Hokitika – wild home of The Luminaries

The LuminariesA 28-year-old Kiwi writer has won one of the world’s most famous literary prizes for a Dickensian thriller novel of 832 pages set in Hokitika, a small New Zealand West Coast town most of you have probably never heard of. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, won the Man Booker Prize this week and set two precedents – she’s the youngest recipient and has written the longest novel in the history of the award. It’s also 28 years since another Kiwi, Keri Hulme, won it for The Bone people, and oddly enough, she lives on the West Coast. Catton takes the youngest winner title from Ben Okri who was just 32 when The Famished Road won the Booker prize in 1991. The Luminaries is Catton’s second novel after The Rehearsal, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Guardian first book award. Catton wins £50,000, which was presented by Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, at a black tie dinner in London’s Guildhall, reports The Guardian.

Gold rush for the Coast

I’m not predicting any great hike in wild, wild West Coast tourism as a result of the win, although Westland Mayor Mike Havill thinks it has potential. He’s been quoted in New Zealand media today as saying: “If the book gets a global following you know – quite often people like to research the area so potentially more people will come and visit us because of that, and who knows maybe there’s a movie in the making.”

New Zealand is pretty excited about the literary accolade. A wit on Twitter tweeted that the nation should take a week off to read the book. I thought I’d show you some views of Hokitika – the modest town and the wilderness where much of the action in The Luminaries takes place. The novel is set in the era of the New Zealand gold rush, in the 1860s, and like gold rush towns all over the world, it was a hotbed of ambition, sex and murderous greed. In 1867, the port of Hokitika ranked first in New Zealand in both the number of vessels entered and in the total value of exports (mostly gold).

Town of Hokitika
The town of Hokitika, an unlikely setting for a literary masterpiece

In The Luminaries, it is 1866, and Walter Moody of Edinburgh has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields.  On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of 12 local men at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes.  A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk.  Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. Catton uses the 12 signs of the zodiac as a connecting arc for her complex novel, which has mystified and detracted some readers and reviewers, and drawn praise from others.

The wild West Coast
The Tasman Sea pounds the 600km West Coast, with the Southern Alps as a backdrop

Times have changed but the geography has not. The West Coast in the South Island  remains an unyielding landscape, with waves crashing on to black sand beaches, a backbone of craggy alps and an invasion of millions of sandflies in summer. It’s otherwise one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas in the country. The 2006 census recorded 31,326 inhabitants, up from just 30,303 in 2001. Truly a place to get away from most of it. South Islanders refer to the West Coast as The Coast, and locals call themselves Coasters.

Wild landscape of Hokitika, West Coast, NZ
Rugged landscape around Hokitika

Wildfoods fest

It attracts adventurous outdoorsy types, with a 120km wilderness cycle trail under construction sure to appeal. It also has an imaginative Wildfoods Festival annually. The next fest is on March 8, 2014 and tickets will be available online from early December. Feral fancy dress is a must: bride of Dracula and costumes resembling the raw state of the fare on offer seem to be popular options. The winning recipe for this year’s comp was a possum and prune rillette. Second place went to a cocktail which included vodka, triple sec and a native New Zealand worm thing called a huhu grub. If you go, don’t forget to try the gorse wine – gorse is a prickly weed with bright yellow flowers which grows all over the country.

Hokitika, NZ
Canoeing and kayaking through a West Coast river
Tranz Alpine train near Greymouth
The Tranz Alpine train near Greymouth

The Hokitika climate is bracing: the average summer temp is only about 20 deg C, but in winter it’s a relatively mild 12 deg C. Hokitika is a 3.5 hour drive from Christchurch. Hokitika Airport has direct daily flights from Christchurch on AirNZ and the world famous Tranz Alpine train is just up the road in Greymouth. More info: www.hotikita.org

*Images courtesy of TravMedia

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