Performance at Punakaiki – New Zealand

One view
One view

I’m truly sorry. I hate to dash people’s perceptions, but I have found somewhere in rural New Zealand that can be crowded and, at times, deafeningly noisy.

Don’t panic. Here nature provides the soundtrack and the crowds ebb and flow with the tides. I have discovered Punakaiki, or Pancake Rocks as it’s more commonly known, on the jagged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Nature's soundtrack
Just as you’ve recovered from the hypnotic coast road vistas on State Highway 6, north from Greymouth, or south from Westport, you will find yourself at Dolomite Point, south of the small coastal village of Punakaiki. Aged weatherboard homes give way to tarmac and café courtyards. An old wooden bach cowers beneath contemporary concrete units boasting its heights and views. This is perhaps the most touristy spot you will see on the entire West Coast; it can come as a shock to the system after carefree motoring on deserted roads where road kill possum outnumber cars.

Another view
Another view

Walk past the café, past the shops. You have an appointment to keep. You cannot be late. When Mother Nature performs, she has no regard for tardy travellers. She has more important considerations like the time and the tides. Follow the human trickle through the innocuous entrance at the side of the road, with its equally unobvious arrow half-heartedly pointing in the direction of the auditorium. There’s no box office, no ticket touts, no fee. An easy, winding corridor meanders toward a distant rumbling. A turn of the path and there, below you, is the most extraordinary stage – limestone pancake skyscrapers, stacked higher than church steeples, the white foam of the incoming tide exploding at their base. The set has taken over 30 million years to prepare and unimaginable forces of nature to push it into place.

The show is about to start
High tide is reaching its peak. The first blow hole, Sudden Sound, meets and greets with a startling irregularity. The show is about to start. The crowd swells. The spray shushes. “Surge Pool” is almost full and its thunderous bass and ominous vibrations steel the audience for the beginning of the show. Chimney Pot bursts into life throwing up 50-foot plumes of brine, showering the unsuspecting front row. Ghost-train screeches from somewhere in the wings are evidence that Putai, the largest in the blow hole orchestra, is warming up.

Close up
Close up

Be prepared for a bum note or a missed line. During peak season, you may need to fight for a front row seat. Tide tables will dictate your arrival. No one can command Mother Nature to perform, although you’re bound to come across a few loud-mouthed descendants of King Canute. There are no encores. After the show, there is coffee and pancakes at the growing tourist trap back at the car park. Punakaiki, in Maori, translates to "food basket", but don’t hold your breath. The food is unimaginative, the audience captured. Greymouth and Westport can feel a long way off when you’re hungry.

A souvenir shop stocks the usual greenstone jewellery and tourist tat. The enduring image you will take away from Punakaiki will be the sculptured rocks, the tremors underfoot and the pounding of the waves. You’ll forget the crowds, the bulging car park and the touristy backdrop. And you’ll never be able to eat a stack of pancakes again without goosebumps and a smirk.

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