What does a 30 million year old pancake look like?

A short walk off the long road between Hokitika and Nelson in New Zealand

While driving up the desolate west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, I wondered whether Cathlin had reached a point of fatigue with me pointing out yet another unearthly view seemingly every time we turned a bend. But any intention of holding back couldn’t have lasted more than a minute before we were both ooh-ing and aah-ing over one more turquoise river or desolate beach or snow-capped mountain—or in many cases a turquoise river spilling onto a desolate beach at the base of a snow-capped mountain.

So in a land of such persistent natural splendor, you can imagine our intrigue when our Airbnb host in Hokitika suggested we might consider a slightly longer route north through Punakaiki, which he considered the most beautiful part of the entire country. Just as we’d done while in Christchurch, we listened to his advice and accepted that it would add about half an hour longer to our already hefty drive for the day. We planned Eliza’s carseat naps accordingly.

Instead of turning inland at Greymouth on a northeastern hypotenuse of a road toward Nelson, we continued further north on the coastal route (NZ State Highway 6). The views were reminiscent of the Pacific Coast Highway in California and the Great Ocean Road in Victoria:

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Along the coast between Hokitika and Punakaiki

What made our detour all the more revealing was that our Airbnb host hadn’t oversold or even described what we would expect. (We also didn’t pause to research the region online or in a guidebook, though Cathlin had seen a postcard and was curious what we would find.) We were on the road to Punakaiki for no other purpose than being on the road to Punakaiki.

And then we passed a sign for the Pancake Rocks & Blowholes Walk at the cusp of Paparoa National Park. We weren’t sure what made the rocks into pancakes or blowholes, but it seemed like an ideal spot for a picnic, especially since the road just ahead had no pull-offs while under construction after the sea had washed ashore causing damage.

Unfortunately, we realized we had forgotten our supplies for a picnic—fresh bread, cheese, and hummus—back at the Airbnb rental, so we had to replace our plans with a takeout order of pizza from a local cafe instead. (Cry us a river.) Signs at the entrance to the national park prohibited mountain bikes, dogs, and drones, but pizza seemed to be okay. We devoured a small pie with this view:

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Hidden from view: our pizza box

An easy walk along a paved path led to close-ups of the cliffs that give the area its name:

“The famous Pancake Rocks… 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: Department of Conservation)

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Limestone pancakes
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A wide and accessible walkway
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The blowholes were anything but blowhards during our visit
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Pretending we’re crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, only aboveground, less terrifying, and protected by Cathlin rather than Gandalf

Although the loop walk itself could be completed within half an hour, we dawdled along the way to gape at the views, read about the scientific, wildlife, and cultural significance of the structures, and chat with the very few tourists who were there on what felt like a perfect day.

(When Cathlin mentioned our destination when we stopped for coffee in Greymouth earlier that morning, the barista said “it’s a shame the weather isn’t worse today.” This seemed like an odd comment until we saw for ourselves: the calmness of the skies and the water meant that while the Pancake Rocks may have been plenty visible, the Pancake Blowholes were less active than they would have been during storms.)

After returning to the car to continue our long drive for the day, Cathlin and I reflected on how understated it all was. If we hadn’t been open to enjoying a leisurely chat with our Airbnb host that morning before we checked out, we never would have ventured this direction—though, I suppose, we also wouldn’t have known what we were missing. But the whole experience felt like so much in New Zealand: what would have been hailed as a much-vaunted must-visit almost anywhere else was utterly peaceful and all the more memorable on account of its understatement.

And if you can’t pass a rock formation without dining on the food it’s named after, you can skip the pizza and go straight for, yes, pancakes, though we can’t attest as to how much they rock:

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You know somebody had to do this

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Liddy Olszewski says:

    Lovely photos!

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