If the Beach Boys are to be believed, the west coast has the sunshine. But of course, they weren’t singing about New Zealand, and the next morning we didn’t have much sun. But a light drizzle wasn’t going to stop us from exploring the big draw-card for this area of the coast.
Pancake Rocks and blowholes in the Punakaiki National Park are an interesting place to tour for an hour. The limestone rock formations look like hundreds of stacks of pancakes. (The restaurant next to the gift shop has a menu devoted to pancakes too, should you fancy them.)
In amongst those stacks are blowholes, that at high tide, spurt high into the air. We didn’t see them at the best, and yet it still amused the kids when we caught a burst through ‘the chimney’.
It was a wild place. I can imagine if the weather was particularly bad, this would be a rugged place indeed. As it was, the drizzly mist added a moody element to the water smashing and swirling below.
Literally a two minute drive down the road was Punakaiki Cavern, a pretty impressive cave, open to the public to explore unsupervised. Again, I take my hat off to NZ. This place is fully accessible with only a sign advising you to watch your footing and take a torch.
There is a large mouth to the cave, with a lot of natural light (where my in-laws stayed with our two smallest children) while Stephen and I went further in with Thomas. You wouldn’t get far without a torch anyway, as heading down into the cave it quickly turned pitch black. Initially, we took a lower path, trying to keep higher than the mud and trickle of water but it became too slippery and difficult to navigate with only two torches (one each would have been better for footing). On the way back, we found another branch in the cave which was higher. It’s difficult to say how far we made it into the cave, but it was exciting being given free rein to explore. The experience was a little disorientating so I would definitely recommend a proper torch or a full phone battery if you are using a smartphone torch. I wouldn’t want to get stuck without light and rely on another traveller finding you.
There was much rugged scenery along the coastal part of our four hour route to Nelson but turning inland at Westport, the scenery became more mountainous. Along this part of the route, worth a stop is the Buller Gorge swingbridge. Billed as New Zealand’s longest, bouncing across it is a tinsy bit exciting.
On the other side you find yourself on a little island with a historical track that loops around. On the way you can detour down to the river’s edge. There are plenty of photo and stone skimming opportunities amongst the water-worn rocks.
There’s also signage to point out the 4.5 metre upthrust of the earth in the Murchison earthquake of 1929. The establishment has a jet boat (standard feature for most places in NZ it seems) as well as a zip-line back across the river should you wish to pay extra. We were happy enough to use the bouncy bridge once again, hoping that at the exact moment we were crossing, we wouldn’t encounter a 7.8 richer scale earthquake like in 1929.
Lunch was a sandwich at a particularly picturesque bend in the Buller river called Kilkenny lookout. It recharged us for the remaining run into Nelson.
Although it was gloriously sunny on arrival, it was also getting late so it was a drive-through city for us. We were staying the night outside of north of the city in a gorgeous 140 year old house, booked through Airbnb. The owner was present which meant different conversation and a local’s perspective on the area.