Time to split out my back door
Sunrise dancing on my wall
Heading down off beaten tracks
Try to get that feeling back
I could take a walk again
up a mountain to a stream
Standing on the open rock
Looking out over the sea
Okarito may be the most relaxing place on earth, but I was still anxious to get moving when I shook off my slumbers at 6 am. With the sunrise dancing on my wall, I split out the back door of Gonfishin’ for a nice walk on the beach. The shoreline was predictably deserted, aside from a handful of black-backed gulls and their human interloper. The early-morning swells were smaller than the previous day but still fascinating to watch. With the Finn brothers reverberating in my mind, I scoured the beach for interesting new pebbles to add to my collection.
Our group convened for breakfast around 7:15 am, and I noticed a few pairs of blood-shot eyes and a couple of notable absentees. Evidently some of my new friends had a LOT of fun at the previous night’s party and were paying full price for it. We were all aboard ‘Frank’ by 8:30 am, which according to our lead tour guide was her first ever on-time group departure from Okarito. We were sad to bid adieu to such a lovely locale, but simultaneously glad to be rid of all the bloody sandflies.
We drove up the coast to a town called Hokitika for a few hours of shopping and sightseeing. Hokitika was the epicenter of New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, but today’s agribusiness-based economy is far more pastoral. The town has also become an enclave for some of New Zealand’s most talented artists – the main street is lined with shops that proudly promote their wares. Within a stone’s throw of town centre you will find shops overflowing with nature photography or metal sculpture or all manner of possum-fur clothing. But the star attraction in Hokitika is undoubtedly jade jewelry.
West coast jade, or pounamu, is highly revered among the Maori people and has become an important Kiwi icon. At several workshops in town, you can watch artisans carve raw greenstone into beautiful works of art. We dropped into quite a few pounamu shops, but I was particularly inspired by a visit to a small enterprise down by the beach. The proprietor patiently explained the Maori symbolism sculpted into the multitude of gemstones on display, and walked me through her shop. Since she was a member of the local iwi, she had access to one of the highly coveted local greenstone quarries. While she ran the retail business up front, her brother and cousin carved her merchandise in the back of the shop. I was especially taken with a pendant carved in a quasi-traditional Manaia shape. It featured the stylized head of a bird, the body of a man, and a dolphin-finned koru for a tail. The Manaia symbolizes a spiritual guardian that protects travellers in the air, on the land, and on the sea. It seemed like an appropriate talisman considering that several bus rides, a notoriously rough ferry crossing, and a trans-oceanic flight separated me from my distant home. Later outside, while Cathy and Sally gave my new travelling companion their seal of approval, I was thrilled by the jade’s milky translucence in the midday sun.
After lunching at a local café, we travelled north along the spectacular coastal highway to Paparoa National Park. There were two activities on our itinerary, and our guides suggested we check out the Pancake Rocks while the tide was high. Located near the village of Punakaiki, the Pancake Rocks are odd-looking sedimentary limestone outcroppings that are constantly under attack by the crashing ocean surf. A series of paved walkways among the rocks reveals the relentless power of the Tasman Sea. Evidence of severe undercutting and erosion surrounded us, while saltwater jetted out of blowholes between the rocks.
The 30-minute loop through Pancake Rocks wasn’t particularly strenuous, so our clan of avid hikers crossed the road and set off on the Punakaiki – Pororari Loop. The trail follows the south bank of the Pororari River for a few kilometres, climbs over a 200-metre ridge, and returns to Punakaiki via the south end of the Inland Pack track. I walked the first half of the 11 km loop trail with Colin and Sally, marveling at the verdant forest and lush undergrowth.
Realizing that this would be my last official hike of the Rimu tour, I lollygagged at the summit simply to immerse myself in the sounds of the rainforest. The bellbirds and tuis serenaded me for a few minutes, but then I heard a creature approaching through the woods. Before I could guess at what it might be, a black feral goat galloped out of the ferns, saw me, turned right and bolted down the trail. In stark contrast to my Rocky Mountain hikes back home, this solitary goat would be the only wild ungulate I would encounter on my entire Kiwi adventure. New Zealand truly lives up to its reputation as “the land without teeth”.
A moment or two later, Bil and Cam and Cathy caught up with me and we finished our last true hike together. We stopped for some photos at the swinging bridge over the Punakaiki River, and walked up the highway to our motel at Razorback Point. After getting checked into our various accommodations, we enjoyed a simple bowl of pre-dinner nacho chips with a million dollar view. From our picnic table, we watched the waves crash into Pancake Rocks about a kilometre away.
Dinner this evening was a delightful feast of fish and chips down at the local tavern. The six of us forty-something ‘youngsters’ sat together, and for the first time in a long time I didn’t feel like a fifth wheel at a dinner table. Plus I finally got a chance to buy my new friends a round of drinks – long-overdue reciprocity for all the beers that Colin had been ‘forcing’ me to drink with him for the past week and a half. A few pints of Speight’s later, our little crew were definitely the liveliest table in the joint. The battered hoki was excellent, and the proprietors even scavenged a bottle of malt vinegar for my English friends and I to enjoy on our chips. With bellies stuffed, it was back to the bus for the short journey up the hill. Somehow our tour guide read my mind, and graciously let a couple of us work off some excess carbohydrates with a fifteen-minute sunset saunter on Punakaiki Beach.
Back at the motel, with the endless sound of the surf just beyond my open windows, I slept like a hibernating bear. It was another perfect ending to yet another day in paradise.
Song of the Day: “Take a Walk” by Split Enz