Long and arduous as the journey was for the early inhabitants, your own trip will be cosseted from the weather and the walk no more than around five metres in length.
I have visited a lot of museums of late and I almost didn’t make the effort to go into the Te Hikoi Museum. But I’m pleased I changed my mind. In the one hour I spent there, I gained an understanding of this wild and isolated stretch of southern coast.
Riverton has always been a frontier town; a jump-off point to Southern Fiordland, as well as Stewart and Codfish Islands. It has more than its fair share of good stories to be retold. The journey begins with a 16-minute film, with the rest being told in photographs, comprehensive storyboards and lifelike and life-sized dioramas created by the Peter Jackson’s team.
I walked past early examples and descriptions of greenstone toolmaking to catch an early Maori mutton birder with his arm down a burrow. In this life-like scene the birds were crying piteously; the man’s wife, sitting outside their crude hut, is plucking feathers and gutting birds ready to go into the pot.
Further on, I learnt about the hideous cruelty of sealers and fingered a seal-skin coracle, a replica of the one made in 1828 by the sealer Jacky Price and his wife Hineawhitia. The couple was banished to Solander Island; a pinnacle of rock pounded by the Southern Ocean that makes Alcatraz look like a resort. They made a daring escape in a coracle across the dangerous sea.
I gazed into the hardened faces of three whalers as they headed out to the slaughter, and looked into the recreated lives of the timber millers.
There were stories of the people who’d contributed to the development of the coast, like John Howell, whaler, (born 1809) and the founder of Riverton. He married a Maori girl and after her death remarried the daughter of a Codfish Island sealer, Caroline Brown, who bore him 17 children. Many of their descendants live in Riverton today.
There are artifacts such as muskets, harpoons and axes, and a few surprises such as seven exquisite hand-embroidered christening gowns, as well as a sledge used by Sir Edmund Hillary’s team in the 1955 Ross Sea Expedition, which had been sponsored by Riverton school children.
Walk through Te Hikoi and this far-flung, often cold and cloudy coastline in the deep south of the country takes on a very different glow.
Te Hikoi Museum, 172 Palmerston Road, Riverton. Adults $8, children under 14 free.