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East to west and pancake Sundays

Current travel restrictions are but a mere blip compared with the millions of years it took to form Punakaiki’s pancake rocks as Jo Ferris recalls

Given the upheaval of past weeks — locked down, locked in and in some, cases locked up — never before has freedom seemed so precious. Level 4 might have been approached differently from the first time around, but it was a stark reminder of how the ease of travel slips into the mists of time. Level 3 didn’t really feel any different to be honest and the new Delta Level 2 feels like drip-feed in a nose bag.

A trip to Stewart Island in July was another stark reminder of how unfair it must all seem to everyone in the South Island, particularly the tourist and hospitality sector. So it also feels timely to turn back pages in the travel diary and recall a trip before Covid-19 was even invented, let alone rammed down our throats in the “new-normal” of what freedom means today.

Discovering New Zealand’s back yard has been on the agenda for several years, especially the South Island. There have been two trips to the West Coast — the most recent being cycling the Wilderness Trail — finished last year, just before the first Level 4 lockdown. Thoroughly recommended too — the cycle trail, not lockdown!

But if pedal power doesn’t ring your bells, consider a train excursion on the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth. While it can be done as a return day trip, my original plan was to collect a rental, head down the coast to Franz Josef glacier, finish in Hokitika and drive back through Arthur’s Pass.

As usual, the best laid plans flew out the window when Mother Nature decided to drop her bottom lip and dollop a mudslide on the main highway, cutting off Franz Josef in the process. Resorting to Plan B — and with a spare day up the sleeve — meant more time to explore places around Hokitika, which was great. There’s so much to love about this cool little town — even more so, having read The Luminaries and discovering the area’s rich history.

As chance would have it, eyes turned up the coast, rather than down the coast.

Exploring the rugged coastline 46km north from Greymouth to Punakaiki offers a subtle comparison with the East Coast in some ways.

While each coast has its own spectacular cliff-top views, surging surf and inlet beaches, the West Coast can claim bragging rights on one particular landscape — Punakaiki and its famous pancake rocks and blowholes. Being so focused on seeing a glacier close up and personal, these rock formations hadn’t even been a consideration. Big mistake. Not only are they free to visit, they’re unique and utterly spectacular.

The term rocks is an understatement really. They’re more like towering tiers of craggy cliffs. Sitting at Dolomite Point, these limestone formations began developing 30 million years ago from lime-rich fragments of dead marine creatures, deposited on the seabed. These were later overlaid by layers of soft mud and clay. Over time, earthquakes lifted them from the seabed to the level seen today. That’s a short version of a freak of nature that took millions of years to create.

The term ‘pancake’ becomes evident when looking at the formations close up. Layers upon layers of limestone comprise tiny shell fragments, separated from the next layer above and below by a thin layer of siltstone. Mother Nature is a wondrous artist, her sculpting tools being the rain, wind and sea spray. The result has etched the softer siltstone into nearly-horizontal grooves, rounding the edges of limestone layers to form the illusion of a stack of pancakes. Something my grandchildren will hopefully appreciate in years to come — pancakes being their favourite Sunday breakfast, layered with lemon and sugar.

The other fascinating aspect of this particular point is the maze of underground passages and open caverns. Facing the sea, these take the full brunt of the harsh West Coast swell. At high tide, when the ocean surges into these caverns, water gushes up the passages. Huge geysers burst skywards in gay abandon all around. When there’s a big sea, the blowholes are dazzling. Without knowing anything about these rocks, my timing couldn’t have been better — right on high tide and a brilliant day. It was mesmerising seeing rainbow cloudbursts from surging swells catapulting into the air.

Entrance to the rocks is right opposite the Department of Conservation Paparoa Park Visitor Centre on SH6. There’s parking, a café to dine in style, together with a sports gear store and gift shop. Set within the 30,000-hectare Paparoa National Park, the Paparoa and Pike29 Memorial tracks are New Zealand’s newest great walks — also part of Covid history with a false start in 2019 and fully open in 2020. As tracks for serious walkers or mountain bikers, they cross the Paparoa Range through alpine tops, limestone karst landscapes and rainforest.

For lightweights like myself however, the 1.1km easy-loop meander around Dolomite Point marvelling at the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes was sufficient, thanks very much. Franz Josef glacier is still on the bucket list, though at the rate it’s receding that might mean a helicopter ride. I am strictly a short-walk person.

MORE:

www.punakaiki.co.nz

www.westcoast.co.nz

www.doc.govt.nz/greatwalks

REMARKABLE: Punakaiki’s fascinating rock formations resemble pancake stacks. All pictures by Jo Ferris
MUCH TO SEE: Different eyes see different faces in Punakaiki’s rock formations.
LINING UP A SHOT: Close up and personal marvelling at historic rock formations.
FAMILIAR: West Coast’s SH6 between Greymouth and Punakaiki has similar scenery to SH35 East Coast.
SEA SURGE: Spectacular displays as the ocean surges through passages and caverns below.