Punakaiki’s world famous natural phenomenon
Halfway between Westport and Greymouth is a quite remarkable cemetery. About 30 million years ago, quantities of dead marine creatures and plants drifted down to the seabed where they were compressed into layers of limestone that alternated with carpets of mud.
Subterranean rumbling and shrugging brought them to the surface where they are now a spectacular geological formation, which New Zealand, with typical understatement, has named Pancake Rocks. They do indeed look like nibbled-at stacks of pancakes, sculpted by wind, rain and sea and, thanks to a colony of white-fronted terns, even appearing dusted with icing sugar.
But there’s action, too: waves send spray shooting out of blowholes with a sudden whoosh that makes everyone jump and laugh. Then there’s the surge pool, more imaginatively labelled the Devil’s Cauldron, where the Tasman rushes in through a hole in the rock wall to seethe and churn in the enclosed space.
This is raw nature at its most accessible. There’s a well-made loop path through the bush down to the rocks, where you can walk along and around them to get some spectacular views, foregrounded by these remarkable layered stacks. You can admire it all as you wait for the blowholes to perform, then carry on around the rim of the surge pool to watch in fascination as, far below, the waves pour in to break on the rock inside and foam up against the walls. There’s always an appeal in being perfectly safe, yet so close to what would be almost certain death. Then, in spring, you can continue around and marvel at the tenacity of the terns, which manage to hatch their eggs and raise chicks on windswept flat rocks that seem the very worst choice for a nest.
Keep hold of small children, and watch out for the selfie-obsessives who insist on posing while standing on top of the wall right above that precipitous drop all the way down to the surge pool.
On the way/nearby
Back on the road, call into the Pancake Rocks Cafe, where they have not missed the obvious marketing opportunity, and enjoy a Pancake Stack. You can go walking, kayak or canoe on the river and lagoon, explore under ground, and ride a horse or have them pull you in a wagon along the beach. You can also carve some greenstone or forge and hone your own knife in Punakaiki and nearby Barrytown.
No charge for the walk to the rocks and blowholes, or even for parking.
Best time to go
Time your visit for high tide, when the blowholes will be at their most vigorous. A westerly wind is helpful, too. Fortunately, that’s pretty much a given on the West Coast.