Pancake Rocks and Mountain Passes

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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island » Punakaiki
November 28th 2015
Published: December 8th 2015
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I was glad to have seen Christchurch but it felt easy to leave as it is not really in a state where there is much to do. we were heading North on our first Kiwi road trip.

We selected the road we had been told was most scenic - Arthur's Pass. This proved to be a great choice as the route led past an ever growing river, through scenic gorges and around beautiful rock formations. We stopped a couple of times for photo opportunities. At one of our stops, at the Okira Gorge, we came across a trio of keas. The kea is the world's only alpine parrot and lives in a small area of the South Island. This is an endangered species, with only five thousand left. We were so lucky to see these majestic birds with their green top feathers and red under-feathers. Actually, it turns out they are quite happy around humans and have even started trying to eat the parts of cars they can pry off. As we tried to drive away one perched quite contentedly on the roof of the car until we scared it off. The Okira Gorge itself was a majestic steep valley which dropped away almost precipitously below us. Here, a graceful bridge curved across the fast flowing river. Beyond were significant works of engineering to control the flow of waterfalls to prevent flooding of the road.

The road over Arthur's pass crossed the whole of the South Island, connecting Christchurch to Greymouth. Beyond Greymouth we continued up the Coast until we reached the tiny town of Punakaiki. This beautiful spot is locally renowned for two things - pancake rocks and blow holes. The pancake rocks are ancient limestone formations which are formed in thin strata, looking a little like a stack of pancakes. No one really knows how they were formed. These striking features surround the headland at Punakaiki. The headland has been eroded away with the passage of time and it has formed some interesting features. The most mesmerising was a huge open cavern where we could see the roiling sea crash in every direction against the rock face below. As well as this cavern, channels have opened up in the rocks. These aren't really visible but, when the conditions are right, the crashing waves cause blow-holes to appear. We only saw one of these spouts of water and it was very intermittent but extremely impressive when it happened.

We spent our first night of camping at Punakaiki. As we arrived at the rocks and blowholes around 9pm, we had to put the new tent up in the dark. This was an interesting experience but, thanks to a well designed tent, not too hard. In the morning, after a broken night's sleep, we went for a stroll on the beautiful pebbly beach where the forest covered the hills behind us came down the estuary to meet the sea. Afterwards we went back to the headland for another view of the pancake rocks.

We drove on from Punakaiki and went down the Buller Gorge. The lower gorge was incredibly beautiful. The walls were wide apart and the river running through was large, a deep shade of blue and had a strong current. On the river bank was lush green grass studded with purple foxgloves and yellow aster-like flowers. We stopped here for lunch, perched on a bluff overlooking the river.

The middle of the gorge was less attractive as it widened out into fields. The road was not so close to the river and the farms got a bit repetitive after a while. The upper gorge narrowed again though and once again assumed the grandeur of the lower section. After two hours of driving the winding road I was exhausted so Lindsey took over and I dozed fitfully until we reached Nelson.

Nelson was a lovely little town, which had delusions of being a city. The strange thing was that we arrived at the largest local settlement early on a Saturday afternoon a month before Christmas and many of the shops and most of the cafés were already closed. This was strange as our guidebook specifically mentioned the shopping and café culture of the town. After finding an outdoors shop and a supermarket we were ready for a rest so headed ten kilometres back down the road to Richmond where we stayed for the night in a motel.

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