Three months on the West Coast have come and gone. Punakaiki, my home for one New Zealand summer, is a beautiful place framed between the Tasman Sea and the lush rain forest of the Paparoa mountains. Nature has kept me very busy yet relaxed and joyful – I sleep well, eat well and feel great.
In early January I arrived to the small settlement of Punakaiki to begin three months of casual work and living on New Zealand’s West Coast. The nature-lover in me was curious to live near rocky ocean cliffs, lush forests, caves, and golden-green Paparoa mountains. Initially concerned about living in a very remote area, this place has made quite an impression on me and I am sad to leave it. Lucky for me, I had scored a job with a six short work days, meaning I had loads of free time to hike (I averaged 13 kilometers a day in February), cook (I can bake bread now), learn about the ocean, read (my favorite leisure activity) and study a foreign language.
Here are some of the highlights of my time, and why, if you have the chance, you ought to stay a while in Punakaiki:
To the annoyance of my roommates, a beloved morning activity was hiking into the Paparoa National Park to watch the sunrise. Watching the light flow the Pororari favorite river canyon is indescribable. Sunsets were just as stunning. The area hosts an unbelievable amount of great viewpoints for the twice-daily show put on by mother nature. I have traveled a lot and my eyes have experienced some very special lighting and color but in Punakaiki I was always impressed. The sky color was so varied with clouds sometimes cast in light opposite the color wheel.
Orange is the color of summertime along the West Coast. A mix of Nasturtiums and Montbretia flowers grow in the grasses separating the sea from the limestone karst formations that dominate the landscape. Early January, at the height of summer, was a bit hard on my eyes – the bright New Zealand sun and the flame orange flowers up against a blue sky was a huge contrast. Even in rain and fog the bright floral hues decorated the landscape.
On the West Coast just a five mile hike can take you from a rugged seaside with diverse ocean wildlife to a tussock mountainscape with views of snow capped alps in the distance. New Zealand has felt very safe to me and I always feel empowered to take off on the trails. It’s very freeing and I have been more independent than ever. Some days I just walk out the door with no plan and wander until I have to turn around in order to make it home by dark. This picture is from the Croesus Track, one of my favorite walks from my time in New Zealand. To get to the starting point required hitching hiking and I really appreciated the local people that bothered to pick me up and helped make an incredible experience possible. Many other times local people shared stories and route suggestions with me or helped me in other ways. Some of the things locals would talk to me about, like working hard jobs or farming, and spending free time hunting, fishing and camping reminded me a bit of Minnesota, so maybe I related to it a little more than I expected. I had heard a lot of negative stories about the West Coast and but I’m glad to say my experiences were overwhelmingly positive.
I did Croesus Track as a day hike as some of the trail is being incorporated into New Zealand’s next Great Walk, Pike29 Memorial Track and not open to the public. I was so sad to learn the opening of the great walk has been delayed. The original opening date was March 2019 and I would have loved to have done the walk while living in Punakaiki; I know it’s going to be a gorgeous route. Heading up the thick forest of the mountainside was a challenge with chest high grass reclaiming part of the trail and few downed trees to climb over. Once above the treeline the path i more rolling with occasional stretches of loose rock. The views are stunning and it’s completely worth the hard work.
In the past I’ve fallen in love with the the karst landscapes of Southeast Asia and Europe even though I was not able to spend time exploring them in depth. Walking into the canyons, caves and caverns of the West Coast was one of my favorite activities and requires a lot of respect for nature. The landscape is mysterious and dangerous – deep caves, snaking rivers that suddenly disappear underground, and high tree-lined cliffs. Staying on route is key. My favorite hike followed the Paparoa National Park’s Inland Pack Track to Fossil Creek and finally to the Fox River. This was an intense full day of treading on slippery and muddy trails, climbing over downed trees stranded in the creek and wading through 20-ish river crossings for 25 kms. I loved every minute of it and spending so much time in cool knee high water prevented leg soreness – I’ve never felt better after a full day hike.
It was a very interesting experiment seeing how I spent all the free time that came with my situation. I’ve always been a nature-lover but my respect for natural systems has only increased here. I have never in my life spent so much time near a healthy coast. When I needed peace and quiet I went watch the tide pools during evening low tide and observed a whole new underwater world. Each night hundreds of small creatures make their way by; of all colors, in all shapes and at every speed. My neighbors are yellow, orange and red starfish, anemones, crabs, jellyfish and even dolphins. I was pretty ignorant about things like tidal cycles and sea creatures when I arrived but now I can tell you exactly how tides work and what different animals eat and how the move, all from observation. I have been so lucky to be able to use my free time this way and it’s been a lot of fun. The big hold out for me are the Penguins. Apparently they live in the area but I am yet to spot one, or even their little tracks in the sand.
Punakaiki is know for unique rock formations called the Pancake Rocks. A lot of visitors blow through the area and spend an hour checking them out. I’m not the best at describing geological processes but these formations are what happens when limestone is eroded by waves, salty air and other beachfront forces and there are varying layers of sediment and matter within the rock.
The Pancake Rocks may be the big draw but just to the south on a beautiful beach similar but more colorful rocks stand open to exploration at your own pace. I particularly liked visiting the rocks in the evening when sunset aligned with low tide. It’s an odd place that feels a bit out of this world but very memorable.
The Truman Track beach was essentially my backyard. The steep pebbled beach has a waterfall, rocky cliffs, caverns and is a joy to explore at low tide. Iwas treated to two super moons while in Punakaiki. On both occasions I got up very early to observe a combination extreme low tide and sunrise. The seaside is truly a privileged place to watch the sun, moon and stars. Many animals are especially active at dawn and dusk and as tides are effected by lunar events it made watching nature really cool and colorful. In what for me will be a once in a lifetime event, I witnessed Hector’s dolphins swimming during a sunset (I only saw them once).
Aside from the nature I’ve had a busy time learning languages, meeting people and learning how to cook awesome food. I am sad to be soon leaving to explore more of New Zealand but know more magic is on the way.
Thanks for reading about my temporary home. If you think you will ever visit New Zealand, I recommend the West Coast. The nature will blow you away and if you visit for long enough you will fall in love with it.
I want to give a special thank you to the people who suggested I go to New Zealand as a worker in the first place, I would have never thought of the idea on my own, as well as everyone who is enthusiastic about hearing what I’m up to. It’s really hard to leave your home at the age of 31 to go live the backpacker life on the other side of the world and it requires knowing that your friends and family are your cheerleaders. 🙂