One of the amazing things about New Zealand is the ever changing landscape and the sheer variety of natural phenomena. I first realised this as we crossed the South Island, passing through the Canterbury Plain and across the snow-topped Southern Alps, then descending to the west coast, an area so lush and fertile that you realise, almost for the first time, that you are on a Pacific island. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the extraordinary geological phenomenon of the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki.
The Mysterious Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki
Punakaiki is a small town on the edge of the Paparoa National Park that was once known to the Maoris as “a spring of food”, surely a reference to the abundant vegetation that lines the roadsides and surrounds the houses. We were advised to visit the rocks at high tide. This was at nine o’clock in the evening, so we had a sunset to admire as we arrived. And the approach to the rocks was a treat in itself: a native plants trail complete with noisily chattering cicadas.
Geology of the Pancake Rocks
The Pancake Rocks take their name from their strange formation, thin layers of limestone piled upon one another like a stack of pancakes. They were formed from the skeletons of tiny marine creatures and have been subject to many millions of years of weathering, but no-one knows exactly how they acquired their shape.
Natural Blowholes at Punakaiki
The Blowholes are the result of a combination of horizontal tunnels weathered through the rock and narrow vertical air shafts fashioned by the rain. At high tide the sea swells and forces water along the tunnels and up the shafts, creating a geyser like effect as it emerges from the top.
When we arrived the walkways were already full of people watching the crashing of the waves. We walked around, looking at spouts with names like The Surge Pool and The Chimney Pot. The sea was relatively quiet and so the spouts were not high, but even so the sound was deafening. I tried to imagine what it must be like on days when the sea is rough, with the noise of the ocean ringing in your ears, the hiss of water pluming into the air, and cold saltwater splashing onto your face and feet. Perhaps, I thought, we had done well to choose a calm summer evening!
Read more about New Zealand’s natural phenomena