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Pancake Rocks and more at Punakaiki

Gisborne couple Barry Teutenberg and Sandra Walsh continue their campervan road trip on the West Coast/Te Tai o Poutini of the South Island/Te Waipounamu . . .

The Buller District of the South Island's West Coast extends from Kohaihai through Westport and Punakaiki, known mostly for the geological wonder that is the Pancake Rocks.

Like many naive tourists, the latter was the main destination Barry and I targeted when loosely planning our trip. We soon discovered there are plenty more attractions.

The Westport weather in early February was windy and wet. Fortunately, online work required time sitting still. We found a fabulous freedom campground a short walk from the driftwood-strewn beach.

During the afternoon, we heard a gentle knock on our campervan sliding door. A charming gentleman appeared, offering information about the area. We invited the sprightly 94-year-old Noel Palmer inside. He frequently visits freedom campers to share his local knowledge, documenting who he has spoken to and where they're from. He proudly showed us his notebook.

Since Covid closed the border, the vast majority, of course, are Kiwis. Undeterred, he loves meeting new people. He was a highlight of our time in Westport.

Another memorable experience was our first incredulous glimpse of foil surfboards. Hydrofoiling surfers seemed to glide over waves and water on back-to-the-future hoverboards. We'd taken a walk from the campground to Westport Breakwater. Nearby were many memorial plaques for people who had died trying to cross the treacherous bar. The sturdy surfers appeared unperturbed by the loudly pounding Tasman Sea.

Our next destination was Cape Foulwind. Heading south on State Highway 6, this section of road boasts beaches, coastal cliffs and the Paparoa Range. Noel reliably informed us it's one of the most spectacular coastal routes on the West Coast. He was right.

Māori knew Cape Foulwind as “Tauranga”, referring to the sheltered anchorage the bay provided for voyaging waka. In 1664, Abel Tasman named it Clyppygen Hoeck, aka “Rocky Point”. It's easy to see why. Captain Cook's 1770 visit coincided with atrocious weather and high winds. His version, a “place of foul winds”, has sadly stuck!

Detours delight

We were to discover many more places in the South Island where Cook had a knack of telling it like it is. Fortunately, we visited on a fine day with panoramic views of the sweeping coastline and lighthouse.

There's a three-hour return trip from the lighthouse to the Tauranga Bay rookery of kekeno/seal colony, but we chose to drive due to time constraints. Pups had been born a couple of months before our visit. We watched half a dozen playing in a pool below the walkway, sounding and looking remarkably like human children; not a care in the world.

Our next destination was Punakaiki — understandably one of the main tourist attractions on the West Coast. However, before arriving, we walked a short section of the Truman Track — deservedly recommended in the AA's Eight Must-Do Walks To Check Out Around New Zealand This Summer.

The path passes through unspoiled subtropical forest where podocarp and rātā trees tower above thickets of vine and nīkau palms. At the end is a viewing platform over a spectacular coastline with cliffs, caverns, a blowhole and a waterfall that plummets straight on to a rock-strewn beach. A stairway provides access to the rocky sloping beach, which Barry found challenging in his jandals!

Shortly afterwards, we were sidetracked by another stunning walk near a handy lunch-break car park. The Paparoa Track, adjacent to the Paparoa River, is the newest Great Walk, soon to encompass a memorial to the Pike River 29. We walked for about half an hour along the riverside, watching colourful kayaks meandering along. Although tempted to venture further, we'd detoured enough.

Finally, we made it to Pancake Rocks mid-afternoon. It's not easy to describe how otherworldly this location is. I recall visiting The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland in August 2004 with my dear friend Therese Shivnan. It is not known what made those rocks the shape they are, though it's guessed to be the aftermath of volcanic crashing, burning and cooling over around 60 million years. But why only there?

The Pancake Rocks have a similar history. Limestone formations began 30 million years ago, when lime-rich fragments of dead marine creatures were deposited on the seabed, then overlaid by weaker layers of soft mud and clay.

The loop walk around this outstanding natural spectacle is superbly planned, ensuring time and space to gaze in wonder at the naturally made shapes and patterns below. We were blessed with hardly any tourists to spoil our views. Regrettably, the tide wasn't high enough for sea surges into the caverns to produce blowholes during our visit.

Wow! We may not have seen blowholes, but we were certainly blown away by the phenomenal beauty of this section of the West Coast.

To be continued . . .

REMARKABLE: The startling limestone formations of Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. Pictures supplied
New friend: Old timer Noel Palmer with his record of visitors he has met.
STUNNING: Colourful kayakers paddling on the Paparoa River, seen from the Paparoa Track, the newest Great Walk.
APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR: At the end of the must-do Truman Track a stairway leads down to a rocky, sloping beach and this cave, carved out over time by the sea.
RIDING HIGH: a lone surfer up on his foils in the waves off the breakwater at Westport Beach.
GOOD DAy: Sandra making her way back from the lighthouse at Cape Foulwind, which belied its name on this day, offering panoramic views of the coastline.