Punakaiki has been translated as meaning a ‘spring of food’ for Māori who were living on the West Coast and trading pounamu (greenstone or jade) by the late 1300s.
As the West Coast was difficult to access European settlers were initially uninterested in settling there. This changed after two Māori guides, Kehu and Tau, helped Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy explore and map the region in the late 1840s. A steep cliff at Te Miko, near where The Rocks is now located, presented challenges and the British Library has a sketch by Heaphy of Brunner ascending a rotting ladder made of rata vines while their dog is hauled up on a flax rope.
In 1860 the government bought almost all of the West Coast land from Poutini Ngāi Tahu (West Coast Māori) chiefs for £300 and European settlers arrived.
Gold and coal were discovered in the 1860s attracting many more people to the Coast. Unions and the labour movement grew up among coal miners leading to the founding of the Labour Party. Mining declined in the 20th century though there was some revival in the early 2000s.
The nearby village of Charleston (north of Punakaiki), founded as a goldmining town after a major goldrush in 1867, is better known today for the Nile River limestone caves where “The Lost World” was filmed. Rafting trips, glow worm tours, caving excursions and a rainforest train are all on offer from Underworld Adventures.
The great outdoors
The Department of Conservation has an office adjacent to the entrance to the Pancake Rocks walkway where you can find maps, information and advice about walks ranging from a few minutes to a few days in Paparoa National Park and around. New Zealand’s latest Great Walk – the Paparoa Track – is scheduled to open in April 2019. The track, which will be open to both walkers and mountain bikers, will run between Punakaiki and Blackball.
Conservation Volunteers runs projects just south of Punakaiki. You can learn about the local environment and contribute through activities such as tree planting and seed collection.
The world’s only breeding grounds of the largest mainland nesting petrel, the Westland Petrel (Procellaria westlandica), can be explored with Petrel Colony Tours or take a night tour with them and discover the constellations of the southern skies. Punakaiki Canoes rent kayaks and also run guided trips on the Pororari river while Punakaiki Horse Treks have horses and rides to suit all abilities. Stargazing Punakaiki can introduce you to Southern Hemisphere astronomy.
The two New Zealand novels which have won the Booker/Man Booker prize both have strong West Coast connections. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which won in 2013, takes place in Hokitika during the 1860s gold rush. The 1985 winner, The Bone People, by Ōkārito resident Keri Hulme, also features West Coast locations.