Hokitika - thecoollittletown.com
To say Hokitika on the West Coast of New Zealand has a colourful history and heritage is a bit of an understatement. At the height of the gold rushes in the 1860's it boasted 102 hotels, 84 of these crammed into Revell Street on what was known as the Crooked Mile. Throw in three opera houses and it must have been a rip-roaring place for the Irish, Americans, Chinese, British and Europeans who flocked here.
Fueled by gold fever Hokitika grew at an astonishing rate. A self-guided heritage walk around town takes in the most memorable sites including the Custom House, built in 1897, and the clock tower which is a memorial to the soldiers who fell in the Boer War.
History and heritage have now gone high tech and visitors can use augmented reality to view historic images on their mobile phones, the perfect way to get a feel for how the town has changed. Another option is to join one of the Coast's most interesting characters, Premier Richard John Seddon or Dr Ebenezer Teichelmann, for a guided tour around Hokitika's heritage hot spots.
The hills and streams surrounding Hokitika still hold gold and you can try your luck panning at the historic goldfields of Ross and Goldsborough. Both are official public fossicking areas and gold pans can be bought cheaply in town. The largest gold nugget ever found in New Zealand was unearthed in Ross in 1909, it was as big as a man's fist and weighed 2.8kg's.
Before the gold rushes, Maori came to Hokitika in search of pounamu, New Zealand's own precious jade. Highly prized and used for weapons, tools and personal ornaments an excellent display of pounamu can be found at the Hokitika Museum. The museum can be found in the beautifully restored Carnegie Building, it's audio visual show captures the lives of those who came in search of gold, the hardships they endured and their dreams of a better life.
The museums highly acclaimed whitebait exhibition includes interviews with whitebaiters who remember catches of 2,000kg in a single day. They talk about how there was such an abundance of whitebait it was often used as garden fertilizer -- apparently it grows enormous potatoes. The exhibition also includes scientific research, audio-visuals, and old photographs. Originally a temporary exhibition it was removed in April 2012 but should be back on permanent display soon.
Nearly half of all immigrants to New Zealand in 1866 came through Hokitika's river port although the constantly changing river bar and heavy surf claimed many with 43 vessels coming to grief. Many others lost their lives on the gold fields and were buried at Hokitika's Cemetery. You can wander around the graves, which date back to 1865, to get a feel for how tough life was back then.
It is also a little known fact that Hokitika's airport was the home of New Zealand's first licensed air service, Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, which operated from 1934 until 1947. A replica of a Fox Moth biplane (ZD-ADI) can be found at the airport in memory of those pioneering aviators.
Back to earth, on many of the bush walks near Hokitika, especially in the Goldsborough and Blue Spur areas, you can still see authentic relics from the gold years including water races and tunnels. If you are interested in the areas logging history try the Mahinapua walkway which follows an old logging tramway and has fascinating interpretive panels along the way. Or for a unique experience try floating down the Mahinapua stream through virgin rainforest in a genuine historic paddleboat.