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Hokitika Wildfoods Festival | West Coast | New ZealandGuest post by Jennifer Branje |

The Hokitika Wildfoods Festival is an amazing mash of Feral Cuisine, Creative Costumes and Toe Tapping Entertainment for all ages. In true West Coast Style, the Cool Little Town of Hokitika welcomes guests with an open heart and an abundance of fabulous Kiwi hospitality.

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Hokitika is undoubtedly the most appropriate and authentic location for a Wildfoods Festival. Not only because it’s ensconced in natural beauty, nestled perfectly between the Tasman Sea and towering mountain ranges, but because the festival itself harks back to West Coast history.

Before the days of motorised transport, long winding roads and easy access, getting to our totally unique and spectacular West was a gruelling journey. Weeks on foot and horseback meant only the hardy set out. Travellers had to make use of what was available to them and this often meant cooking and consuming feral game and flora on the trail. The Gold Rush of late 1800’s instigated construction of a much-needed road via Arthurs Pass, linking Christchurch to the West and enabling goods to be moved either way. Arthurs Pass was surveyed by Arthur Dudley Dobson in 1864. The road was constructed in less than a year and remains a main thoroughfare.
The Hokitika Wildfoods Festival offers a totally fun environment to taste the wild by choice, not necessity.

We arrived on Friday night prior to the Festival and enjoyed a very informal ‘warm up’ event on Hokitika Beach. Local musos entertained a small crowd as the sun went down. Akin to an impromptu jam session, a relaxed crowd swayed to the music and a fun time was had by all. Families sat perched on driftwood logs and as the sun fell below the horizon on the Tasman Sea, mother nature was applauded. Though Friday was ‘done & dusted’, there was a feeling of anticipation and excitement in the air.

Saturday morning, we woke to find the weather gods had blessed us with bright sunshine and not a breath of wind. Notepads and cameras at the ready, we headed off to Cass Square in Hokitika Township for what was to be one of the best events we have ever experienced.

Arriving a little early so we could get the ‘heads up’ from festival organisers, we met Mayor Bruce Smith and his Deputy Latham Martin. These two gentlemen are outwardly proud and passionate advocates for their district and all the West Coast has to offer. We were introduced to Boris, a large stuffed purple boar that is the event mascot. We’d met the human version of Boris the night before at the beach party. Brent Nicoll struts his stuff in true alpha boar style. His full feral costume, complete with a pair of purple ears which protrude from his headgear compliment the festival vibe to a ‘T’. He’s a pretty versatile muso to boot. Despite his rugged costume and appearance, we witnessed true West Coast hospitality when 93-year-old local Ada Bradley crossed the pavilion with her zimmerframe. Determined not to miss the ‘official opening’, Ada required some help to find a shady spot to sit. Brent/Boris ensured Ada’s needs were met and that she was comfortable. Ada must have seen a few festivals in her lifetime. I was amused that she didn’t bat an eyelid at Boris’ feral adornments.

With an hour to spare before the official opening of the festival, we ventured down the main street to take a look at the markets. Hokitika has an artisan heart that continues to attract artists of varying talents. The Revell Street Indoor Market hums with traders plying their hand-crafted wares and is open regularly on a Saturday. Other community markets were dotted around the town along with local bands who played catchy tunes adding to the carnival feel. Children with painted faces excitedly chattered while their parents shopped for bespoke trinkets. Hokitika has a prolific Pounamu (Greenstone/Jade) trade. Master carvers offer their creations to the general public as memento’s and there are some outstanding pieces to choose from. Traditionally, Pounamu must be gifted. It is Taonga (treasure) to Maori. Having your Pounamu blessed before wearing it is customary. We really enjoyed the markets. The locals are so friendly and happy to talk about their craft and the West Coast in general. A steady stream of people was heading toward the event ground so we high tailed it back there, not wanting to miss a thing.

Te Rua Mason opened the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival with a mihi (welcome) and Karakia (prayer). The Mayor addressed a growing crowd and Ngati Waewae Kapahaka Group gave a Maori Cultural performance. If like me you get a bit choked up by bagpipe music, wait until you’ve experienced a Maori Cultural performance! International guests have mentioned that the hairs on the back of their neck stands up. It’s a beautiful culture that every visitor should have the privilege of experiencing. Shortly afterwards, the Royal New Zealand Air Force ‘Black Falcons’ flew overhead with an amazing aeronautics display. Flying in close formation, their blue tail streams wowed thousands.
The New Zealand Army Band kicked of the music on the main stage. They are by no means a stodgy military ensemble! Jazzy numbers got the crowd singing along and people began to swagger in step with the music. Ticketholders were now streaming through the gates and the pageantry was sensational. We met Donald Trump, The Flinstones, Hugh Hefner and his Playboy Bunnies, Clan McFeral, Fairy Hunters, a lobster & prawn to name a few, and then we met Jo. Jo’s costume, A Deer from Swamp Lake was absolutely fabulous. Two years in the planning, Jo had married together possum fur, moss, flax, water reeds, an old ox bone from Bruce Bay……. and the piece de resistance – a road kill stoat, completely intact, but thawing out fast! The stoat had not been taxidermized but kept in the freezer ready to add to the costume at the last minute. Jo was utterly fabulous and her costume was an accurate depiction of West Coast Wilderness.

Small ques were beginning to form at feral food stands. Punters were keen to try the funky feral food and some of the facial expressions after that first sniff, lick or bite were priceless. I watched in total awe while Sam from Christchurch sampled a seagull’s egg. With a small morsel in his mouth he began to gag. Three seconds later he was expelling said egg exclaiming a firm ‘no more’ to his friends. When asked to describe the taste and texture Sam grimaced. “It tastes like sulphury rubber”. YUK!

We headed to the Huhu Grub stand where we met Helen & Chris from Wellington. They’d made a special trip down, crossing Cook Strait on The Interislander. They loved the scenic drive through Murchison and the Buller Gorge and had done a bit of exploring along the way. Helen & Chris were keen feasters. Between them they’d eaten mountain oysters, pigs nipples & fish eyes which Helen describes as ‘jelly like’. We asked them what the highlight of the trip was. They both agreed the peaceful surrounds and friendly, welcoming atmosphere was the best.

The Feral Fashion show was a real hoot with many costumes entered. It was wonderful to see so many make an effort to dress up. Amazing costumes added to the ambience of the festival.  

It was time for a drink and a sit down. There were plenty of big tent shelters with picnic tables to sit at. The whole ground was really well set up and comfortable to move about. With such a large park venue everyone had room to move freely. We spotted a robust, burly chap tidying up his long ginger beard with a serviette. I had to ask him what he’d had to eat. Kelly Green was a truck driver who had come down from Blenheim for the festival. Kelly Green wasn’t holding back! The list of delightful morsels Kelly had devoured was long. A discussion about the texture of locusts ensued. Bizarre! Just so you know, “locust shells are very dry and sticky and make you cough a bit, but the actual locust is really quite tasty”. Kelly wandered off to find a craft ale to wash down his lunch. That man must have a cast iron gut!

If you are a little reluctant to devour a ‘dick on a stick’ (pigs penis) or wolf down a Mountain Oyster Sandwich (Sheep’s Testicles) there are less feral options to try. There’s plenty of venison, rabbit, wallaby, pork or goat meat which are a little closer to the ‘conventional’ and not so hard on the psyche. Local seafood, paua, tuna and salmon were also a huge hit with the crowd.
A Kiwi favourite is Hangi. This is a traditional Maori cooking method where a large hole is dug in the ground then filled with native timber and igneous rock. The wood is then set alight and when the embers settle and the rocks are hot, baskets of food are lowered into the hole and covered with damp sacking. Soil then covers the sacking and the food is cooked in the earth oven. This is a slow process and an authentic hangi can take up to eight hours to cook. Pork, mutton and chicken are usually cooked in the hangi, accompanied by potatoes, kumara (sweet potato), pumpkin and cabbage. Stuffing can also be added and its smoky flavour is a culinary delight.

The Wildfoods Festival offers a massive selection of taste options but the most famous of all has to be West Coast Whitebait. The West Coast of New Zealand is world famous for these tasty tiddlers. They are a coveted seasonal catch and when whitebait season rolls around hundreds of keen fisher people head for their riverside huts and camp out to catch them. Whitebait are a collective of five species of juvenile fish. They are generally 25mm – 50mm in length and the entire fish including spine, fins, head and gut are eaten. Delectable wee morsels!

The festival closed at 5.30 p.m. Stallholders packed up and left the ground, either to head home or back to their accommodations. Cass Square was tidied up in preparation for the after party.
Local bands entertained revellers into the night as the sun set over the Tasman Sea. Many a feral brew was shared and a good natured, fun evening ensued. It was a perfect way to end what was an authentic dose of exceptional cuisine and Kiwi hospitality.

West Coast residents, or ‘Coasters’ as they are affectionately known, come from a long line of hardy folk. Their family histories are filled with tales of triumph and trepidation, innovation and survival. They are a bunch of proud and resilient people, hardworking and affable.

Hokitika had shared her very best with the thousands of guests who had made the trek, either over the Great Divide or from further afield.

This Maori proverb is truly representative of our Wildfoods Festival experience.

He aha te mea nui o te ao.
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

Thank you Hokitika. You certainly are a Cool Little Town!

The Hokitika Wildfoods Festival is held on the second Saturday in March annually. Mark it in your diary, it’s an event not to be missed!

Images courtesy of Jessica & Maria Chamberlain.

Many thanks to Sarah Brown, Event Organiser, Mayor Bruce Smith and Deputy Mayor Latham Martin.
Special thanks to all who shared their Wildfoods Festival stories with us and to the amazing people of Hokitika for their exceptional friendliness and outstanding hospitality.

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