'The Luminaries' shines light on NZ's West Coast

Well-trod paths and historical artefacts in Hokitika and the West Coast of New Zealand bring Man Booker prize-winner 'The Luminaries' to life.

There's never been a better time to be a New Zealander, just ask Eleanor Catton, the youngest ever recipient of the Man Booker Prize, who was awarded the prestigious prize for her sophomore novel The Luminaries.

Catton's the 832 page-turner is also made history as the longest novel to take out the respected accolade.

The Auckland-based author is only the second New Zealander to win the 50,000 pound (NZ$95,000) prize; the first was Keri Hulme who won the prize for her haunting novel, The Bone People, in 1985 when Eleanor Catton was just a few weeks old.

Exceptional work
Judges of the annual prize marvelled at Catton’s ability to turn the modern day novel on its head. Respected men and women of the literary world have used words like ‘epic’ ‘virtuoso’ and ‘exceptional’ to describe her work.

Set in coastal Hokitika and the surrounding goldfields - on the rugged West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand during the West Coast Gold Rush in 1860s - The Luminaries is a complex Victorian-era suspense story about a series of unsolved crimes and mysterious events with an astrological twist.

In her post-victory interviews with various media outlets, Catton told of her love of the small New Zealand historic township, and how she hoped her win would inspire more visits to the West Coast region.

"It feels like a victory for New Zealand and I feel so proud and pleased that so many readers will now be going to Hokitika...metaphorically speaking," the beaming author told Television New Zealand.

"I'd always wanted to write a story that was set during the gold rush years just because it was a period of New Zealand history that had always really fascinated me," Catton said to international news agency Reuters.

"It had been a big part of my childhood, I'd always holidayed on the West Coast and there you can't help but come upon all these old, rusting dredges and boarded-up mines and all sorts of things. All the relics of the gold rush are still there, quietly disintegrating or decomposing - so that had been in my mind for a really long time."

There is even a possibility that The Luminaries could now be made into a major motion picture, or a mini-series, which Catton is hopeful of being filmed in the area where the book is set.

Stratospheric rise
Like Catton herself, Hokitika was subjected to a sudden rise in fame in the 1860s due to the West Coast Gold rush. By late 1866 it was one of New Zealand’s most populous centres, rivalled only by Auckland in the North Island.

Hokitika was the gateway to the goldfields of nearby Ross and Goldsborough, which held promises of an abundance of riches for the many gold-miners who made their way west from the Central Otago Gold Rush.

By the end of the 1860s the gold rush had come to an end leaving a frazzled town trying to pick up the pieces. As noted by Catton, the remnants of this important time in New Zealand’s history are still celebrated in the town which has since taken on an artisan feel and is renowned for its plentiful pounamu - New Zealand greenstone.

Colourful history celebrated
The town of Hokitika still proudly celebrates its colourful history and visitors wishing to experience the thrill of the gold rush days don’t have to look far.

They can enjoy a guided tour of Hokitika’s heritage hot spot with a local historian. A 30-minute self-guided heritage walk takes visitors on a journey around some of the most historically significant parts of the area including heritage sites, building and statues. Modern technology mixes seamlessly with the past and gives visitors the option to use a mobile phone app that helps bring to life, various highlights of the walk.

The Hokitika Museum and nearby Ross Information Centre, are two other attractions that provide a more in-depth look into the past. The Hokitikia Museum is located in the lovingly restored Carnegie Building - one of more than 2,500 libraries around the world funded by US steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

It explores the West Coast with exhibitions and stories of pounamu (greenstone), tangata whenua (people of the land) and the gold rush.

Ross Information Centre - in a small town surrounded by rainforest, mountainous terrain and unrestrained beaches - is home to "The Honourable Roddy" - New Zealand’s largest gold nugget weighing an impressive 2.8kg. Visitors to Ross can get their hands dirty with a spot of gold-panning or immerse themselves in the rich history of the area in the audio visual history room.

In Greymouth, around 30-minutes’ drive from Hokitika, visitors can take a trip through time as they explore over 30 historic buildings at the Shanty Town Heritage Park. This recreated village delves into the history of the gold rush era with stream train rides, on either the 1877 L-Class or 1896 improved F-Class Kaitangata.

Other attractions include interactive activities, gold-panning and a visit to ‘China Town’ which explores the links between New Zealand and the Chinese immigrant workers who also came to find gold.

Wild West Coast
Visitors can also traverse the stunning landscapes of the West Coast while still experiencing the vibrant history of the area. Within just a few minutes of Hokitika, travellers can immerse themselves in the great outdoors and choose from numerous attractive walks.

Just out of town, a 15-minute stroll leads visitors through native New Zealand forest to the turquoise waters of the Hokitika Gorge and rugged green Kowhitirangi farmland. In contrast, the Arahura and Styx valley is a 2-4 day hike on winding tracks that were constructed in the late 1860s in an attempt to connect the West Coast Goldfields with Canterbury.

West Coast Tree Top Walkway, one of New Zealand’s newest attractions, offers visitors the chance to experience the region from above as they move through a canopy of native rimu and kamahi trees. A sturdy steel platform, 20 metres high and over 450 metres long, offers stunning views of a nearby lake and the mountains of the Southern Alps.

The West Coast Wilderness Trail is another outdoor adventure flavoured with gold rush fever. This cycleway is part of Nga Haerenga - The New Zealand Cycle Trail, and one of many bike trails of varying lengths and terrain across the North and South Islands.

Soon to be completed, the four-day West Coast Wilderness Trail will take cyclists over old historic gold and rail trails between Greymouth, Ross and Hokitika - passing through wetlands, rainforest, and wild black sand beaches populated with all sorts of New Zealand wildlife. This 'Great Ride' will offer some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes, combined with an illustrious history, to be found in New Zealand.

Unique culinary festival
On the second Saturday in March, Hokitika plays up to its ‘wild-child’ persona with the infamous Wildfoods Festival. This unique culinary festival has an ever evolving menu of some of the most challenging and distinct foods on the planet, including seagull eggs, raw scorpions and horse semen shots - to name a few.

The annual Hokitika festival, started in 1990 by local woman Claire Bryant to coincide with the town's 125th anniversary, has since earned a world-wide reputation for the weirdest and wildest menu imaginable.

The West Coast region - the longest in New Zealand at 600km - includes a world heritage site and five of New Zealand’s 14 national parks. Conservation and sustainability are buzz words in this region where 90% of the land is administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Native wildlife and vegetation flourishes along the coastline, in rain forests and up onto the icy slopes of the Southern Alps, where renowned Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are among the region’s biggest attractions.

Adventure destination
The diverse landscape makes the West Coast an adventure destination for adrenalin thrills such as heli-hiking on glaciers, skydiving and rafting.

Visitors are discovering the diversity of an area that is becoming increasingly popular with hikers, cyclists and fishermen - who can find some of the best salmon fishing in New Zealand and an abundance of rainbow and brown trout.

Literary inspiration
The West Coast also inspired Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, and New Zealand author Jenny Pattrick’s The Denniston Rose and Heart of Coal - acclaimed novels set in the once-thriving coalmining town of Denniston on the Mount Rochfort Plateau.

For many decades Denniston produced most of New Zealand's coal. It was also the location of the infamous ‘Denniston Incline’ - a death-defying rail track that was the only way in or out for the coal, the miners and their families. The track lowered railway wagons loaded with coal down a steep incline railway that became known locally as "the eighth wonder of the world".

It was the harshness of life and the rugged living conditions endured by the families of the close-knit community that inspired Pattrick’s work. Visitors can now relive the experience with a self-guided walking trail and phone app that takes them on a journey through the remote 19th century mining site and features events and locations from the books.

The Denniston Mine is now a Category 1 Historic Place and a thriving tourist attraction with a number of age-worn relics and heritage sites to explore, while an underground tour gives visitors a taste of the claustrophobic conditions the miners were forced to endure.

There is something bewitching about walking well-worn paths and hearing the whispers in the trees of those who have gone before - for those reasons alone it’s not hard to see how the untamed beauty of the West Coast region managed to inspire these literary minds - whose books have in-turn captured the imagination of the world.