Punakaiki: I can only describe it as being the Jurassic Park of New Zealand.
En route, we came across some of the following spectacles:
As we made five-hour long trek (thankfully split up between stops here and there) from Greymouth along the east coast highway, our first glimpses of Punakaiki paralleled the scene where the Jeep pulls up to the entrance of Jurassic Park.
“If you guys go hiking out by the river, you’ll meet Terry the Pterodactyl,” our faithful tour guide Burto explained.
After all our long naps, the majority of us gazed out in awe as our bumpy van grooved its way past sky-high mountains of green. Palm trees, willow trees, evergreens, just about every tree and bush, surrounding us in a 360 scape.
It was much different from Christchurch, Tekapo, Queenstown, Wanaka, and Franz Josef – this was remote South Island. It was apparent that we were quite isolated from all the other major towns and cities (duh, five hours drive from things), and even an hour away from the nearest market.
As a huge advocate of solitude, this was the first location in my vacation to actually be engulfed in some well-needed peace and quiet to myself.
We had the honor of staying in a beachfront hostel (by accident). By far, it was my favorite hostel experience because we had the ability to fall asleep and wake up to the beautiful sound of rolling ocean waves for two days in a row. Like the vast majority of our other destinations (except Queenstown), we didn’t have any cell service. After awhile, you get used to being cut off, and you appreciate your surroundings and what’s directly in front of you that much more.
Or, in my case, I just went wild and took billions of photos with every waking moment I had, from 6am until my granny bedtime around 11pm.
I took a leisurely stroll along the beach one morning and came across a rock structure that resembled Cathedral Cove (North Island). The beach itself wasn’t that amazing – the sand was pretty bumpy and the waters were quite gray, but hey, we were finally by a BEACH.
A couple of us hiked the Pororari River track (the entrance was across from the hostel) while others went horse trekking. It took us about three hours round-trip, and it definitely gave us the true “Jurassic Park” feel. There was a clear-cut trail for us carved out, and we were surrounded by all sorts of ferns, wildlife, high trees and sandflies (ugh).
If there’s one thing New Zealand has that NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD does, it’s beautiful scenic hiking trails. Seriously, I think New Zealand took them all and saved nothing for the rest of the countries.
The crystal-clear river ran along our left while trees and all sorts of forestry ran along our right. Since Punakaiki was much more humid and warm than other South Island locales, we all felt tempted to jump in the river with all our clothes on. Most of us started out with long pants and jackets in an attempt to avoid more bug bites, but we didn’t last long after all the sweating.
We encountered our first Weka bird on the trail, a fat brown little guy that resembled a wingless chicken. He was so tame – he basically popped out of the bush when we walked near his home, essentially greeting us. When we stooped down lower to take photos, he edged closer rather than retreated. Such a friendly little bird – just curious and probably eager for food.
Sidenote: I’ve found that most birds in NZ and AUS are extremely tame – not afraid of humans at all. Some of the pigeons in Melbourne were too tame – one kept circling me and almost pecked at my arm while I was sitting down eating my lunch.
The trail eventually led to an opening where a large suspension bridge was located, which we crossed to get to the next part of the park. Once again, we were surrounded by even more cliffs and greenery. Wild horses were grazing in a large patch of grass to the right of the trail – just chillin’. To be a horse and live in New Zealand – now that must be the life. New Zealand is possibly the best and most eco-friendly environment that a horse can thrive in.
When we got to the open road on our trek back, we admired the sparkling ocean on our left – it seemed to go on forever. We ended up getting sunshine and beautiful weather the rest of that day, which was favorable for us. Where else do you get the ocean on your left and a spectacular rainforest on your right, complete with a river that leads into Jurassic Park territory?! Only in New Zealand.
We also explored the Punakaiki Cavern on the way back – it ended up being smaller than expected, but still filled with curious tourists who had the same idea as us. I LOVE caves – after all, the one thing I’m still dying to do in New Zealand is zipline through the Waitomo glowcaves.
Like true prepared travelers, none of the six of us had a flashlight. Awesome. Instead, we resorted to our iPhone flashlights, which emitted lights good enough to just see our feet. After squeezing our way through narrow, dirt-packed crevices, we finally got to the deepest, back part of the cave. It sadly dead-ended with a tiny hole that didn’t carve out a further path. So much for that 5-minute escapade.
The next day, we were just around the riverbend (the same Pororari River that we hiked alongside). I’ve kayaked before, but never as a single rider. I ended up being the lone ranger of the group, for I was behind the others the instant I ungracefully clamored into my kayak. Within a few seconds of rowing, my arms were ready to give out. The five others laughed; they were at least 20 ft. ahead, while I huffed and puffed along the river, trying as hard as I could to catch up (to no avail).
Other than struggling to gain momentum (I felt like my kayak was staying in one spot the entire time), it was such a beautiful view. The hardest part was getting out each time and pulling the kayak over the shallow rocks upstream. After I took a tumble into the frigid waters, I decided to row back alone… funny how the ride downstream was ten times easier and faster (duh).
The river was adjacent to the beach, thus being the perfect spot to watch the sunset.
And my God, I haven’t seen many sunsets in New Zealand (Wellington unfortunately isn’t the best place for any) – so when I saw this one, I reveled in its beauty. The hues of bright yellows and oranges mixed with pinks and purples decorated the evening sky. It was surreal, especially since our hostel was perched right on the beach for the best view. Our tour guide even took his brand new surfboard and jumped into the ocean, catching a few awesome waves as we watched the sun slowly go down while he became a black dot in the distance.
“This is like a scene right out of a movie.” Damn, is this real life?!
Since we were so far from civilization (not joking), our group cooked dinner both nights, family style. Well, they cooked. I played Jenga and was on dishes duty with a few others because we all deemed ourselves disasters in the kitchen. We were fed heartily with delicious fajitas and a typical roast both nights, complete with tea, Monopoly and Yahtzee. We definitely fit the description of old, granny-ing travelers at this stage.
Our final day in Punakaiki yielded a visit to the infamous Pancake Rocks and blowholes. The Pancake Rocks, as its name indicates, look like pancakes stacked on top of each other. They were formed 30 million years ago from minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants landed on the seabed about 2 km below the surface. Immense water pressure caused the fragments to solidify in hard and soft layers. Gradually, seismic action lifted the limestone above the seabed. Mildly acidic rain, wind and seawater sculpted the bizarre shapes (Source: doc.govt.nz/).
We also had a chance to stick our heads in a Punakaiki blowhole – literally. It smelled terrible, much like a sewer, but to get the chance to have hot air blown on you and a slight shower with fresh oceanwater was once in a lifetime. Punakaiki was quite a special place – despite the sandflies, I’m a beach girl at heart.