Following in the footsteps of The Luminaries on NZ's South Island

The wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is the setting for a BBC adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s Man-Booker Prize-winning murder mystery The Luminaries (2013).

Bright blue water inside a tree-lined gorge.
Hokitika Gorge © Ian.CuiYi/Getty Images

Adapted by Catton herself, directed by Claire McCarthy and starring the Irish star Eve Hewson as heroine Anna Wetherell, the miniseries was filmed in early 2019 amidst the stunning scenery of this unspoilt region of Aotearoa (New Zealand). The Luminaries tells the story of Wetherell’s experiences as an English immigrant to the West Coast during the gold rush of the 1860s. Her journey takes her from England to Sydney to Dunedin and eventually to the boom town of Hokitika.

The South Island town of Hikitika at dusk
Dusk view of Park Street from the Hokitika coast road. Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Today, Hokitika is a low-rise seaside town of around 3000; but then, as the epicentre of a headlong rush to strike it rich, it had exploded to become one of the young colony’s largest, and its richest port by export-value. Fans of the novel, the forthcoming series (due to screen in 2020) and of New Zealand’s wild beauty can follow in Anna’s footsteps, visiting key locations that are delightful destinations in their own right.

Hokitika is renowned for its natural beauty
Snow-covered mountains for a backdrop to the clock tower in Hokitika. Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images

Ground zero is obviously Hokitika, where the historic centre, dotted with galleries, cafes and buildings from the Gold Rush era, runs right up to a long, picturesque beach littered with driftwood and sometimes pounamu (greenstone).

Australasia’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook (3724m) can be glimpsed as you wander the streets, searching for greenstone jewellery at studios such as Waewae Pounamu or caffeinating yourself at Ramble + Ritual. For a more structured tour of Hokitika’s cultural and historic highlights, there’s the Points of Interest Loop, a marked trail through the old centre. The Hokitika Museum, the natural place to begin digging for the region’s history, is currently closed while the handsome 1908 Carnegie Building in which it sits is assessed for seismic-strengthening work.

Hokitika is the setting for Eleanor Catton's book The Luminaries
Author Eleanor Catton with her novel The Luminaries. Photo by: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

To get closer to the unspoilt landscape world Anna, Emery Staines and the other characters inhabit, consider cycle the stunning West Coast Wilderness Trail, which pages through Hokitika en route from Greymouth to Ross. The gentle, 136km-long trail follows old gold trails and railway lines through the region and takes four days in total. Kayaking in the limpid waters of breathtaking Hokitika Gorge, 35km southeast of town, or fishing for salmon, trout and perch in the 195m-deep waters of lovely Lake Kaniere, closer to town, are other active options.

Just north of Kaniere, the stunning Arahura River, one of the major sources of the region’s gold, flows from the mountains to the sea. While the gold is pretty well exhausted, treasure in the form of pounamu still washes down from the hills behind. Filming was planned here but reportedly had to move at the last minute to Crooked River, near Lake Brunner, due to flooding. 

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