We discovered Hokitika almost by pure chance. Our next destination in New Zealand after Wharariki Beach – Franz Joseph Glacier – was simply too far to drive to in one go. Instead, we decided to play it safe and find a place somewhere in between to have some rest before heading to the glacier the following morning. That’s when Hokitika caught our eye. Located two hours away from Franz Josef and described online as a cool little town with a beautiful emerald water gorge nearby, it appeared to be a perfect spot to spend the night and capture some nice photos. But did it live up to the expectations?
Our plan was super simple – explore Hokitika Beach in the evening and then visit the nearby gorge in the morning. We arrived before sunset which left us enough time to head down to the beach to catch the last light. Much as I love photographing ocean sunsets, finding a compelling composition on the shore is not always an easy task. For this occasion, however, I already had a very particular image in mind. While doing the research prior to the trip I came across a few photos of the Hokitika Beach featuring what looked like some sort of impromptu artwork made of driftwood set up and arranged as to form the town’s name. Erected right at the water front, to me this driftwood artwork seemed like an excellent foreground element for a beautiful sunset image. And that’s exactly what I was after.
The beach sign was incredibly easy to find. Just head over to the beach parking lot and you will instantly see it. There honestly isn’t much science to getting a photo in that location. Since the driftwood sign is such a prominent foreground, the only choice is essentially where to position yourself while taking an image. The obvious thing to do is simply shoot the sign straight on, but I would also suggest watching the conditions and trying to frame the shot so that it captures the most drama in the sky. In a place like this where there is little variation in the subject, unique or dramatic conditions are the number one thing that could differentiate your photo from those taken by others.
After you’re done with the main photo, be sure to check out the armchair installed right next to the Hokitika sign. That’s right, an armchair. I have no idea who put it there and why, but it is excellent for some fun photos. Being a landscape photographer and constantly chasing the best light can be very tiring sometimes, so it was extremely refreshing to simply fool around for a change. Below are some of the shots that I managed, but I’m absolutely certain that someone with better imagination can achieve far cooler results.
Content with the evening’s shots, we retreated back to hotel, planning to catch some rest before heading to the gorge in the morning. Hokitika Gorge is a beautiful ravine known for its emerald green water, a short 33 kms drive from town. It looked absolutely fabulous on the images that I’ve seen on the web prior to the trip and I definitely had high expectations for it. Alas, the sunrise next day brought nothing but a gloomy grey sky and never-ending rain. We tried to wait it out, but it just wouldn’t relent. In the end, we decided to put on every bit of waterproof clothing that we had and walk to the gorge anyway, hoping that the weather would improve by the time we get there.
The hike to Hokitika Gorge is a short and pleasant one, going through the forest, over a pretty cool swinging bridge and then descending onto the observation platform above the ravine. Even in wet and rainy conditions it wasn’t too difficult or muddy and it took us no longer than 15 minutes to reach the viewpoint.
From the observation deck, it is possible to go even further down to the river level, but by that point it was dead obvious that it was going be an exercise in futility. The rain just kept pouring and in these conditions Hokitika Gorge looked nothing like the images we had seen.
Stubborn as I am, I still ventured down the slippery rocks to capture the image, but somehow I doubt that Hokitika tourist office will be in touch about licensing it anytime soon. At least I can find some solace in knowing that it is somewhat unique amidst all the stunning pictures available online. In all seriousness though, I simply don’t think hiking to the gorge is worth it when it’s wet. There are places that look amazing in rain, but Hokitika Gorge is not one of them. You really need a calm sunny day to truly bring out that incredible turquoise color in the water.
We left Hokitika with some mixed feelings. Official website really tries hard to sell the town as a “must-stay” destination, but, while I enjoyed my time there, I still think it’s quite an overstatement. It is indeed a cool little town with a couple interesting spots, but it definitely is not a place that comes to mind when I recall all the amazing things I have seen in New Zealand. Both the beach sign and the gorge were interesting to explore, but to me, it just isn’t enough to justify a visit. After all, there’s plenty of other insanely picturesque places in New Zealand to choose from. If Hokitika falls neatly into your itinerary, it’s not a bad place to spend the night, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it.
As always, I’d be glad to hear your opinion. Have you been to Hokitika? If not, do you want to? If yes, was it an absolute must-see? Let me know!