Greymouth was approximately a 45 minute drive away from our next destination, Punakaiki. Another town consisting of a few houses, a gift shop and a tourist attraction. The best time to be there was high tide to watch the ocean flood through the blow holes of the Pancake Rocks. Puankaiki was roughly 45 minutes up the coast, high tide was at 12:30pm. We had time for a stroll along the beach before getting on the road.
We followed the coastline in the constant company of a rainforest and the snow capped mountains further east, we passed limestone stacks, grey and black sand beaches. We arrived in Punakaiki with plenty of time to spare which was fortunate as the carparks were already filling up with camper vans, cars and tour busses loaded with people expecting the ocean put on a good show.
A short track worked its way through the trees to the cliff tops. Layered pillars of pancake shaped limestone appeared at the edge of the sea. We made our way through strange formations to the viewing platform where people were already lining up, patiently waiting for the big swells that would send spray straight up towards us. We looked out to sea, wondering whether the next wave was going to be the one. It had to be big enough, forceful enough to trap the air and force it to rush upwards. Plenty came that caused the sounds of water crashing into rock to race up to meet us but there was minimal spray.
High tide came and went. People waited still. Finally one single wave came in with enough power to send up a cloud of spray and release a rainbow over the rocks to the delight of the onlooking crowd. Most people hoped there would be more, this was the first of many. It wasn’t. A couple more came through that managed to kick up a small cloud of mist but nothing spectacular.
We decided enough was enough it was time to move on. We made it less than five minutes along the coast when something went wrong. The worst thing that could happen on a road trip happened. Electric smoke filled the van. The engine gave up. We’d managed to get just far enough for Dad to pull it into a carpark. He popped the bonnet and began his investigation, hoping it would be something obvious that he knew how to fix. It wasn’t. Lisa and I both made for our phones to discover we were out of range. No coverage. No car. Lisa volunteered to walk back towards the Punakaiki to find signal. Mum, Dad and I could do nothing but wait. A couple of other people came and had a look under the bonnet, there was plenty of chatter but little action. It seemed unlikely we were going to find a mechanic.
At least we had a camper van. Mum put the kettle on for a cuppa. Dad followed after Lisa to see what the situation was on her end. She’d left messages with the rental company and was advised the AA were on their way but would be about an hour. We’re at least that far from any major settlement in every direction. I looked at Mum, Mum looked at Dad, Dad looked at Lisa, Lisa looked at me. Each of us expecting the other to lose it. At least one of us should have been angry, upset or at least frustrated by the breakdown. It was as though we had made the silent agreement there was nothing we could do and should make the best of the situation. It’s not so bad. I found myself with enough time to pump out postcards to all my adoring fans back home. Mum, Dad and I managed to get a walk down to the nearby beach.
The AA arrived in the form of a cheerful man with a head of thick curly grey hair and beard to match. He tinkered about for a while, chuckling away. I don’t know the first thing about mechanics so kept well out of the way. There’s power to the battery but there’s some kind of electrical fault. It’s no good. He decided the best thing to do is to tow us back to Punakaiki where we’d have to wait for a replacement van. He sets us up in a lay-by next to the road and wishes us the best of luck.
It could have been easy to get frustrated now. We were going to have to wait until sometime the next day for the replacement van to arrive from Christchurch. We had places to go, things to see. Everyone still managed to remain calm. We had time to spare and there were a few tracks nearby. I pushed for a hike. We could spend three hours marching along a section of the inland pack track from here. Lisa opted out, she was more than happy to sit in the van. Dad was in, he made it as far as the information board before he changed his mind. Mum was in. I think of the four of us, Mum and I might be the most concerned about our fitness before the Tongariro Crossing. I wanted to squeeze in as many miles as possible before undertook the alpine track just to be sure I’d be alright.
The inland track cut through a rainforest of ancient tree ferns, palms, mosses and lichens. The west coast doesn’t have the elegance for Tolkien references. Dinosaurs were everywhere again. The track was misleading, going ever up hill. Rising, cresting, dropping back down before rising twice as high again. It eventually levelled out and creeped back down towards the river. High cliffs, rocky overhangs, dead branches covered in new growth lined the track.
The river was full of giant honey combed boulders, old trees that had fallen from great heights, it was the same as everything else we’d seen so far and still remarkably different. The trees on the cliffs looked like giant broccolli stalks punctured by palms that appeared to be pineapples. Everything that was dead had formed a home for a tiny new toe high rainforest. We emerged on to the coast just in time to catch the sunset behind the pancake rocks. We made our way back to the van feeling the best kind of exhausted. We’d done a solid 10km in around three hours. I was feeling more confident about my fitness levels.
We spent the night on the side of the road. Traffic was minimal until the morning when things began to pick up with the arrival of tourists. We played the waiting game, hoping for a speedy delivery, unsure as to how long it would be before a new van would arrive. Around 11am a bloke called Shane arrived in an identical van for us to transfer into. He was going to be driving the broken van back to Christchurch. We gave him a tow to get him started and then he was off. We followed shortly after. We drove for almost the whole day, making up the miles lost at the Pancake Rocks.
The road turned inland, we lost sight of the sea. The surroundings became more like Middle Earth again. We drove along icy blue rivers, through rain and cloud, rising and falling in the valleys. Rolling hills of yellows and greens backed by the rocky peaks of mountains. Then we were into farmland, sheep and hops together in the same fields, apple orchards. We pulled into a campsite on the river in the remaining afternoon sun, delighted that we’d not lost out because of the van.
Sometimes it’s the – minor – misadventures that make a trip. We had a flat tire on a rental VW Westphalia that still remains a favorite story of ours. Looks like the sunset was worth the hike.
Absolutely! We certainly didn’t lose anything by having more time in Punakaiki.