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The Wet West Coast

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Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain: we’d been warned to expect plenty of it as we travelled up the South Island’s rugged, beautiful but notoriously wet West Coast. We were sure they’d been exaggerating though, as we made our way north from the Franz Josef Glacier to Westport. The sun blazed down from a clear, blue sky, fresh breezes blew invigoratingly and white surf crashed onto golden beaches beside us as we drove. Each time we rounded a bluff we were greeted with another vista, more spectacular than the last.

We had plenty of time to enjoy the day, and we stopped whenever anything caught our attention: fruit and veg stalls, wild beaches, potential rock climbing. So when we saw the signs for Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes, we stopped to take a look. If we hadn’t lost our guidebook, we’d have known all about it already, but as it was we had the pleasure of accidental discovery.

The Pancake Rocks are named for their supposed resemblance to a massive stack of American pancakes, minus the maple syrup. How they were formed is still a subject of hot debate among scientists, but, geeks that we are, Caelen and I were more interested in their rock climbing potential. Limestone is soft, and millennia of pounding waves had carved away at the Punakaiki cliffs to leave amazing formations – archways, caves, tunnels, canyons and, of course, blow holes. The pressure of the waves pouring in pushes the water up and out with so much force that it is not liquid that emerges from the blowhole but a vapour cloud.

We arrived in Westport with high hopes of the climbing that awaited us in nearby Charleston. Sea cliffs always add a frisson to a day’s outing, the waves pounding below adding to the feeling of exposure. The next morning, a peek through the curtains brought us crashing back to reality. Dark grey skies, pouring rain, the odd roar of thunder. Yes, it was the We(s)t Coast, where a few years back they recorded 365 consecutive days of rain. It was too much to hope for two nice days in a row.

The next day seemed a little more promising. As we ate breakfast the sky darkened and it began to drizzle. As we washed up, it stopped, only to get going again with added force by the time we’d loaded the car. Blustery, rainy weather is not conducive to rock climbing, so we headed instead to the Cape Foulwind Seal Colony. In 1769 and 1770, Captain Cook spent 6 months charting the New Zealand coast aboard the Endeavor. Many of the names he gave live on, including the all too appropriate Cape Foulwind. “Doubtless it’s a bay,” he noted in his log about what became known as Doubtless Bay. Doubtful Sound got its name because Cook reckoned that if they sailed in to the narrow and steep-sided fjord, it was “doubtful” there’d be enough wind to get out again.

The seals weren’t perturbed by the weather. It was not peak seal season, and many of the seals were still off on their journeys. Nonetheless, as we walked along the cliff top, we found groups of seals in every little bay. Big, blubbery males lying on the rocks, flippers dipped in the water, made lumbering but still effective lunges at smaller seals who dared encroach on their territory. Pups played “follow the leader” and “king of the castle” in a sheltered pool. New Zealand fur seals were hunted to near extinction, but having been protected now for many years, populations have returned to healthy levels.

By the time we returned to the car, the weather had improved dramatically and it was now only threateningly overcast. We still didn’t fancy our rock climbing chances much, but conditions were perfect for walking along the coast and scoping out the rock. We weren’t disappointed. Majestic cliff faces, inviting crack lines and corners just crying out to be ascended, all in an atmospheric, exposed and spectacularly beautiful setting. We clambered around, picking out lines and spotting anchor points and descent scrambles. The sky was brightening, and there were actual patches of blue visible here and there among the clouds. We looked at each other, excited, and headed back to the car to fetch our gear.

We should have known better. We were less than halfway to the car when the rain started yet again. It would probably stop, of course, but by the time the rock dried off it would no doubt have started again. We decided an all-weather activity was a wiser plan and headed instead to the abandoned mine at Deniston.

People knew of the rich seams of coal at Deniston for many years before they figured out how to exploit them. Only a few miles from the sea, Deniston sits atop a 600m plateau. Extracting the coal from the mine presented no new challenges, but the counter-balance railway for transporting the coal down the steep slopes was an engineering triumph in its day. For years there was no road from the plain below to the settlement, and people as well as coal travelled up and down in the wagons. A school inspector was so shaken by his journey that he vowed that Deniston School would not be inspected again until he had a safer way to get there. Nor was he alone in his dislike of the wagons – many people are reputed to have moved up there and lived for years without ever returning down to the plain

Today there is a road, but there is no school to inspect. The mine is long closed, and without it there is no reason for Deniston to exist. A community that once numbered over 200 households returned just 4 in the last census.

According to Jerry, our hostel owner, the situation at Deniston is mirrored, though in a less extreme form, all over the West Coast. Dwindling industry is leading hordes to move away in search of opportunities, not to mention better weather. The property market is moribund. Attractive 3-bedroom properties on large parcels of picturesquely situated land are on the market for less than US$30,000, but there are no buyers. The permanent population is falling, and New Zealanders looking for holiday homes understandably prefer areas with a better climate. The towns of the West Coast have lost their hearts, and it is hard to see how they can regain them.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Punakaiki Pancake rocks New Zealand travelogues
Photograph of Caelen near Greymouth New Zealand travelogues
Punakaiki's Pancake rocks

Caelen near Greymouth on the West coast

Picutre of the West Coast New Zealand Travelogues
Photograph of the scenery neear Charleston New Zealand travelogues
Wild and rugged West Coast

Spectacular scenery near Charleston

Picture of Punakaiki Pancake rocks New Zealand travelogues
Photograph of a small bay near Charleston New Zealand Travelogues
Punakaiki's Pancake rocks
A small bay near Charleston