Night at the asylum

A stay at the West Coast’s spookiest backpackers.

If you’ve ever been to Hokitika, you’ve probably stopped at the glowworm dell: a little crevasse alongside State Highway 6, usually packed with tourists marvelling at what daylight reveals to be the slimy larvae of the fungal gnat. But if you take a wrong turn on the 20-metre walk back to civilization, you’ll end up hiking up a side path, up towards the top of the dell. Here, you’ll emerge at the campground area of Seaview Lodge & Backpackers, formerly known as the Seaview Asylum. 

The asylum sits on the best land in town, on a sprawling bluff with commanding views of the ocean and shoreline. Once you know where to look, you can spot the signature lighthouse from any direction, an ever-blinking reminder of what’s tucked away up the hill.

Originally a prison, the psychiatric hospital at Seaview opened in 1872, and was once the biggest employer in Hoki (a title now betrothed to Westland Milk Products). Patients, including a small number of children, were admitted for everything from “melancholia”, to “idiocy”, to schizophrenia, alcoholism and dementia. But poverty, misogyny and racism no doubt played their usual parts. Seaview was originally, according to a Master’s thesis submitted by the University of Canterbury’s Jane Comeau, an example of the “moral management” approach to mental health care that had come into fashion throughout the British colonies. “This suggested that a patient given rest, useful employment, stimulating recreation, a healthy diet, and morally upstanding caregivers had the best chance of returning to sanity”, though this was “crucially, only the touted ideal.”

It does explain the views and the spacious grounds, which could comfortably host a small army. By 1955, more than 550 patients called the place home. Numbers declined after that, however, and by 1996 only 100 remained. 

These days, an ‘80s-era brick building houses the lodge rooms while the old main ward is reserved for the kitchen, bathing and recreation spaces. Between the two buildings is a neat little camping area, the same area you’re deposited in following a wrong turn from the glowworm dell. 

Visitors to the grounds are as varied as the decor itself. Young Kiwi blokes in their Hiluxes drinking beers around a fire and talking about hunting, washed-out American expats with withered teeth, the ubiquitous French backpackers.

When my family and I check in, the lady at reception asks how much I’ve been quoted for the room. My name isn’t on the printed ledger – I can see it’s just scrawled across the top, in pencil. $110 per couple, per room. “A deal!” I’m told. Camping is even cheaper. It smells like smoke and flowers. I love it here.

Staying at Seaview is a lot like I imagine a stay at Dracula’s Castle would be, as in, it’s best to stay in the sunlight. Because even in a delightful bath of West Coast sunshine, a walk around is decidedly spooky. The front half of the grounds presents itself honestly enough, with the reception and main ward on display. I first take a walk through the main ward, a sunny, labyrinthine building filled with a seductively tranquil air. The leathery skin of its linoleum floor is peeling like an old sun-bum Sheila. It’s the type of place you wouldn’t mind going mad. A room full of old hospital beds separated by curtains serves as budget accommodation, and a locked display room houses the only meticulously-preserved exhibit on the grounds: a mannequin, tucked into a cot, representing the myriad patients who came through Seaview over the years. Out back, the cemetery still houses a few who never left. 

Crackling asphalt invites me to take a stroll around the other buildings on the property: houses, a water tower, some sheds and miscellanea, and a church. Pōhutukawa burst from old lawns. A hive of bees has moved into the weatherboard walls of the laundry room, but the neighbouring resident and her dog don’t seem to mind. A woman’s photo stares out from behind a church window. Everything is rusting, peeling, cracking, or all of the above. It’s pretty creepy, but it’s not so bad.

Then I find the pool room.

“Rave room” might be a better description, as the small abutment to the main hall houses a pool table, some well-used cushy seats, a solid DJ area and a genuinely impressive array of function lights. It is also filled, wall-to-wall, with some of the most terrifying graffiti I have ever seen. 

When I get back to reception, a new man is behind the desk, and he gives me an enthusiastic rundown of what’s on. Say what you will about the decor and the state of the property, but the hosts are uniformly welcoming and friendly, and I am invited to two (count ‘em, two!) raves in the space of as many hours. One will be “on the beach at midnight”, and the other is in a secret, bigger glowworm dell I’d read about. My host confirms that it’s real, mind-blowing, intentionally difficult to access and, most importantly, a “great spot for a rave”. 

“The church has a basement,” he tells me. Why on earth would the church have a basement? That’s not all. There is also an attic, complete with peepholes for staring back down on the parishioners. Weird. I ask about the rest of campus, hidden beyond the two stalwart road cones that separate the front end from the litany of dilapidated wards and well-kept personal residencies beyond. “Oh, shit yeah!” says my host, “of course you can go back there. It says ‘private property’, but it’s our property. So it’s yours to explore. Did you know about the tunnels?”

Tunnels? Of course there are tunnels. Why wouldn’t there be tunnels? “Every building back there used to be connected,” he says, and he pulls out a satellite photo of the grounds that serves as a map. Several large buildings have been crossed out in bold, black X’s. “These have all been torn down,” he explains. I reckon it’s probably asbestos, but I’m obviously being goaded into thinking it’s something more sinister. Part of the charm, I suppose. 

My host is still talking tunnels. “The church had a tunnel through to the children’s ward,” he says. “How fucked is that?” The facility closed for good in 2009, and when they bought the place, local kids had apparently discovered a subterranean atrium-like space that could be reached from most of the buildings. “Kids were getting up to all sorts of stuff down there,” he tells me, “so we had the army come through and dynamite the whole thing. But you can still get into the tunnels from the children’s ward, which is here.” He jabs a finger on the map to a building named Huia. “Go see for yourself”, he says.

With a wink, my host suggests I bring a screwdriver, inviting me to take “anything I can get off the walls”. I quickly respond that I already brought two, and he seems stoked. I ask about a head torch, and he replies that it’s better at night, without any lights. No fucking way, I think to myself, but I put on a brave face for my host and pretend like I’m game. “Sure I won’t be spooking any other guests if I poke around back there?” I ask, thinking of the two wiry, shirtless men I’ve seen drinking on a porch since I arrived. “Nah,” he says, “maybe yourself.” 

It’s a sunny walk back to the old children’s ward, and I bring the whole family. Why not? The building itself is in even further a state of disrepair, and is one of the only places on the property that is entirely fenced-in. Waist-high grass springs up between cracks in the pavement and from formerly-mowed lawns, which are now kept in tow by what I’m later told are called the “Houdini cows”. There’s a spot under the fence to crawl, and all four of us shimmy under, dodging cow patties and broken glass. A massive sign on the fence confirms all our suspicions: ‘DANGER: ASBESTOS’. But there’s a courtyard, and an open window promises easy entry into the ramshackle ward. 

As the last of us get to our feet, the Houdini cows appear, true to their name, almost out of thin air, thrusting their little horns and sniffing us tentatively. I don’t like cows much to begin with, and these ones are filled with asbestos. Does asbestos drive you mad, like lead poisoning? I don’t know, but I’m not fond of the idea of being roughed up inside a clearly-not-public area by a cow, of all things. I do a quick bit of mental accounting and weigh up the abandoned, haunted, asbestos-and-glass-filled children’s ward on one hand against four cows on the other. I go with the ward. 

My companions don’t come in through the window with me; instead, they deal with the cows like normal people by simply leaving. Once I’m over the ‘NO ENTRY’ bit of corrugated iron and inside the ward, I let my boots crunch across the piles of metal and glass shards, clearly crunched before me by many an explorer. 

The vibe inside is objectively terrible. Maybe it’s the asbestos, maybe it’s the way the place speaks to decades of declining state care, I don’t know. But something is definitely off.

There’s a hole in the floor by the window; I peer in while holding my breath. Cigarette butts and dirt fill the void, and I decide this must be the way to the tunnels. I choose not to go down, because I’m just not that kind of journalist, and I figure that if I die in this asylum I’ll probably be stuck here forever, though there are worse places to be. Could be Palmy. Either way, not worth it.

The room I’m in seems to be an old mess hall, and there’s a kitchen behind me. A corridor passes orthogonal to my room, and on the other side of the hallway is the main reception area. There’s a decaying piano  ̶  of course and  ̶  some old chairs and things. Mostly it’s just rubble and glass. Great place for a rave.

I notice a spot on the ground where someone held a fire, and a medical bed that I remember from a photo on an online forum. The once-tidy hallway is now dappled with sunlight and despair. 

I poke my head into the hallway and look both ways, never having been a fan of abandoned places. They remind me of the people who let them go, and this reminds me of the people we let go. The people who usually ended up in places like Seaview, waiting patiently for a family visitor who never came, or for their health to turn around, or just to die.

A green light casts a ghastly pall across the entire scene, and I decide it’s time to high tail it. Turning on the spot, I look down to see a discarded dream catcher. It’s straight out of True Detective, and while it’s probably the innocent-enough relic of a hippie-horror party, its presence in a children’s ward makes my stomach churn. I don’t know what kind of dreams you could catch here, if any. I imagine more were lost. I’m reminded of Seaview’s logo, which shows a pastel sunset dancing across a placid ocean. Across the bottom reads their slogan, “Seaview: The living’s easy”. 

Outside, the sun washes away most of the bad vibes. I don’t have the guts to go much further, and we all head for a walk on the beach to cleanse whatever spiritual gunk has been splattered across our collective psyche. On our way out, our host asks with his usual aplomb how our adventure was, and he laughs when we mention the cows. He is, once again, relentlessly cheery. 

The place, first and foremost, is a destination, one set up by what I assume to be a band of friends, catering with pleasure to anyone and everyone. It’s deteriorating, sure, but it’s providing an important service. Despite the weird vibes (or maybe because of them) Seaview has managed to remain one of the few places in the country where someone can arrive unannounced and pay a modest fee to access hot water, a kitchen space, and laundry, no questions asked. They’ll be welcomed with a smile, allowed to roam, and encouraged to camp on the best ground in the entire town. Like the former asylum, this service is a relic of a bygone era. 

Seaview started out as a prison, and it still backs up on the cemetery. The health facilities came later: a hospital, an asylum, and finally something closer to a dementia ward, where we slept. It was, for a while, used by the New Zealand Defence Force for urban warfare and search and rescue training. 

The backpackers is only the most recent iteration. Next, I can see a highbrow resort company buying the land and demolishing the entire site to make way for a flash hotel. The views are stunning, the history is … something, for sure. Will the memory of Seaview haunt those future guests? Will the incorporeal, languid stench I found still stick to the brick and mortar? Will the glowworm dell still be a great spot for a rave? 

Probably. Not much changes on the Coast.

Words & photos: Fox Meyer

(Not much changes on the Coast, until it does. Speaking of bygone, we found out just before going to print that Hokitika’s Seaview Lodge & Backpackers recently closed its doors, another casualty of these difficult times. But as Fox writes, Seaview has had many iterations, and it will no doubt have many more. Its most recent made something good out of something awful, which is sometimes all we can do.)