Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki, New Zealand
There is a bit of a mystery to the Pancake Rocks on the South Island of New Zealand. Nobody really knows why they look the way they do.
Oh, sure, geologists know some of the basic facts. They started to form about 30 million years ago when fragments of plants and animal skeletons collected on the seabed, they gradually solidified and then were raised up above sea level. That’s all common knowledge in the scientific world. But the most interesting thing is the most unknown thing – why do these rocks look like pancakes?
I can see how they got their name. These structures, clustered around a row of cliffs, do indeed look like pancakes stacked up on top of each other. It would be a pretty big stack of pancakes, though, hundreds high – perhaps the kind of thing you would expect at an American roadhouse.
Each stack has its own unique shape – some look like jagged defensive spikes, some like watchtowers, some broader like buildings. This is because for millions of years they have been slowly carved away. Wind, rain and acidic waters have each taken turns at shaping these rocks until what we see today.
But the layers… well, until someone works that out, perhaps it’s worth just admiring them for what they are.
And they are worth admiring. The Pancake Rocks are on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, in a place called Punakaiki. Driving along the coastal road, you come across the clearly-marked visitors centre, which has information about all the activities in the region. From here you can walk to the rocks along an easy path through some bush to the cliffs. Along the way are good information boards that explain the geology and also tell you about the local flora and fauna. It is worth noting that there is some beautiful scenery here even with your back to the ocean.
But, of course, it’s the edge of the ocean that most people are here for. And there is more than just the Pancake Rocks.
You can hear the whoosh before you see anything then, moments later, a fine white mist sprays up into the air with a mellow hiss. If you’re not expecting it, it’s a bit of a surprise – and then it quickly becomes captivating. These are the blowholes of Punakaiki.
There are a few of them amongst the rocks, visible from the pathway. If you can’t hear them at first, you can normally still work out where they are by the people gathered against the railing. Seeing just one burst of mist is not enough. Once you’ve seen your first, you hope the next will be larger, so you wait. If it’s not larger and more powerful, you wait a bit longer. If it is a big one, you wait anyway – in case it gets more extreme. The power of nature and the sounds and sights it can create are mesmerising.
Although Pancake Rocks and the blowholes are the main reason people stop here at Punakaiki, there are actually quite a few things to do – including long hikes away from the coast into the mountains. I don’t get a chance to try any of these and I suspect the majority of people don’t. The problem is that they take quite a few hours and most people are just stopping here as the drive further away.
Regardless of where you’re going and how far away it is, you should also make time to take the Truman Track down to the beach, though.
Five minutes drive north from the visitors centre gets you to the start of the Truman Track. It’s an easy walk through some rainforest that takes only 15 minutes or so. The final metres are a climb down to the sand – and the beach is why you take this journey.
There is nobody else here when I arrive and I like to think that it’s usually just as quiet. Quiet in terms of people, that is. Because it’s noisy today with the waves crashing onto the beach. There’s a good swell and it adds dynamism to what might otherwise be a static scene. But there’s so much texture – from the grainy sand to the ripples in the cliffs that surround the beach, to the large rough rocks you can climb and the green mountains in the distance.
You can see the Pancake Rocks from here but they’re far enough away that the individual layers aren’t visible. They’re a little less mysterious – but just as striking.