is a small town which sits nestled on the coast, surrounded on one side by a tropical dense forest range and fierce, jagged coastline on the other. I’ll start off by saying there isn’t much to the town itself and to a degree if you blinked you would miss it. We opted to stay here overnight for two reasons, the first being the Punakaiki Pancake Rock formations and blow holes, the second for its raw natural beauty.
Everywhere in Punakaiki I could hear the ocean waves crashing and smell the salt perfumed air, but turn around and the sight of tall palms and sprawling ponga trees would make me think I was in Hawaii, as did the drive into the town. It’s the type of area you visit to wind down and see New Zealand in its natural form, away from light radiation and modernity’s which at times distract us.
The drive into Punakaiki is spectacular. We stopped at various beaches and watched the waves truly beat the rocks, ripping out seaweed and creating drift-wood sea-stacks high up at the high tide line. It’s easy to imagine early Maori tribes navigating treacherous waters in wakas (dugout canoes) and Captain Cook when he arrived in the Endeavour to a strange new land. Growing up in New Zealand beside the sea I miss it wherever I am, so when I arrive to a beach I like to spend as much time there as possible, searching for drift wood and walking around the rocks as far as I can so Punakaiki was ideal for me.
We booked into the Hydrangea Cottages nestled up the cliff and surrounded by bush; it’s a dramatic setting where we could see the ocean. The cottages are reasonably priced, have native kiwi tree names and offer a private experience. At night it’s very quiet apart from the crashing waves and perfect for just enjoying the moment. They are built with a combination of timber and metal and for me they represent all aspects of a traditional kiwi batch (holiday house) I would expect. My advice is take your own food to cook as the nearest supermarket is 40kms outside of town and options in town for meals are scarce, but apart from that they are well catered and tastefully decorated. Rimu cabin has an outdoor bath which I lay in at night with a glass of New Zealand Pinot, listening to the waves crashing and feeling the pinch of autumn at my exposed skin – ladies and gentlemen this is perfection! Would I stay here again if returning? Yes, I most certainly would.
The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and blowholes located in Paparoa National Park are the main reason for stopping although there are some spectacular hiking trails right on your door step and they shouldn’t be overlooked. It takes over 30 million years to create the unusual pancake effect, caused by minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants on the seabed about 2 km below the surface. Incredible water pressure and time has caused them to solidify into layers of limestone and softer, thin, mud-rich layers. Gradual movement of the tectonic plates has resulted in the limestone lifting above the seabed where the elements and rough ocean swell has eroded the softer layers leaving the harder limestone “pancake” effect. They are constantly evolving and the well-constructed board walk allow you to see these strange rock formations from all angles, but make sure you leave at least 1 hour here and arrive at high tide for full effect. As the waves crash upon the rocks they find blow holes carved into the rocks and shoot water streams out for all to see; it’s really quite impressive!
If you have time I recommend hiking the Inland Pack Track but 2 days is generally recommend. I did a section of this hike due to time restrictions but was told by locals if you’re a fast walker you could do it in one. There are no huts so you will need to take enough food and water but the scenery is amazing and you will see virtually no one on the trail.
In the evening there is a caravan called The Shack that sells freshly caught, and cooked seafood but works to its own time scale so try your luck but aim to arrive at 5pm onwards and take bug spray. You have never tasted prawns like it I assure you.
The following day we made our way back to Christchurch for the end of our trip via Arthurs Pass. For the record we took the TranzAlpine Train journey on the way out and although it was enjoyable, the drive over Arthurs Pass took my breath away. The scenery, vivid colours and snaking road which ascends and descends the contours of the mountainscape is outstanding. One place we did stop which I hadn’t researched was Castle Hill Rocks, named because of the imposing limestone boulders in the area reminiscent of a run-down stone castle. The front of Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch was made from Castle Hill limestone (sadly this was damaged in the earthquake) and has also been blessed as a “Spiritual Center of the Universe” by the Dalai Lama.
Rock climbers come from all over to scale the gigantic stones and it’s easy to see why. Boulders so tall they make you look up and strain your eyes against the sun sit plonked on the grassy incline and we hiked past strangely rounded edges up the hill side to the viewpoint revealing the world below and incredible views. It’s hard to put views into any kind of context without underselling them so I have included photos below. I have to say that when we first stopped it did just look like a mound of rocks but as we got closer it is ridiculously spectacular – no wonder they thought to shoot scenes from the Lord of the Rings here!
Continuing on the last leg of the journey back to Christchurch I had a bit of a tear in my eye as we rolled into the city. It had been such an incredible trip and surpassed all my expectations. For a country which comprises of three islands it delivers everything from glaciers, dense forest, deserted beaches and rough coastline, yet also some of the friendliest and most down to earth people in the world; I most certainly will be back.
New Zealand…I salute you!