Travels in New Zealand: to Nelson via Pancake Rocks

March 26, 2017 • 10:30 am

On the way to Nelson two days ago, we passed through Paparoa National Park on the west coast of the South Island, one of New Zealand’s smallest national parks. It’s famous for its limestone geological formations, nearby blue penguins (I didn’t see any) and the rock blowholes, where the sea violently enters the caverns it’s carved, sending up huge plumes of spray. I haven’t time to describe the scenery in detail, but here are some photos.

Here’s where you’ll find Paparoa National Park (red dot):

Below is the nīkau (Rhopalostylis sapida), the only palm tree native to New Zealand, and one that shows pronounced geographic variation, though I’m not sure that variation has a genetic component. It’s a lovely tree with a green swelling (“crownshaft”) atop the trunk. The Maori ate the inner parts and used the leaves for weaving baskets and mats, as well as thatching roofs.

Here are the flowers. which sprout from near the base:

New Zealand flax (Phormium spp.; there are two species, one endemic). Its tough fibers were used by the Maori to make textiles, mats, baskets, sandals, and many other products. 

The rocks along the shore are called “pancake rocks” because they occur in prominent layers; they’re ancient limestone that has been uplifted. As the New Zealand Department of Conservation notes:

The Pancake Rocks are most spectacular in the Putai area. They were formed 30 million years ago from minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants landed on the seabed about 2 km below the surface. Immense water pressure caused the fragments to solidify in hard and soft layers. Gradually seismic action lifted the limestone above the seabed. Mildly acidic rain, wind and seawater sculpted the bizarre shapes.

You can see the layers on the rocks to the left (the Kiwis do eat pancakes, too; they’re very common):

More pancake rocks:

The layers are clearly visible:

A blowhole, quiescent

A blowhole, with entering water spraying up:

If you look closely, you can see fanciful figures in this formation, including a lion on the right about to prey on the figures to the left:

The surrounding forest:

The cabbage tree (Cordyline australis), a monocot endemic to New Zealand but now planted around the world:

Here’s a cabbage tree photo from Wikipedia:

And in the national park visitors center, you’ll find more invasive Australian brush-tailed possum skins for sale. It’s a great pity that these animals must be exterminated to save New Zealand’s unique fauna (they’re cute), but there’s no alternative if we want to preserve the products of millions of years of evolution. It’s either them or the possum!

57 thoughts on “Travels in New Zealand: to Nelson via Pancake Rocks

  1. You are going to some lovely places! And yes, it is a great pity about the possum – even in Australia where the possum is protected, New Zealanders hate them (though so do a lot of Australians – bothered muchly by the wonderfully heavy and noisy wee beasties in their roofs!).
    Are you going to get to see a kakapo? A kiwi (very shy little things, I understand)?

    1. I think we had a possum in our roof (in Auckland) for a while. Either that or a cat or a big rat.

      At least I hope it was, otherwise it was a Thing That Goes Bump in the Night and I don’t want to meet one of them. 😉

      The other legend about possums is that, when surprised on the ground, their impulse is to climb the nearest thing and that could include you; this is not good as they have very sharp claws. Or so the story goes.


    1. When I stayed in a hotel on my way to the caves, I saw pukeko across the street so maybe Jerry will get a 2 for 1!

      1. He’ll probably find it hard to avoid Pooks (pukekos). They’re everywhere. They’re one native bird that has adapted quite well to ‘civilisation’. They seem to live anywhere there’s scrub adjacent to water, and that includes railway and highway embankments and the ‘waste land’ you get around harbour edges.

        Of course, if the saga of the keas is any precedent, Pook Central will probably issue orders to hide when Jerry comes into view…


  2. I hope you get to see a weta, Jerry. I never saw one in the wild but I was a little afraid because one bit my aunt when she was a kid & left a scar.

    1. Ooooh, wetas! My favorites. And they come in lots of varieties, including some that don’t bite. Yes, Jerry is well advised to try and see one. Most are nocturnal so you will need to go out at night with a headlamp or flashlight.

      When I’ve been in New Zealand I have been surprised at how little weta-related merchandise there is. You can find kiwis on everything from coffee mugs to key chains, but I searched in vain for one lousy weta tea towel . . .

      1. Ha ha! The only weta I saw was one that was in an amber-like bubble for sale in the Museum in Auckland.

        1. They creep me out because they are so f@#ing big. And ugly. And they have yuuge jaws. They live under bark and holes in the centre of tree branches. We occasionally get one in our garden.

          When I was young I was helping a surveyor clear a sight line in tea-tree scrub, I hacked off a 1″ ‘trunk’ with my slasher and a big weta instantly popped out and sat there a few inches from my face. Our surveyor reckoned he knew exactly what had happened when he heard the scream of surprise and alarm. Took me years to get over my aversion for tea-tree.


          1. Slander and lies! Well, alternative weta facts, anyway. They are not all big! Some are slender and lovely. And anyway, with the big ones there is just more to love!

            1. Well, the one that made me scream wasn’t slender and lovely. Feel free to love it, it’ll have your finger off!


              Okay, I’ll admit, they’re not usually aggressive. I find them slightly scary but I don’t hate them. (There’s far more to hate about wasps).


              1. P.S. It’s not just their jaws, they look like they’ve got a ginormous sting in their tail – which I think is not actually a sting at all. (But if I’m wrong I don’t wish to find out).


              2. It’s probably an ovipositor so you were looking at a lovely, lovely lady weta.

    2. You can see plenty of wētā at Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington (a must) in “wētā hotels” – little boxes with perspex (lucite) windows – in the trees. Or on Mātiu (Somes Island) in the middle of Wellington Harbour, only a 2 minute ferry trip. Both also have tuatara, but you can also almost always see those in a cage in the Von Zedlitz Building of Victoria University of Wellington on Kelburn Parade. The cage is one floor up, near the overbridge.

      (I used to post as Shuggy, but WordPress is being awkward. I hope to meet you in Wellington)

  3. Marvelous pictures! The quiescent blowhole formation has a trail with people going over the land bridge. I would be leery of crossing that, as it will collapse one day.

  4. There may be no alternative to reducing possum populations, but surely there are alternatives to skinning them and selling their pelts as souvenirs. It seems short-sighted of conservationists to encourage trade in animal parts in this instance while simultaneously trying to eradicate it elsewhere.

    1. Selling the skins is an attempt to make killing them economic and for people to collect the carcasses once they’re poisoned.

      They also spread disease to farm animals, especially TB to cattle, as well as decimating the native bird population. Their bite kills some plants too. I had a rose garden murdered by possums when I lived in the country. They loved eating the rose buds, but their bite soon poisoned the plants.

      I had a boyfriend who hunted possums years ago. He didn’t realize they had a different attitude to them in Australia. (He didn’t realize a lot of things, but that’s another story.) We think of them like rats. On a visit there (no, I wasn’t with him) he was walking through a park and saw one and tried to kill it by stomping on its head. He was immediately stopped of course. He said something like, “I was surprised it stood still for me.”

    2. I think most NZers would be happy enough to see the trade in possum skins die out as long as it meant that the possums were gone – as it is, it helps fund extermination.

    3. I don’t know about the brushtail opossums, but some species considered ‘threatened’ in their home range may become an ‘invasive alien’ in other areas.
      Eg. Thar goats are considered ‘endangered’ , but as a pest in other areas. They have recently been all but eradicated from Table Mountain as ‘invasive aliens’. Same, probably even more so, goes for some plants.

    4. The estimate is that possums consume 21,000 tonnes of vegetation per night. The major control on possums is through intensive poisoning programmes. 1080 is used and is effective despite a small vocal minority protest. Sometimes there is the argument that we should just trap them. However that ignores a) the practical impossibility to control over the NZ topography. Some islands and mainland islands have been cleared but large scale needs poison b) the ‘farming’ rather than control dilemma that trapping brings. Some trapping on the margins for the fur trade is inconsequential but at least provides ‘ethical’ fur. Further research support for the magical eradication bullet is needed.

      1. Again, I recognize the need for control measures of some kind. It’s the concept of “ethical fur” I find dubious.

        People of my parents’ generation dreamed of wearing dead animal pelts as a sign of social status. Many people of later generations have come to regard that as grotesque and barbaric, and that’s usually considered a sign of moral progress.

        Now we’re being told that fur is OK after all, so long as it’s from a species that people hate. To me this just seems to muddy the ethical waters, and to no good purpose if as you say the fur trade is economically insignificant.

        1. Don’t disagree – ethical’ was in recognition of the dubious dilemma. The fur trade is more ecologically (cf. economically) insignificant, except on some forest margins.

          But if you want a real villain in NZ it is the mustelids (stoats/ferrets/weasels). Wipe those evil f***ers out!

  5. “…including a lion on the right about to prey on the figures to the left.”

    Well the eagle seems pissed about that, but the dinosaur is napping and the frog is just grinning like an idiot. By the way, I think the mailman at the lion household might have been a gorilla. Just sayin’.

  6. Someone mentioned pukeko… they should be easy to find. Another bird not to miss is the weka,
    not to be confused with weta… but you have surely seen many of those.

  7. If and when in Wellington, try a visit to Zealandia. It’s a native animal sanctuary right in the city (about a square mile around a couple of former reservoirs). You can definitely see weta – they have a weta house – and friends who were just there say they have a takahe, which would be very difficult to see otherwise. Lots of other birds also, including kiwi. Pukeko are common; lots of places to see them, and the countryside around Waitomo might have them.
    NZ does have pancakes, but a NZ pancake – at least when I was a child – is a USian flapjack, and a USian pancake (“silver dollar pancake”, say) is a NZ pikelet: same batter, different size, more or less.
    Fallen nikau leaves are great for sitting on/in to slide down a hill: the base to sit in, and the fronds to provide some rotational stability.

      1. AND they have giant wetas, or at least they did when I was there.

        (Not giving up on the weta-charisma front.)

  8. Wasn’t there some American folk hero who wore a hat made with one of those tails hanging down the back? A potential export market?

    1. “Gawd danged Beverley Hills! There ain’t a possum shank to be bought around here at any price.” Granny Clampett

  9. Astonishing how many species are called “cabbage tree” all over the world. Also astonishing how none of them look anything like cabbage…

    1. A 4.4 at 63km depth? With respect, that’s just a hiccup. I doubt anyone much felt it, even in Paraparaumu. (To put it in perspective – there’s a 5 somewhere in the world every three days on average).

      4.4 aftershocks were felt in Christchurch after its quake – lots of them – but they were much shallower.

      If you want the full list of what’s been going on in the rumbly nether regions of the Shaky Isles go here:


        1. OK. I had assumed that at that depth, it might not manifest much on the surface (but I’m no expert).

          Geonet now gives its depth as 53km and magnitude 4.8, also MM intensity as ‘moderate’.


  10. The first time I saw a palm inflorescence (in Costa Rica) I thought it was some fungal parasite. 😀

    1. I don’t think varying water pressure would affect the density of the alluvium being laid down, since (in a saturated ‘soil’ such as this would be) the pressure would act equally all round the grains. So the water pressure couldn’t ‘squeeze’ the layers as such.

      A pressure gradient – that is to say, water flowing through the layers – could certainly have an effect, but it’s a little difficult to imagine how that could arise.


    2. I’d guess some sort of cycle causing dips and peaks in the number of organisms that comprise the layers. Probably something that causes nutrients to peak periodically causing a “bloom.” Weather, up-wellings, currents or some combination.

  11. The Māori name for the area, Punakaiki, is not as you might think back-formed from “Pancake”. Alternnatively Punakaikai. Puna, a pool or spring; kai, food. Probably, a spring where food is plentiful.

Leave a Reply