PUNAKAIKI, NEW ZEALAND — We weren’t expecting another beautiful day for our trip down New Zealand’s west coast, but as we left the motel, the sky brightened.
By the time we’d driven the 54km to Punakaiki, the familiar blue sky with wispy clouds had appeared. Punakaiki is a famous tourist destination, but we’d stopped just north of it at a cove, and we were impressed enough by that scene: a scattering of pointy domes just off a pebble beach, with giant swells surging between them and crashing high against the rock.
Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks were pretty cool, too. We followed the crowds past the jewelry stand, smoothie shop, bratwurst stand and DOC visitors centre to a walkway. It led around a point lined with spires and columns of gray rock made of slabs that were thicker than pancakes but stacked together by the thousands.
We’d never seen anything like it, though some of the columns had bulges and curves that looked like faces and reminded us of the Dalles of the St. Croix and Wisconsin Dells. Judging by the many languages we heard, the whole world was there to see it with us.
We didn’t see any blowholes, so Torsten went into the Paparoa National Park visitor centre to ask about them. It seems the blowholes are a little elusive — they may or may not appear at high tide, if there are southwesterly winds. But if they’re blowing, said the DOC ranger, you can’t even cross the walkway bridges without getting wet.
The ranger’s name was Rossi, and she had a distinct German accent. Turns out she grew up near Frankfurt and is married to a Kiwi who’s lived all over. Torsten gave her tips on ways to get dual citizenship — she was turned down by Germany — and her Kiwi colleague chimed in on a discussion of accents. Beth has never felt so self-conscious about her flat American accent, though Torsten’s isn’t much different.
We weren’t ready to leave the park, so we backtracked a kilometer to the Pororari River Track. It was yet another unexpectedly spectacular hike through a river gorge, this one lined on both sides by dramatic limestone cliffs and bluffs.
The fairly level trail passed through a subtropical forest of palms and tree ferns, and on the way back, we saw some unwelcome wildlife: a possum, calmly sitting on a stump right next to the trail, eating the new growth of a fern as a German tourist photographed it. Like stoats, ferrets and weasels, possums have no predators and not only compete for food with native birds but eat them, their eggs and their chicks.
If we’d kept going on the track, we would have come to its junction with the Inland Pack Track, which had been all over the news because a 36-year-old mother of four had just been been rescued six weeks after getting lost on it. It was our second brush with notoriety in as many days; two days before we decided not to walk the first part of the Heaphy Track, a tourist on it was swept away by a rogue wave.
Back on the road, we stopped at the New World Market in Greymouth and stretched our legs in Hokitika. It was a boom town during the gold rush, and it still has some grand buildings. Today, it’s a lively tourist town known for its souvenirs, especially jewelry carved from local greenstone, which it calls jade. The best time to visit is in March for its Wild Foods Festival, when you can try fried wasp larvae, earthworm truffles and possum pate.
Franz Josef was even smaller than Hokitika, but it’s a certified stop on the tourist trail because of its glacier. We checked into the Terrace Motel and as soon as we were in our room, the desk clerk came around with a basket of warm, freshly baked scones, which she gave us with jam and butter. If they were trying for a great review on TripAdvisor, it was working.
For dinner, we had heated-up Szechuan beef, broccoli and cashews with soba noodles and salads from the deli. Then we strolled the few streets of Franz Josef, mostly filled with young people staying in the “backpackers” — the Kiwi word for rundown budget hotels. Torsten wanted to see a kiwi at the West Coast Wildlife Centre, but admission was $38 and it looked mostly like a gift shop.
The hotel had a second treat for us at 10:30, when a staffer named Emily took us and two other couples on the nightly free glowworm walk. The Callery Gorge Walk starts just behind the hotel, and Emily only had to take us a few meters in before we saw pinpoints of light in the undergrowth. When we stepped in and stuck our heads under the leaves, we could see a whole galaxy of green-tinted fairy lights twinkling away.
She shone her torch into a stream and showed us crayfish, too. Some of them were huge, with outsized pincers. These were native crayfish, and they can’t be eaten because, of course, they’re threatened by non-native crayfish. This has become a running theme in our travels: New Zealand’s uphill battle against introduced pests, in an effort to keep it the paradise it is.