Food may not be the first thing that springs to mind when most tourists think of Hokitika. And perhaps, for many New Zealanders, the same may also be true. But for years I’d wanted to attend an annual food festival held there, and finally, in March 2020, I had a ticket in my possession and a weekend that I didn’t need to work. Traversing the width of the South Island from Christchurch on the east to Hokitika on the West, I bid the sun goodbye and arrived around lunchtime as the festival was kicking into full swing. I’d booked an Air BnB out of town so had to be sober for the drive there later on, but I readied myself for an afternoon of eating.
But this was no standard food festival, this was the famous Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, a celebration of edibles outside of the ordinary. The kind of grub that many people would balk at. I’m adventurous with food to a point. I’ve been privileged to have travelled to multiple countries across six continents and I’m always happy to try local cuisine and delicacies. It’s textures that tend to put me off, not so much taste, but I wandered round the food stalls eyeing up my options. As I did so, live music played on the main stage, and everyone was in a jovial mood. Thankfully it didn’t rain, so the cloud ended up being a blessing in disguise. It kept the temperature comfortable without being oppressively hot, and it saved my Scottish skin being over-fried.
I started off tamely with a mixed-meat kebab of rabbit, wallaby, deer, goat and wild boar. I’ve eaten all of these before so it was an easy bet. For dessert I got a grasshopper donut. Aside from the surreal experience of licking an ant’s bum in Australia (a zesty, lemony experience), I’d never eaten insects before. This was the perfect place to try as several places offered a variety of these snack-sized protein portions. The grasshoppers had been cooked so were extra-crunchy, and an odd but acceptable taste. I personally think that insects are an under-utilised food source for humans, but not everyone agrees with me.
After listening to the music for a while, I got myself a snail, electric eel and punga (a tree fern). The snail was always going to be a texture issue for me but actually ended up not being as bad as I expected and actually passed the taste test too. The ostrich from the South African tent was the biggest disappointment. I ate ostrich meat several times while in South Africa and it was always lovely, but this time around it was chewy and lacking in flavour.
I needed something more interesting so headed to the huhu grub tent. Huhu grubs are the larval stage of the huhu beetle, and live in rotting wood. Next to the tent were all the live grubs wriggling around in the sawdust of opened tree trunks, and whilst it was possible to eat them live and raw, I wasn’t keen on having one move around my mouth, so I opted instead for a cooked and skewered variety. A bit chewy and lacking much of a taste, I know they’ll do if I ever got lost in the wilderness for days on end.
The only ‘normal’ food I ate there was some lovely Hungarian fried bread. As I ate it, I stared at the sheep’s testicle tent for a long time trying to decide if I was game enough for one. I think if they’d been chopped up, and somehow made to look more edible I probably would have been more eager, but they were literally selling them as entire testicles, and being a vet I know exactly how solid and tough these things are, so I really couldn’t bring myself to buy one. That didn’t stop a steady queue of people lining up for them and they were the only stand I saw that sold out. In the end, my procrastination meant the decision was made for me.
As afternoon became evening, I procured some ice cream complete with witchety grubs. These were probably my favourite of the insects, and were nice and crunchy with a taste that was not off-putting. I’d easily eat these again and again and think they’d make a nice meal topper or crunchy addition to a salad. Food aside, there was such a great atmosphere there and some people had dressed up in unusual outfits which added some entertainment. I kept spotting a group of people dressed in pacman suits, and one of the event organisers was walking around dressed like a wild boar.
As a solo traveller, I’m used to doing a lot of things on my own. Going to a festival solo would not be everyone’s cup of tea, and in fact I know several people that would recoil at the prospect of such a thing, but I refuse to miss out on opportunities purely because I don’t have anyone to do things with, or don’t want to be tied to another person’s schedule. I had an absolute blast and spent a good 6-7hrs there enjoying the live music, filling my stomach with weird food and just generally enjoying an event that I’d wanted to do for years.
I pulled up to my Air BnB in the evening as the light was starting to fade. I’d booked a cabin in the woods, or at least the closest thing I could find in that area, and found myself with a view of the coast, in earshot of the waves crashing below and a nice comfy cabin to keep me warm at night. I still had a cricket donut to eat so this was my evening snack. Of all the insects, this ended up being my least favourite, partly because the crickets were so friable and bits got stuck around my teeth.
As is typical of the west coast, I woke up to grey skies and the threat of rain. This wasn’t going to put me off though, so I headed down to the beach below my cabin which felt wild and was littered with flotsam as the grey waves crashed on the shore. After grabbing brunch in Hokitika, I headed south across the river to Lake Mahinapua. It’s very hidden from the road, with a need to drive through a forest to get there, but it was drizzling when I pulled up, so I didn’t spend as long as I would have liked there. I don’t always have the best of luck with weather on the west coast, so I’ll need to make a return trip here if I ever get the weather Gods right.
Back in town, I did a walking tour of the many historical sites around the place. Like many places on the west coast, the presence of prospectors and historical commerce has shaped the modern town today. The drizzle was a slight nuisance but I was still able to appreciate the various sights, and old architecture that is hidden down a variety of streets. Wildfoods Festival aside, Hokitika is also known as the driftwood capital of New Zealand. The prevailing currents deposit a large amount of flotsam on the wild beach, and there is also a driftwood sculpture competition here too. Multiple sculptures were still littering the beach, and I was able to wander around them before the rain became heavier.
I was eventually beaten by the weather, so I grabbed a pizza from nearby Pipi’s Pizza (a Hokitika institution), and parked up in front of the Hokitika driftwood sign to watch a movie on Netflix as the rain pounded down. Rather than being frustrated by the west coast weather, it was actually quite enjoyable to just sit there in my car. I have a lot of memories of family road trips with my parents in Scotland where we’d inevitably get a good dose of Scottish rain, forcing us to park up and sit it out in the car. This just reminded me of that, and that made it feel quite homely.
There was still the hint of rain in the air the next morning. I had stopped working Mondays the year before meaning my non-work weekends are a 3-day weekend for me. This has made weekend getaways that bit better with having that extra day to explore before needing to head home. To the south-east of Hokitika is the large and long Lake Kaniere. When I arrived at the north-western tip of the lake, the far bank was shrouded in clouds, hiding their peaks. My original plan had been to do a walk around the western shore of the lake but with a perceived lack of time and the threat of rain still looming, I decided instead to just take the scenic drive round the lake.
Away from Canoe Cove and Hans Bay, the only settlements and lake access available, the road quickly became a dirt track, and a track that I quickly discovered, had been previously washed out and was in a pretty poor state of repair. Thankfully it wasn’t impassable in my 2-wheel drive, but it was muddy in places, narrow in others, and it just generally looked a mess. As I reached the eastern shore there was a light drizzle as I appeared to have caught up with the clouds, but what the rain did mean though, was that Dorothy Falls was gushing. This waterfall is a very short walk from the road side, so was easy to access, and the tannin-stained water flowed noisily over the hillside and down towards the lake.
It ended up being quite a long drive to circumnavigate the lake and get back into Hokitika. Heading north to start the journey home I took a road up to the cemetery where there was a bit of a view over the coast and the town. The sun was out here which made a nice change from the rain. A little further up the road was a historic railway bridge that is a remnant of the old commerce that used to exist here.
Cutting east towards Arthur’s Pass, I decided to follow some of the tourist signs that I’ve driven by multiple times without investigating. I was a little underwhelmed at the Londonderry Rock, which whilst indeed being a big rock, was effectively just a large boulder overgrown and surrounded by trees. I was already on a back road from here so I took another detour to Kapitea Reservoir which despite being a reasonable body of water, was also rather underwhelming. At least the scenery on the drive through Arthur’s Pass made up for it. This road never fails to disappoint, especially between Otira and Porter’s Pass.
There were murmurings afoot prior to this weekend away, and they grew stronger within the following couple of weeks. I hoped to be wrong, but not only would this turn out to be my last trip out of Christchurch for a few months, but it was beginning to become clear that my upcoming trip home to Scotland might be under threat. Just a few weeks after this fun weekend away, New Zealand was plunged into a 2-month lockdown, a rhetoric I would have never foreseen in my life before then. Like the rest of the World, COVID-19 was now here. And we all know how things went from there…