Upper South Island and the West Coast Feature
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Paparoa National Park
Towering granite cliffs and stacks of pancake rocks, dark tannin-stained rivers edged by virgin kahikatea forest, karst landscapes riddled with sinkholes, and surf crashing on to the western shore beaches give Paparoa a look that is almost subtropical with towering nikau palms and strappy flax bushes bending in the breeze.
The Paparoa National Park, which runs loosely along the Paparoa Range, is a long rugged chain of mountains running parallel to the coast. With craggy summits, serrated ridges, and cirques carved out of ancient granite and gneiss, it's a formidable environment. But its sheer cliffs, flood-prone rivers, dense temperate rainforest, and extensive cave systems spell out paradise for hikers. The major track entry points—Bullock Creek, Fox River, and the Pororari River—open onto an otherworldly zone of jungle green, striking nikau palms, rushing streams, and sweeping coastal views. There are several day hikes, canoeing and horse treks, and entry-level caving experiences.
BEST TIME TO GO
Any time of year is good here as the park is far enough north to be free of snow, except at the highest points in mid-winter. Summer is much warmer, although there are more people around, but in winter the weather can be clear and crisp, with less rainfall.
The two- to three-day Inland Pack Track was built back in 1867 for gold miners as a safer alternative to hazarding the walk down the coast with its dangerous river mouth crossings, steep cliffs, and crashing surf.
Best Ways to Explore
Caving and cave-rafting in the Nile River valley is splendid. Join a caving trip at Charleston, on the northern end of the park. This suits able-bodied walkers and is a great trip to take older children on, so long as they can walk at least two hours unassisted. The trip also takes you by a glowworm cave, and if you're brave you can join a cave-rafting trip back down the river.
Down the southern end of Punakaiki village you can join a horse trek. Ride up the bed of the Punakaiki River with towering cliffs on either side, or ride along the surf beach to view the pancake rocks from below.
Take a kayak trip up the Pororari River on the northern side of Punakaiki village. Kayaks can be hired just by the road bridge. This is a beautiful way to see the more gentle aspects of the bush and the canyon walls, without getting muddy boots.
You only need 20 minutes to follow the Pancake Rocks walk. You'll see mighty stacks of limestone (yes, shaped like pancakes), the surge pool, and the far-reaching coastal views. If it's a really clear day, you can see Mt. Cook, and if the tide and wind are right, you'll see the blowholes blowing spray like a breaching whale. The Truman Track and the Punakaiki Cavern walk can also be done in less than an hour; you'll need a torch for the cavern. Tramping tracks here are mostly serious backcountry hikes that require previous experience or a guide. Make your intentions known at the DOC Centre before leaving and carry good survival gear. The area can be lashed by heavy rain at any time of year, so if rivers rise during your trip don't try and cross them.
Birds Ferry Lodge, north of Punakaiki, about 30 minutes toward Westport, is a newly built lodge. It sits atop the pakihi (poorly drained mineral soil) country, with distant views of the coast and more intimate views of native forest in the valley below. The lodge and its accompanying cottage have been built to maximize the thermal mass of the flooring, which is heated by solar gain. Native birds are encouraged to visit and the native bush in the valley below acts as a wildlife corridor, allowing birds to move between the mountains and the coast. The lodge has substantial vegetable gardens, and all food waste is composted on-site. Other waste is sorted for recycling wherever possible.
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