Sentences I never thought I’d say: That crazy-looking, shoeless man drinking a beer at eleven in the morning in The Stagecoach Hotel was right.
Punakaiki was freakin’ gorgeous (his words).
Locals rarely lead you astray. Even the ones who look a little cray.
We had arrived in the town the night before but it was too dark to see anything but a sky full of stars. After packing up and leaving our “cottage,” (read: garden shed) that morning, we headed to The Pancake Rocks & Blowholes. We timed our visit with high tide, the best time to see the blowholes.
We’ve road tripped all over America together, so we’re used to pulling off at an amazing natural wonder and fighting the crowds and buses of tourists with selfie sticks. We imagined this to be no different, but the walk to the rocks was empty. We were actually a bit worried we were in the wrong place.
It was a warm, winter day with blue skies and sunshine. The sea sparkled and was fiercely crashing into the thin piles of limestone, aptly nicknamed “the pancakes.” Thirty million years of erosion created hundreds of mile-high stacks of them; Mother Nature’s breakfast buffet.
The ocean swells into the caverns beneath the rocks formations and as it rises, every ten minutes or so, the pressure causes it to blow like a great white whale. Just moments after we arrived, the water erupted into the sky and a rainbow appeared, stretching out toward the ocean for a moment then slowly recoiling.
“HOLY SHEEP,” I said. “Why is no one else here?”
Solitude turned out to be the theme of the day. As a lover of carbs and ice cream, I actually jumped for joy when I saw The Pancake Rock Cafe. After indulging in a fat, fluffy short stack of caramelized banana pancakes, we headed to hike the nearby Truman Track that the chef himself recommended.
Perhaps the most AWE-something about “N Zed” is the variety of terrain, even next to each other. We were just a ten-minute drive from the pancake rocks, yet it looked like Snow White’s enchanted forest as we hiked; tall trees covered in clovers and thick moss, lush plants, dirt trail. We reached the end of the trail to find a massive Peninsula curving out into the sea, the Nusa Lembongan of New Zealand. The shape of land created a cove you could walk down to, and as my Stans hit the sand my heart started pounding at the sight of the violent waves rolling in. I’d never witnessed such fierce ocean right in front of me. It felt like being stranded in the middle of the sea post shipwreck; I was in awe and so terrified at the same time.
We put Ruby (my Fuji xT10) down for a while, and just sat on the edge for a while to take it all in.
What I love most about road tripping is its special kind of freedom. While you may have a general itinerary, your days are completely your own. There’s no timing to consider, appointments to make, or plans to follow. You forage for food along the way, stop to take in a vista that calls you, and find a hotel when you’re finally too tired to continue on.
Our next stop on the map was Hamner Springs, where we planned to visit the thermal spa and spend the night. But when we stopped at a road-side shop to buy a lamb finger-puppet, the clerk inquired where we headed next, and gave us a better tip. “Maruai Thermal Village: that’s where the locals go.
Where Hammer springs had chlorinated hot tubs and water slides, Maruai didn’t even come up in Google Maps. We took a chance and arrived to find three authentic, untreated, natural hot pools, a cold plunge, and a sauna! The pools had tall reeds and massive stone borders, and a thick layer of steam rising off of them. For the third time that day, there was no one else there.
So we soaked ourselves silly. The chilly, alpine air on our face and the steamy, mountain water on our toes made for a winning combination. We watched the sunset over the mountains and then soaked for longer in the dark. When we finally dried off we were wonderfully pruney and relaxed.
Our day felt like it had been arranged as a private tour of the country. Instead of fighting crowds, we were wondering where they were! But that’s the beauty of the South Island. As the airport had boasted: 30% more land, with 75% less people. Excellent stats indeed.