Wharariki Beach was one of the highlights of our trip, but amazing as it was, we only had two weeks in New Zealand and had to keep moving. Our next destination was Hokitika, a small coastal town known for its beautiful emerald water gorge. And, as it happens, a grueling six hours drive from Wharariki. That’s problem with being this far north – no matter where you go after, you’re looking at a long and tiring journey. In situations like these I usually try to make a day-trip out of it, finding interesting stops along the way to split driving into shorter, more manageable chunks. So, should you consider making a similar voyage from Wharariki to Hokitika, here are the three spots I think are definitely worth a quick stop.
Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki
Our first stop was the famous Pancake Rocks. The fancy name conceals the coastal cliffs near the town of Punakaiki that somewhat resemble pancakes stacked on top of each other, their unique shapes and forms a result of years of ocean erosion. The sight is very easy to access with a large parking lot nearby. No climbing or hiking is necessary, as there is a walkway leading through the most interesting views.
Pancake Rocks are definitely interesting to explore for a while, but by themselves they are just that – rocks. And let’s be honest – rocks tend to get boring rather quickly. Here is the catch though – once you throw some waves into the mix, things get a lot more entertaining. You really want to be in Punakaiki at high tide – that’s when the ocean water starts to work its way up through a series of blowholes carved into the stone by centuries of the wave onslaught, creating huge fountains of spray on top. It is a really fascinating spectacle that makes the visit to Pancake Rocks that much more worthwhile.
As far as images go, I found Pancake Rocks more enjoyable to witness and contemplate rather than to photograph. It is a busy touristy destination and being confined by the boundaries of the walkway seriously limits one’s ability to find a compelling composition. It is also quite hard to get all the conditions exactly right. Ideally, you should be there at sunrise or sunset on a windy day with good light in the sky and high swell, which requires either incredible luck or a few repeat visits. To be honest, I am not sure this location is even worth so much trouble. My advice is to plan around the tide schedule and see what that gets you. If you really like the place, simply come back at a better time.
At first glance Motukiekie is a rather nondescript beach a little south from Punakaiki, but much like the previous location, it features various unique cliffs and rock formations that reminded me of Wharariki. In all other aspects though, it is a direct opposite of the Pancake Rocks. It is not touristy at all – in fact, most people probably know nothing of it. There is no dedicated parking or a walkway and the best time to be there is during low tide. All this makes Motukiekie beach ideal for those who want to enjoy incredible New Zealand coastline in solitude. In the right conditions it is also a great spot for seascape photography, as there is plenty of different compositions to play around with. You’ve got massive cliffs, hidden caves and more intimate small crevices, just take your pick!
But be warned – Motukiekie Beach is only fully accessible within two hours each side of the low tide. Therefore, careful timing is imperative here, as the most interesting part is about 30-40 minute walk from the entrance (we entered at a small unmarked parking lot alongside the road). Simply follow the coastline south and eventually you will reach all the magnificent cliffs and caves that bring back memories of Wharariki (although not so grandiose). If you decide to venture there, be sure to check the tide schedule and always be mindful of the surroundings. That is especially true for photographers, who often tend to forget such things in the midst of an intense photo shoot.
As you might have guessed by now, getting perfect conditions at this location is no easy feat. Motukiekie Beach works best for sunset, but only when it coincides with low water, which was not the case when I was there. To make matters worse, we were being late and almost immediately after our arrival, it started to rain. As weather showed no signs of improvement and was growing more miserable by the minute, we decided to call it an evening and head back to the car. Sadly, we never made it to the end of Motukiekie beach, so all I have is a couple of completely inadequate photos of the place. If I ever find myself back in New Zealand, this will definitely be one of the locations I will try to pay another visit to.
Coal Creek Falls
Those who ever decide to visit both Pancake Rocks and Motukiekie Beach in one day, will immediately recognize the problem. Though the two spots are rather close to each other, one is only good at high tide while the other works best at low tide. This means waiting for a few hours in between. Confronted with this very question I did some research and was able to discover another location nearby that is perfect for filling in that time. The Coal Creek Falls.
Coal Creek Falls are located just south of Motukiekie Beach and are accessible via an easy forest hike. Official site states that it would require an hour to complete each way, but I’m pretty sure we managed to do it in under 40 minutes. The track is well marked, easy to follow and quite pleasant. What never ceases to amaze me in New Zealand is how unlike the tropical island it feels, yet how similar to the jungle its forests are. The walk to the Coal Creek Falls is no different. In itself, it is an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself into a jungle-like experience and capture a few moody shots.
Better still, the reward awaiting at the end of the trail is quite remarkable in my opinion. Coal Creek Falls is an impressive series of waterfalls cascading into a small pond below. In summer, this is an excellent spot for a refreshing swim. The best part is that you will likely have it all to yourself. Honestly, in a beautiful place such as this whether you decide to take photos or simply enjoy a few quite moments listening to the sounds of flowing water, you won’t be disappointed.
Tired but content, we arrived to Hokitika just in time for sunset. The distance between Wharariki Beach and Hokitika is a lot to cover in one go, but the three locations in this article were plenty to occupy us for the entire day and make the long driving exercise much more tolerable. However, I’m sure there are many more amazing spots along the way and if you do happen to know any, please share them in the comments below. Both I and the fellow travelers will be really grateful if you do! And if you’d like even more details about the places that I shared in this article, check out my YouTube video from the location.