One of the main tourist spots along the West Coast of the South Island is Pancake or Punakaiki Rocks (Maori for pancake?), which were almost exactly half way between Westport and Greymouth.
We had camped a kilometre downhill from the geological wonder and headed there after a bit of a slow start, the next morning. It was rather fortuitous that, a couple minutes out of the gate, Christian’s front light fell off and a Spanish touring cyclist right behind us picked it up for him. Although he didn’t speak much English, between my shoddy Spanish which I excavated from the recesses of my brain and his broken English, we found out he had given himself 6 weeks to see the south island and had only a week left to finish off in Christchurch. He was also very excited to get to the rocks because apparently the biggest blow holes went off around 11am and it was 10:55. What perfect luck! We managed the steep hill to the top, locked up our bikes and our new friend rushed off ahead to see the spectacle. There was a nice 1km round trip path that headed out to the cliffs where the rocks were and on first sight, we understood why they were called that.
The remarkable thing about these rock structures is that they are limestone pillars that have been eroded over thousands of years by the fierceness of the ocean and we got to witness this for ourselves. The Tasman sea on the west coast, especially on this peninsula where waves crash from either side, is very wild and further along the path where more of these limestone columns were clustered together, the ocean rushing in fast enough would create a blowhole-like effect which the tourists went gaga over. Crowds of people waited with their cameras at the ready for one of these wet explosions to soar up into the sky. You would hear a particularly large wave crash into the crevices below and moments later, the water would shoot out triumphantly. We might’ve been a couple minutes late for the 11:00 show because we only saw a couple of these and didn’t manage to catch any on camera. Pretty impressive nonetheless.
After a stop for a terribly expensive coffee and some drooling at a distance over the pancakes they sold for $20/plate, we get back on the saddle as three bus loads of tourists unload. This day of biking wasn’t all that remarkable and we mostly biked along contentedly listening to podcasts, grinding our way slowly up the hills, and trying not to let the traffic get to us. We had been hoping for quieter roads on the south coast, but perhaps because of the earthquake that had cut off the road on the east coast anywhere north of Kaikoura, and perhaps because it was also tourist season, we did not have the pleasure of enjoying any quiet roads on this day. Or any others really so far on the south island for that matter. There seemed to be a particular dearth of jerk drivers, particularly as we got closer to Greymouth. The windy roads paired with the long stretches of hills made it particularly dangerous because it was never safe to pass us and the cars and buses behind us had to practise some semblance of patience if they weren’t going to get themselves (or us) into an accident.
We stopped at Barrytown (which was one street leading to a beach about a kilometre away we didn’t have the heart to go to) and sat outside a closed cafe where we came up with the perfect lunch wrap: sweet chilli flavoured tuna with tomatoes, spinach, grated cheese and sweet chilli sauce. Much better than the old PBB’s we’ve been having every day. The final stretch after lunch was away from the coast which meant less wind and fewer winds (as in “windy”), but more tiresome scenery and more hills. By the time we were just about into Greymouth, the road had joined the state highway and it was just about rush hour so the traffic was horrible and the shoulders tight. On too many occasions, cars got a little too close for comfort and I finished the day on the verge of tears just feeling so drained and tired of fearing for my life every moment. I was very happy we had decided to take the train across to Christchurch, and because we had arrived a day early, we had all of the next day to relax in Greymouth.
After looking at all of our options on the handy “Campermate” app we’ve been using, we showed up at Central City camping, only to realize that it was pretty much a parking lot with bathrooms and laundry. They friendly owner did offer us a spot in some mulch behind the office, but for $30, we thought we could probably find a better option. The Top 10 Holiday Park was 5km up the road, so we spent sometime in the nearby McDonald’s eating ice cream and gathering our strength, and then headed to the most expensive camping ground of the trip so far. A camping spot for a tent and no power came to a whopping $50/night, but at least we could choose to stay wherever we wanted and the facilities were pretty top notch. We were also very close to the beach if the weather would ever warm up and let us go for a swim. (It did not.)
We found a lovely spot across from a very friendly Kiwi family who were eager to hear about how the biking had been for us, and who even came over later and offered us some BBQ chicken they said they had leftovers of (watching Christian’s face as I politely declined them was a painful thing), and set up our tent. A couple hours later (after some delicious butter chicken flavoured “two minute noodles” for dinner), a couple pulled up in a rental car and set up their tent. They turned out to be two Canadians, Garrett and Danyelle from: Vancouver! We hit it off right away, and it had been a while since we had had no cultural barriers (slight though they have been in New Zealand) to navigate. We ended up sharing beers and a bag of microwaveable popcorn we had been saving for an occasion like this, and chatted until long after dark. They had been living and working in Australia for the last six months and were also travelling for a year, so we’re hoping to meet up with them again while we are in Oz too if the stars align.
Our day off in Greymouth consisted of sleeping in which was lovely, and hanging out using up all the free internet at McDonald’s (not so lovely, but a necessary evil I suppose). We got some blog posts up (you’re welcome) and caught up with our families, and then rode around the town to see if we had been missing out on anything. We hadn’t. There is a brewery in Greymouth, an assortment of galleries and shops, and not a lot else. The West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail also starts from here and because it went right past our campground, we figured we would take it back. This was a good idea because it eliminated any “FOMO” we may have had about not taking it further south. The entire trail (probably because it is mostly designed for mountain bikes) was composed of a medium-to-loose gravel that our tires did not enjoy. And you know how we feel about biking on gravel.
The next day was New Year’s eve and we didn’t have to take our train until 2:00 so we slowly packed up and enjoyed a nice long breakfast of oats and strawberries. We also decided to head to the grocery store to stock up on train-journey-worthy treats, and just as we jumped on our bikes, the skies opened and submitted us to a soaking. It was a perfect afternoon for a train ride.
The Tranzalpine journey is not just your ordinary train ride. When Kiwis do train journeys (and they usually do them for the tourists alone), they make them special. With our cheese and crackers and wine packed into our carry-on and our bikes safely stowed in one of the storage cars, we entered our car complete with huge windows, comfy seats, lots of leg room, and a headset to listen to a commentary that would narrate for us the history and geography of the areas we would travel through.
As we set off, the people on the platform waved us goodbye and it felt a little bit like being on the Hogwarts Express (I imagine). Soon, the rain cleared up and we had some excellent views of a very diverse range of scenery. We travelled through four different biomes, from sub-alpine to alpine, saw some incredible mountain ranges and bright blue rivers, and learned a lot about the early explorers, the Maori traditions and the settlers trying to make a way for themselves in the harsh mountain climates. It was an immense pleasure travelling such a distance on such a sleek mode of transport, and we started thinking about new adventures that involved more trains and maybe fewer bikes…
Arriving in Christchurch, we were both amazed at how much warmer it was there than when we had boarded the train in Greymouth. I hadn’t been aware of just how constantly cold I had been since arriving in Westport. It was New Years Eve, we had an airbnb to check into it and a new city to explore!
Musician, teacher, traveller. Currently on a year-long journey around the world. Bronwyn is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com.