My instructor in Hollyhock told me to make sure I hit the West Coast while I’m in New Zealand. “It’s like going back in time,” he said. I misunderstood. I thought he meant it’s like going back to the turn of the century, with old-style farmhouses and dirt roads.
Once I arrived, it became clear what he meant. It’s like going back a hundred million years. The coasts are rugged and dramatic, like you’ve reached the edge of the world. Everywhere are towering, misty cliffs, bulging with ferns. The whole place looks like Jurassic Park.
In the hostel in Punakaiki, I met an American girl. Upon exchanging the typical backpacker questions — Where have you been so far? Where are you going next? — we discovered that we had booked the exact same buses and accommodations for the next four or five days. So we traveled together from Punakaiki to Franz Josef to Queenstown, before parting ways.
Punakaiki’s only attraction is the bizarre and unique “Pancake rocks.” A little-understood sedimentary process left its coastal rocks looking like towering stacks of pancakes (or cheese slices, or cold cuts.) The surrounding area is beautiful though, with plenty of “end of the world” beaches and rainforest trails. After three days there, my companion and I motored south to Franz Josef and checked in to the YHA.
Franz Josef glacier is one of the West Coast’s biggest tourist draws, because it is one of the few locations where a glacier travels through a rainforest. The coast gets pounded with rain year-round, giving it a lush, ferny, prehistoric look. Both of us were too cheap to take an organized tour — which would allow us to hike on the glacier — so we opted instead to climb a neighboring mountain, from which we would have grand views of the ice field. “Alex Knob” is 1100 vertical meters of rainforest, root steps, and cliff-edge trails. It was the longest of the day hikes in the area (8 hours return) so we packed some food and set out early in the morning, a bit smug about the money we’d saved.
Hiking through a rainforest was another item on my life list, and it didn’t disappoint.
Pictures of Punakaiki and our Franz Josef hike are below, in that order.