jewellery in the late 1990s.

Mural on Regent Theatre, Hokitika

Goodletite is actually rarer then diamond, and features numerous colours through its combination of ruby, sapphire and tourmaline crystals embedded in green fuchsite. Its rarity and beauty make it a pricey gift, but a unique one.

By the time we'd finished viewing a selection of the art galleries in town, we were into early evening and running out of steam after a hard day's travelling. So we had no chance to get a closer look at Hokitika's other manmade delights, such as the art deco Regent Theatre on Weld Street. The theatre dates back to 1936 and stands out because of the giant harbour scene painted all down its side.

We were able to nip into the well-appointed i-Site and West Coast Historical Museum located in the old Carnegie building at the corner of Tancred and Hamilton Streets. These proved ideal places to acquaint ourselves with the region's history and points of interest. Catch the audio-visual presentation on gold and greenstone to familiarize yourself with the two most important components of Hokitika's past and present.

Driftwood on Hokitika beach

As the sun went down we made our way back to the cabin, armed with provisions from the large New World supermarket. There are a couple of highly recommended restaurants in Hokitika. Stations Inn has numerous awards for its beef and lamb dishes, but was a short drive away on the Blue Spur scenic route and neither of us felt like getting in the car again. The Café de Paris was highlighted in a documentary on the area we watched during the flight from Japan. But while intriguing, it was undergoing some building work and we chose to make our own meal instead.

Our quick homemade supper did mean plenty of time to use the evening for more "sightseeing," with a visit to the glowworm dell and an evening stroll along the beach.

Abstract stone arrangement on Hokitika beach

Like many coastal towns, Hokitika has a long and empty seafront. The black sand and pebbles give it a rugged look, a perception enhanced by the driftwood that collects on the townside of the shores. It's a paradise for photographers, with the pebbles, driftwood and sunset offering wonderful subjects for experimentation and snapshots alike.

Sun setting over Hokitika beach

It's scenes like these that make you wish you'd taken a course in photography. But we at least experimented with our cameras in a (largely vain) effort to capture the glory of sunset over the Tasman sea.

The beach at night really brought home to us the majesty of New Zealand. Barely a soul in sight along the entire length of the beach, a beautiful mountain backdrop, star-ridden skies and a starlit sea. And yet Hokitika beach barely registers on the list of top national attractions.

We began to wonder just what other delights the trip would offer...

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