Town on the north side of the Hokitika River, near its mouth. Although only 39 km south of Greymouth, Hokitika has a distinct identity as a major tourist destination, as well as the centre for dairy processing on the West Coast. The 2013 population was 3,447.
After the discovery of gold in the Taramakau valley in 1864, prospectors started arriving at the Hokitika River mouth, the closest anchorage to the diggings. At that time Hokitika was part of Canterbury province. The town was laid out by surveyor John Rochfort, and the street names mainly commemorate Canterbury politicians.
During 1865 a flood of gold prospectors and traders arrived, and the town was occupied and booming within less than a year. While most miners lived close to the diggings where they worked, Hokitika was the town they went to for supplies, recreation and to sell gold. For a short period, Hokitika had a population of over 4,000. As gold mining declined it dropped to 2,000 by the end of the 19th century. The river port at Hokitika was hazardous, and was little used after the main gold rushes.
When Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the West Coast in January 1954, they flew from Nelson to Westport, and then on to Hokitika. It was planned that they would travel by road from Hokitika to Greymouth. To make sure that the royal journey was as smooth as possible, the road was sealed – but, to save money, only the side on which the car would travel. For several years, before the whole road was sealed, this was known by locals as ‘Lizzie’s side’.
In the first part of the 20th century, Hokitika was a service town for forestry and farming. The opening of State Highway 6 through South Westland and over Haast Pass in 1965 gradually led to an expansion in the number of tourists. Hokitika is the only West Coast town seen by many tourists, who follow a route over Arthur’s Pass, through Hokitika to the glaciers, and then cross back to the east coast over Haast Pass. With the growth of accommodation and outdoor recreation, it has become an important tourist centre, with particular emphasis on the carving of pounamu (greenstone or jade). The population of Hokitika gradually increased through the 20th century.
Westland Milk Products, on the outskirts of Hokitika, has the only milk processing plant on the West Coast. Tankers daily collect milk from farms between Karamea and Fox Glacier.
The main source of pounamu in the South Island is boulders in the Arahura River, a few kilometres north of Hokitika, and there has long been a Māori settlement at Arahura. The ownership of all pounamu in the Arahura valley is now vested in the Māwhera Incorporation.
Local supplies of pounamu cannot meet the demand from carvers, so some shops in Hokitika sell nephrite or jade that has been imported from overseas. Even if they are carved locally, such objects are not genuine pounamu.
Lake Kaniere, 18 kilometres east of Hokitika, is a glacial lake, used for boating, kayaking and fishing. A road goes round the eastern side (to join up with the Hokitika valley), and there are several walking tracks along the shore and in the forest.
The river flats in the Hokitika valley are fertile dairy farming land. In a tragic incident in 1941, deranged Kōwhitirangi farmer Stanley Graham shot seven men. There is a large memorial to those who were killed opposite the Kōwhitirangi hall.
Further upstream, at the Hokitika gorge scenic reserve, there is a spectacular swing bridge across the turquoise waters of the Hokitika River.