First used by Māori, as they journeyed over the Southern Alps, the Hokitika Gorge has become one of the top must-see scenic attractions in Westland. Recent upgrades have elevated it to world class standards, but for such a popular and iconic tourist destination, little is known of its history. Vaughan Bradley from the Hokitika Museum has been digging deep to find out more.
The Hokitika Gorge was part of an early route used by Māori, on their way over the dangerous Whitcombe and Mathias Passes into Canterbury. Poutini Chief Terapuhi warned gold prospector William Smart of the treacherous reputation of the Whitcombe Pass (Rurumataikau), recounting tales of 20 Māori dying the in the snow while attempting to cross the difficult terrain.
The first Europeans to cross the Whitcombe Pass were John Henry Whitcombe and Joseph Lauper in 1863. Their goal was to map a route suitable for constructing a road link between Christchurch and the West Coast. They spotted signs of gold on the banks of the river and found greenstone on their descent into the Kowhiterangi valley.
Two years later, Julius von Haast and his Māori guides canoed up the Hokitika River for three days, reaching a ‘really fine gorge’ where the river bed was ‘so rough and full of large blocks of stone, and the water so rapid, that we could not take the canoe any higher’. He too found signs of gold.
By 1880, Westland Chief Surveyor, Gerhard Mueller identified the potential for a road from Canterbury across the Whitcombe Pass and down to the Hokitika Gorge. Along with later plans for a stock route and a railway over Mathias Pass, these schemes were deemed too expensive and never saw the light of day.
The tourism value of the Gorge was quickly recognised, but access remained a problem. Photographs of the Gorge were starting to appear in exhibitions and photograph collections. In 1891 a slide show at the Princess Theatre exhibited ‘some lovely slides of the Hokitika Gorge, which is described by the very few that have visited it, as the Fairy Land of Hokitika’.
Some of the earliest known attempts at gold mining in the Gorge date back to 1887. A decade later the Grey River Argus reported ‘excellent gold is being found … in the Gorge Valley’ and advised that ‘prospects can be found almost anywhere in the locality’.
In order to develop a fur trade in the district, 50 possums were liberated at the Gorge in 1898. By 1914 there were reports of 500 excellent skins being collected, and the protection of the ‘opossum’ was being actively campaigned for. The Greymouth Evening Star reported that native pigeons, wild duck and deer were plentiful in the area ‘and good shooting can be obtained without difficulty’.
Hokitika Gorge was the scene of the first release of moose in New Zealand in 1900, when fourteen moose calves were sent to New Zealand from Canada. Only four survived the journey and were released at the Gorge, adapting to the new conditions and diet under the watchful eye of a full-time minder. After a few weeks the two bucks headed to the high country, while the two does took up residence in the lower reaches of the Gorge. According to legend, local farmer, Bert Cropp shot one moose after she made a nuisance of herself in gardens around Kowhitirangi. Moose sightings were reported until 1914, and there is no evidence that they ever bred.
A Government scheme to open up tourist resorts of the colony began in the early 1900’s. The Westland Acclimatisation Society appealed to the Superintendant of Tourism and Health Resorts in 1906 for improved access to the Gorge and better promotion of Westland Province. Much to the Society’s surprise this work was soon underway. The West Coast Times reported that ‘this [new] road should be not only be of service to the settler, but also to the travelling public as they can drive through from town right to the mouth of the Gorge where some pretty spots are to be seen, suitable for the photographer’.
Prime Minister William Massey first came to the Coast in March 1914. He was bundled into a car and taken on a tour of Kokatahi and Kowhiterangi and then to the Gorge. Over lunch the County Council successfully lobbied him for more Government investment in the area. The Prime Minister expressed his delight at the trip and ‘described his boat excursion through the Gorge as a scenic view much superior to anything to be seen on the Wanganui River, and the whole bush surroundings as very fine’.
A movie was screened at the Princess theatre in 1919 entitled ‘A Tour Through Westland’. The West Coast Times reported that the audience was delighted by striking scenes of the Gorge, which many of them had never seen before, particularly a boating scene at the Gorge, ‘one of the special bits of scenic country in this well-endowed neighbourhood.’ Unfortunately, this slice of celluloid history is lost to us forever.
The first attempt to commercialise the Gorge experience came in 1922 when the Orr Brothers charged 5 shillings for a return trip to the Gorge by ‘charabanc’ or motorized coach. The following year Clements Motors started a similar service that was a shilling cheaper – leaving town at 9 am and leaving the Gorge at 5pm.
With more cars and better roading, the Gorge quickly became a popular destination for picnics and day trips. Seaview Hospital patients were taken there for annual picnics and it was a frequent destination for church, scouting, and community groups. The Automobile Association organised an annual outing to the Gorge for the ‘old people of the district’. The Gorge was a must-see destination for any visiting dignitaries to the region. A shelter hut was erected to provide protection from the weather, a concrete fireplace was built, and the idea of a bridge was proposed.
In 1924, a deputation from Westland met with the Minister of Public Works in Wellington where they extracted a commitment to fund a wire footbridge across the Gorge.
Building a bridge
The Kokatahi Dairy Co-operative agreed at their 1930 AGM that a swing bridge across the Gorge was required to enable farmers to convey their cream to the dairy factory. It would also allow gold miners access to the Whitcombe Valley and farmers to get livestock across the river.
In November 1931 the Government allocated £100 for the project and an additional £250 was allocated by the Council. The bridge project was tendered to the Brown Brothers and the new swing bridge was opened in October 1933. Public access to the bridge was rough and difficult for four years, until the Council constructed a 300 metre walkway and improved the Deidrichs Creek road bridge.
The Gorge area finally came under the protection of the Government in April 1953, when 106 hectares of land in the Hokitika Gorge area was finally designated a Scenic Reserve.
In 2004 Air Walkways Ltd proposed a tree top walkway at the Gorge. Vigorous public opposition put an end to this initiative and resulted in another company later building one at Lake Mahinapua.
Today the Gorge remains one of the most significant tourist attractions in the Hokitika area – and certainly one of the most visited and photographed. On TripAdvisor it is ranked as the 3rd most popular activity in the Hokitika area.
The Department of Conservation have recently undertaken a huge project to add a new swing bridge to the upper reaches of the Gorge and extend the walking track into a loop walk. Over recent years the roads have been sealed, new car parks have been established and toilet facilities upgraded. The new walkway and swing bridge opened on 15 August 2020.
Hokitika Gorge, a popular sightseeing spot is now one of our premier Short Walks with a new bridge and loop track creating a one-hour walking experience.