Last days of November, rain
string and almost solid,
incessantly gathering darkness around it
At one in the afternoon
November, the “dead end of Autumn,” the rainiest month in Vancouver. Dreary, monotonous and sullen rains. However, they can’t compare with the pelting, fierce, torrential rains that lashed out upon Magellan and me in Punakaiki, an area in southwestern New Zealand that suffers twice as much rainfall.
Punakaiki (poona-kai-key) is on the Great Coast Road, a narrow strip that runs parallel to the Southern Alps on the sparsely populated west side of the South Island. Prevailing westerlies fan across the Tasman Sea and on encountering the mountains, condense their moisture into “industrial strength” rain, about 2800 mm/year. Incessantly it fell the day we were there, April 26, fall in New Zealand. So why did we hang around? Marg and Don said we had to, for the same reason more than 400,000 visitors do every year—to see the geologically unique Pancake Rocks at high tide.
Punakaiki is the Maori name for the village and its namesake “Pancake Rocks” at Dolomite Point. It’s in Paparoa National Park, midway between the weather-descriptive Cape Foulwind and Greymouth. Knowing we’d arrived long before high tide, we spent a few hours on the beach just south of Pancake Rocks.
High tide that Sunday wasn’t until 5:09 pm advised the Department of Conservation (DoC) ranger at the visitor centre, who also confirmed the forecast was unrelenting rain. Mr. DoC suggested we fill our waiting time by hiking the Pororari River Canyon Track where subtropical and cool-climate trees overlap and would protect us from the rain. Some plants are unique to the area, suggesting it was a botanic refuge during the ice ages Mr. DoC told us, and the birdlife is prolific. We followed his advice but few avian travellers appeared in the gentle rain.
Only a handful of people braved the perpetual rain later that afternoon on the 1.1 kilometre loop-trail around Pancake Rocks. The downpour was so incessant that we feared for our Olympus cameras. We left them in Kohanga, our rented motorhome, taking only the GoPro. (Which is my way of seeing we don’t have many, or good, photos.)
The vertical columns of Pancake Rocks are quite a phenomenon, the result of a chemical process called stylobedding. It began with dead marine life on the ancient seabed about two kilometres below surface. Immense water pressure caused these small fragments to solidify into alternate layers of durable Karst limestone and mud-rich sedimentary stone that’s softer and thinner. Gradually, I mean slowly—over 35 million years—seismic action uplifted the gigantic stacks to surface. The power of pounding rain, salt spray, waves and harsh winds eroded the stacks, interspersing them with vertical airshafts and geyser-like blowholes. Now, at high tide, the ocean rushes headlong through narrow horizontal tunnels forcing large volumes of water and compressed air to race upward through the narrow vertical airshafts. “The result is a hissing, heaving, thumping countryside that rhythmically emits geyser-like plumes of salt water.”
A northwesterly whipped around, rain-soaking and chilling us to the bone. While our guidebooks said it was the best wind for action at Pancake Rocks, Mr. DoC told us a southeasterly provided more drama such that sometimes you can see the ground visibly shaking! A true Kiwi who spoke his mind, Mr. DoC suggested the big talent, the full orchestra moaning and groaning, wouldn’t likely show up for the performance at Pancake Rocks that day. Right he was. Nevertheless, nature entertained us with her mizzly rock concert, for free, as she does everyday in this country of kindness.
The unremitting rain and gusting wind rushed us back into Kohanga. What now? A dark and stormy night was spooling in, not a good time to venture north on the Great Coast Road to find a place to freedom camp.
Earlier in the day just a few kilometres back from Punakaiki I had noticed a short pullout by the sea. Not a legal place to freedom camp but…“Why don’t we ask Mr. DoC if we can park there? It’s late in the day, late in the tourist season and he’s a nice guy,” I suggested to Magellan.
Maori travellers knew this as a place for feasting, which is why they named it Punakaiki, “a spring of food.” Soon Magellan and I were feasting on New Zealand scallops with spaghetti and toasting Mr. DoC with the country’s Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc. Endless rain streaked down outside Kohanga’s windows. The day reminded me of a poem I’d laughed at when we were planning this part of our New Zealand trip, a poem written by an anonymous West Coast visitor:
It rained and rained and rained—
The average rain was well maintained.
And when the tracks were simply bogs,
It started raining cats and dogs.
After a drought of half an hour,
We had a most refreshing shower,
And then the most curious thing of all,
A gentle rain began to fall.
Next day was also fairly dry,
Save for a deluge from the sky,
Which wetted the party to the skin,
And after that—the rain set in.
Cook, Scott. NZ Frenzy New Zealand South Island. Bend, Oregon: Maverick Publications, 2010. As we’ve said before, the only hiking book you need in NZ.
Thanks to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan for the title of today’s blog from his song of the same name. For pure enjoyment watch this moody rainy-day version of the song by Bill Frisell.
Haddington, Jen, Project Editor. New Zealand Darroch Donald Handbook. Bath: Footprint, 2010. We’re big fans of Footprint guidebooks and this one is a fave.
Lonely Planet Guide to New Zealand. Hong Kong: Colorcraft Ltd. 1996. Obviously, we’d been thinking about going to NZ for along time given the year we bought this guidebook.
Wright, Charles. Oblivion Banjo. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. The United States Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, he has written more than twenty books of poetry. This one “is the perfect distillation of his inimitable career―for devout fans and newcomers alike.” We started this blog with his poem “Last Days of November.”