With caves, caverns, blowholes, pancake rocks, lagoons, beaches, horse trekking, rivers that can be paddleboarded or kayaked, plus endless hikes and walkways, Punakaiki spoils you for choice when it comes to nature-based adventure.
Punakaiki is settled on the edge of the Paparoa National Park between Westport and Greymouth on the wonderful West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand. The name Punakaiki is formed from three Maori words: ‘puna’ means spring of water or flow, ‘kai’ means food and ‘ki’ refers to the movement towards something. Punakaiki remains true to its name. It is an abundant place of water, flowing and moving in different mediums whether it is oceanic, lagoons, rivers or blowholes. I can imagine it was once a rich food source for the original Maori settlers and is still today.
Punakaiki Beach Camp
Let’s begin with Punakaiki beach camp. For a home base, you won’t find a better place partly because everything is within walking distance of this camp. It is right beside the ocean with dramatic limestone cliffs and the sub-tropical rainforests of the Paparoa National Park wrapping around. Sleeping spots are enchanting with a cliff view campsite or riverside cabins. It is the ultimate base to explore the amazing wilderness that surrounds with the famous Pancake Rocks, a mere 15 minute walk away and the beautiful Pororari River running directly opposite.
It is family run and known for its friendly, fun atmosphere with full facilities that are top notch. Paddleboarding, surf trips or kayaking Pororari River can all be organised for you. The team will also take care of your Great Walk logistics.
The Truman Track is a stunning walkway that begins in the beautiful sub-tropical rainforest; a generous explosion of ferns and nikau palms punctuated by ancient rimu and rata trees that tower majestically. As you near the coast, the track unravels through typical West Coast flax flats before emerging into an opening of coastal headland with stunning views.
To the north side, a stairway will lead you down to a fine gravel beach with soaring cliffs that hollow into surprising caverns and caves, some dripping with waterfalls. One cave, particularly large and impressive, has held many a rave and even had a piano flown in for a cave concert. The rock formations are spectacular, humbling our fragile human form while waterfalls offer opportunities for a refreshing shower. At low tide, you can continue walking north to further explore the drama of the west coast and peer into the puzzle of rock pools. Allow roughly an hour to return to fully enjoy the journey.
Pancake Rocks are a popular tourist destination with a looping walkway track that winds from the main road delving into the native rainforest, flax and coastal vegetation as it edges closer to the rugged coastline.
At high tide the blowholes are active, respiring like a dragon. It is the main attraction of the walkway and tidal times can be checked at the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre. When the blowholes are booming at full blast it can be an incredible sight. The sea is forced at great pressure through the holes in the limestone rock causing silvery spray to explode meters above sea level. All in all, it takes about 45 minutes.
Tucked away on the eastern side of the main road is the Punakaiki Cavern. If driving, park your car on the ocean side of the road.
The cavern is illuminated by glow worms and in truth, they are not worms at all but the larvae of a fly similar to a large mosquito. They build traps consisting of vertical hanging threads of silk which are studded with sticky, luminous droplets of mucous to catch small insects that are drawn to the light.
Dripping impressively from the ceiling of the cavern are stalactites. These are formed when calcium carbonate and other minerals drip from the ceiling and over time create hanging formations.
The Pororari Lagoon is right next to the Punakaiki Beach Camp and offers thrilling views up into the Paparoa National Park and out to Dolomite Point. It is at its best during sunset and takes about 30 minutes to walk. Be sure to watch the seagulls dining on shellfish, flying high and dropping their dinner from the sky to crack open the shells.
A great rock known as ‘The boot’, is a sculptural sandstone right at the river mouth. Climb it if you dare or watch the waves crashing up and around it.
Of all the places in Punakaiki, the Pororari River was my favourite. It has a mystical quality that captivates you so you won’t want to stop walking. Fortunately, there are many paths to explore along this waterway that will keep you coming back for more. You can either follow the grand limestone gorge on a short walk or make a loop for a longer walk. The Pororari River Track is also the pedestrian entry/exit for the Paparoa Great Walk.
It is a riot of green with spectacular trees, and there are many mushrooms to marvel at along the way. Eels can be spied from creature-like rocks that arch their backs out of the river. These eels are highly revered by the Maori and can live up to 100 years old.
For an hour and a half walk (7 km return) follow alongside the river through beautiful forest until the path meets the Inland Pack Track. Five minutes beyond this junction you will discover a suspension bridge; a perfect place to rest and a photo stop before returning to the carpark.
If you are feeling more adventurous why not continue on for the Paparoa Great Walk. Go on upstream of the Pororari suspension bridge with the Paparoa hut a further 3-4 hrs up the track.
For a three hour hike (11km) you can do the Pororari Loop. Or, for those that are very energetic, the Bullock Creek walk (15km) which takes 5-6 hours. This track connects the Pororari River Track with the scenic Bullock Creek Road. The hike moves through mature forest that is the home of rare birds such as the kaka and the national favourite, the kiwi.
You can always see the sights from a different perspective and go horse trekking along Punakaiki Beach. You can ride under the Pancake Rocks before crossing a river to trek through the radiant rainforest and into the Paparoa National Park. Punakaiki Horse Treks is off State Highway, 6.2km south of Punakaiki village.
The Punakaiki village is quaintly small with an arts and crafts shop and a charming communal book swap. The Pancake Rock cafe is a local favourite during the day and for dinner find them at the Punakaiki Tavern and Bistro.