When I was staying at Greymouth I had done a short bus tour up the coast to Punakaiki and the pancake rocks. On the same afternoon trip I also went further up to the Truman Track and the little beach that it leads to. While I was doing those things I was dreading Rebekka spotting me being a tourist, especially as she was staying at Punakaiki at the time, but she would not have seen me because at exactly the same time she was walking the Pororari River Track. In Rotorua and earlier in Christchurch she had told me that it was a wonderful walk and that I had missed something very special by not doing it. Here was my chance to check it out for myself and make amends. It had rained quite heavily during the night so I was prepared for anything, though it was a fine morning as I set off.
The coast road down from Westport was great fun to drive, full of twists and turns, hairpin bends and sheer drops. (Obviously, I didn’t negotiate all of those things.) It seemed that very little traffic used the road, which allowed for an even more pleasant journey. It did not take me long to get down to Punakaiki. I pulled into the small car park next to a kayaking business at the start of the track. I could already feel from my surroundings that I was somewhere extraordinary. The path first went under the road bridge I had just driven over. Up along the river I could see massive limestone cliffs on either side, the lower portions of which were covered in, what were now firmly set in my vocabulary as, broccoli trees.
The river itself was shallow and not very fast flowing and the water was the colour of weak tea, without milk and, probably, sugar. From the point that I walked across the corner of a small meadow and through a kissing gate to begin the track proper, I was in total awe of what I was seeing, I was in wonderland. It was suddenly as if I had an entire rain forest to myself. There was not very much bird life but it was still fairly early on a wet morning and they had probably decided on a lie in after a disturbed night. I was walking through a forest of nikau palms, tree ferns, flax, cabbage trees and a thousand other varieties of tree I had no names for, as well as delicately coloured mosses and other ground cover. The path followed the southern river bank very closely and there were wonderful views of gigantic limestone boulders which must have, at some time, tumbled off the cliffs, landing with an enormous series of splashes. They made a striking contrast with the pebbly river bed. Huge fallen trees lay amongst the boulders covered in vegetation, forming a new habitat for some very enterprising plants.
The path was quite muddy and slippery in places and it was not always easy to negotiate some of the stony sections. It would occasionally rise above the river opening up stunning views along it to the next bend. Mosses hung down, draped around the limbs of overhanging trees. I saw a Paradise shelduck paddling its way purposefully downstream, its white head standing out against the browns all around it. And still the cliffs soared on either side, hemming the river and the forest into a tight gorge. At one point the path found its way through a collection of fallen boulders forming a cave with a very eerie feel to it. Then it got back to following the river bank and making its way through the forest’s edge.
I had seen no-one at all on my gentle, awe filled walk upstream but could now hear noises up ahead. It had mystified me as to why there had been little or no birdlife, particularly when Rebekka had told me about all the birds she had seen. Now I began to understand the reason. The path gently parted company with the river and joined the Inland Pack Track, and at the junction there was a party of school children with their minders. They must have numbered about forty in total and were making enough noise to frighten off even the least shy of New Zealand’s feathered fauna. Unfortunately they moved off along the path I had intended taking at this junction, so I followed the other one for a few minutes to let them get ahead. I saw a small bird happily hopping among some leaves, I thought it was a young blackbird at first and then again it might have been a tomtit, but it had a white blaze on its chest, so it must have been a South Island robin, a fact confirmed when I checked it out in a book of New Zealand birds some time later. I took a photograph of it as it pecked around for food, turning over dead leaves for the goodies they concealed.
After a few more minutes I retraced my steps back to the junction and continued along the way I had planned, knowing full well what lay ahead of me in one respect. I actually got quite a way before I caught the school party up again. They were being told about some of the trees and the wild things that lay around them. This was at a point where the path forded a stream and I saw it as an ideal place to turn around and go back the way I had come. I could have forged on past them but they would probably have laughed at my shorts and my mud spattered legs and I wasn’t really up to taking that kind of abuse after the very special hour or so I had spent getting to that point.
Rebekka had been right, this was probably the most beautiful walk I had made of all the ones I had done in New Zealand so far. It had everything, amazing vegetation, a languid lazy river (on this day at least), rocks and cliffs in abundance and the wonderful gentle smells and sounds of the forest; especially the smells. For more than an hour I had felt that I was the only person alive in the Paparoa National Park and that I was seeing nature for the first time, all over again. I had gazed in wonder at the trees and plants around me, at the tea stained river and the giant, angular rocks. I had looked up and up at the soaring cliffs and marvelled at their majesty. I did not mind in the least that the school party was there, they were having a lesson in the most exciting, enthralling and beautiful classroom in the world. Good on them.
On my way back downstream I met several people making their way along the path. I didn’t warn them about the beautiful things they would see; they could discover them for themselves without any help from me. I have to say that the walk back was pretty impressive too. As I neared the end of the walk I could hear the sea in the near distance. When I got back to the car park I decided to take the five minute stroll to the beach. The Tasman Sea was pounding into the shore; mighty waves taller than me were crashing onto the long, sweeping beach. It seemed that nature, in all its forms was having a good day.
If you visit the pancake rocks, and I would implore you to do so, for all their touristy iconic status they are well worth seeing, spare some time to take in the Pororari River Track as well, it’s only another five hundred metres up the road to the north. It took me less than two hours to walk to the junction with the Inland Track and back and have ample time for all the eye-popping ‘let’s just stand and stare’ moments I needed. Do it for yourself, do it for Rebekka, do it for me and do it for Frodo, but do it. I believe that it is the best two hours you could spend in New Zealand without a glass in your hand.
On the way back to Westport I stopped off at the Truman Track and paid the tiny beach at the end of it a visit. It was somehow like going out of my way to call in on a friend. As the sea was having a more spectacular day than on my first visit in January the blowholes were doing more spectacular things with the resources they had been given. The tide was coming in and the beach was getting smaller, so I left it to the few tourists who were there and headed back along the track to the car.