Paparoa and the West Coast - wild at heart.
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is famous for ferocious winds. Anyone sailing across the Tasman Sea will be familiar with the Roaring Forties, the westerlies usually found at the altitudes of 40 and 50 degrees. Hot air from the Equator is pushed towards the pole by the current of colder air travelling in the opposite direction. This force, combined with the Earth’s rotation, determines the wind’s orientation; the openness of the ocean causes the wind to gain speed as it passes, undisturbed by any major landmass. Useful, if you are sailing towards New Zealand, but the Roaring Forties also produce high waves, which hit the shores causing their erosion.
The cliffs near Punakaiki are among the geological wonders of the West Coast. Acidic rain, seawater and wind created blowholes and sculpted the rock face into the bizarre shapes we see today. Pancake Rocks, as they are called, were formed 30 million years ago from fragments of dead marine wildlife and plants, which under an enormous pressure of water solidified into soft and hard layers. Seismic action gradually lifted thus formed limestone and now the rocks are a well visible and recognisable sight that attracts many visitors to the area.
Apart from the rocky cliffs, there is a fair amount of sandy beaches around Punakaiki. Here, you can walk for hours, gathering colourful pebbles (you can try your luck and search for pounamu: beaches are the only places where you are allowed to collect this precious stone), bizarrely shaped driftwood, or watching oystercatchers until the sun grows big over the horizon, burns in the explosion of colour and finally sinks into the ocean.
Punakaiki community is protected from the powerful ocean winds by the thick rainforest and the mountain wall behind. Here, a completely new world begins. The mountains, built predominantly of granite and gneiss, are as old as the Fiordland’s range, further south. In between them the Southern Alps have formed, along the so called Alpine Fault, the boundary between the two tectonic plates: the Pacific Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate. The plates’ constant movement and collision pushes the Alps upwards, making them the highest peaks in New Zealand, but it also causes frequent earthquakes.
Paparoa National Park, stretching behind Punakaiki, is a fascinating place, where two climate zones overlap. Closer to the shore you can see Nikau palms, cabbage and rata trees, but the deeper you wander into the forest, you will notice the change: the silver beech and subalpine shrubs supersede the more subtropical flora. Paparoa forest is also a home to the Great Spotted Kiwi.
Rivers flowing from the Paparoa Mountains before they reach the sea pass through the area of highly soluble limestone. As a result they have created an extensive cave system. Water often emerges from the cave, but then vanishes into the sinkhole. Creation of those subterranean waterways is an ongoing process, due to the decaying vegetation that acidifies the water. If you want to explore the park’s wonders, you can follow the Paparoa River, either along the walking track or in a kayak. Kayaking is a highly rewarding way to experience this spectacular landscape.
Punakaiki is a perfect place to relax and forget the world. Most people pass it by, either on the way to the excitement of the Alps and the glaciers, or going north, to the very popular Abel Tasman National Park, with its milder weather and golden, secluded beaches. But Punakaiki, with the wild, open sea battering the shores and the forests and rivers of the Paparoa right behind, is an overlooked treasure. It is a place where you can be idle or contemplative or forgotten, but it is also a place where adventure is waiting to happen, if only you are willing to follow its call.
Paparoa, together with the Kahurangi National Park and, of course, the Te Waipounamu World Heritage Site (including the Westland, the Southern Alps and the Fiordland) – all on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, are, arguably, the most remote, the wildest and the most spectacular part of the country. This landscape which, despite the centuries of exploration, remains mysterious and inaccessible, subjected to constant geological transformations and the challenging weather, will test you in many ways. But it will also open your eyes to a new world of fascinating discoveries and of astonishing beauty.