Backpacking Pensioners travel blog

A view from the lookout on the way to Westport

On the Chasam walkway

Coal trucks at Denniston

At the top of the incline before going over the edge

Denniston with the clouds rolling in

A picture of the incline when it was in operation

A view on the road to Punakiki

The beach by our camp site

The Chimney Pot Blowhole

Putai Blowhole and Pancake Rocks

Stacks of pancakes

The Blowholes and walkway

View from the Pancake Rocks

Looking towards the Pancake Rocks

Jeff's Comments

After saying several goodbyes and promising to visit our new friends Keith and Heather when we pass by Christchurch in a few months time, we set off down the coastal plain to cross the big hills. Initially Karamea was serviced by boats visiting the deep anchorage in the natural harbour. The Murchison earthquake of 1929 caused the harbour to silt up and cut the community's rough road for 2 years before the work programme of using spare labour during the depression, repaired the road. One person told us the 1960's earthquake had done them a good service by again damaging the road as they would probably have waited a long while for the present very good road.

Our journey through the hills was pleasurable and we had good views from near the high point at the one and only pull in spot. By the time we reached the plains on the Westport side I had counted 216 bends of various lengths from our first upward slope of the journey. After taking a 40 minute time out to walk about 1 ½ miles up and down the 'Chasm Creek Walkway', a pleasant stroll along a river, we carried on to our next destination of Denniston. This had been a major coal mining town and now little remains due to most of the buildings having been relocated on the plains, or destroyed.

The Denniston Incline is a major part of New Zealand's Engineering Heritage and in its time was classed as the 8th wonder of the world. Long before a road was made up the hill, rails had been laid and coal wagons carrying 12 tons were hurtling down the hill; each one pulling an empty wagon back up the hill in the manner of the present day Funicular Railways. Because of the rough nature of the terrain, the track was in two parts with men unhooking the wagon at the end of the first length, (the steepest track), and pushing it round to the start of the second length of track. The logistics of the operation were very involved and timing was everything.

From 1880 to 1967 12,600,000 tons of coal were taken from the mountains and transported down the Denniston Incline which was 1 in 1 ¼ at its steepest parts. In the early days the only access to or from the town was either walking alongside the steep rail track, riding up inside an empty wagon, in a heap at the back, or ridding down by hanging onto the back of a full wagon; down the almost vertical drop which was 1 ¼ miles long; the ultimate white knuckle ride. There are records of some miners wives having never left the mountain top during the first 20 years of operation. A Bridal Track in 1884, (a 2 hour walk), made the journey much safer, and a road in 1902 was a big boon to the town.

Our road travelled up 2,000 feet in just over 5 miles and around another 74 bends, so I suppose we must have done about the same amount on the way down. The local clouds were clinging to the hills and it was not difficult to imagine the old town being covered by clouds for three days at a time. We parked near the old break drum and had lunch before braving the steady drizzle of rain and walking round the remnants of what had once been a massive labour intensive very well organised operation. A look over the edge where the wagons had begun the hair raising descent to the plain below showed a murky coastline way down beneath us. During the time of operation 56 people were killed and there were no records of the many people who must have been injured.

In 1887 the town of Denniston had 3 hotels, a post office, 4 general stores, 3 butchers, 3 bakers, to service 500 residents. Other towns were also in these mountains and they sent coal to the incline for transportation to sea level. It was hard to imagine; fortunately the history of the area is well documented in books and film. I took my last photographs at the top as cloud began to move in around us. Once down the mountain it was like being back in another world from the one we had just invaded for a short while.

At Westport we sought out a shop recommended to us by Chris, our Karamea guide at the Honeycomb Caves, and bought some walking boots. We had initially expected to buy boots in Australia and the dry walking weather made this unnecessary. We then visited the bike repair shop and learned we could collect our bikes tomorrow morning. Our camp this night is in Westport. At the camp was an 18 hole mini golf course which was at a discounted price to customers of the site. A challenging course. Some of the distances between tee and hole were lined with rough stone; our ball could go any where and frequently did. The result was a draw and our contest will continue around NZ.

Saturday. Our first task was to collect our bicycles and re-install them on the back of the van which has looked naked without them. We then filled up with fuel and visited the Mine Museum which was a very interesting place. In one room we watched a DVD about Denniston and the fabled 'incline' which lasted about 45 minutes. There was a lot of authentic black and white film footage, and interviews with retired workers and some who had lived in the town of Denniston. It was an interesting film. In another room was a film about logging in the area; we only had time to watch about 10 minutes of this.

One wall display gave a lot of information about the medical facilities. Someone had put amongst the copies of documents on the wall, a list of hospital rules which was signed by Ivor Boil. The ones I liked best were: - Stretcher cases must not be left in the luggage room; Doctors must refrain from fighting with the patients; If it moves, massage it; Do not use the laundry chute for emergency cases; If anyone complains about the food, drip feed them; Buckets of cold water must not be thrown over patients with high temperature; Do not give male patients sexy books to read after a circumcision operation.

Before leaving the Westport area we had a late lunch at the car park of the seal colony to the south of Cape Foulwinds, before watching the seals for our last time. Today the tide was in and there were not as many seals basking on the rocks. We were treated to the spectacle of several seals entering the pounding waters and swimming through the waves to the open sea; also a few seals returned from the sea to the rocks below us.

Tearing our selves away from the seal colony, we continued on our journey south to tonight's destination of Punakaiki where the famous Pancake Rocks and blowholes are. I had never heard of the Pancake Rocks but it seems I may have seen pictures of them on calendars, a TV commercial, or in the amazing movie, "Walking With Dinosaurs". We put off our viewing until tomorrow and visited the Inn nearby to our camp site before leaving to make our evening meal. Once again we were lulled to sleep by the pounding waves near by, to dream of the coast line views we have experienced today.

Sunday. After a lazy morning we tried out our new walking boots and walked the ¾ mile route up the hill at 1 pm to view the Pancake Rocks. The blow holes would be at their best as this was the time of 'high tide'. The Pancake Rocks are made of limestone and were formed under the sea 35 million years ago. Scientists have been unable to precisely say how the rocks came to be in layers. The walk along the observation walkway was very interesting. There were a number of areas on the sea side of the rocks where the blow back of the water from underneath the cliffs could be observed, and there were blow holes spouting spray through openings on the land side of the cliffs. It was no surprise to us to learn passing bus trips and many travellers stop at this spot to visit Pancake Rocks.

At the base of the hill leading up to the Pancake Rocks was a cave. We returned to our van, got a torch, and went to explore the cave. It soon became obvious that one torch between us was not sufficient, but I was stupid enough to believe that I could manage without. On a wet slope my feet went backwards whilst my body went forwards. I expected to loose my good looks by acquiring a broken nose and black eye, however, despite feeling my face hit the rock, it was unmarked. The force of the fall was taken by the very top of my right arm at the shoulder joint, and I lost a few teeth, from my comb. I was very lucky despite having a very sore right arm which I could not lift. It's a good job we carry a willing, competent experienced spare driver. Tonight I need a sledge hammer to lull me to sleep.


Before leaving Karamea I was shown a copy of a poem named, 'Don't take a Pommy Whitebaiting'. I have re-written the poem into the third person so that I can tell the tale about these small, very thin translucent fish, (like thin worms really), as we travel.

Jack is a Kiwi hunting guide for shooting and fishing too,

He's taken lots of blokes around, from way across the blue,

And even some whitebaiting, cos that's a line of work,

But once he met a champion, a champion Pommy burke.

Receding chin and monocle, a funny sort of bird,

Who said, "By Jove" and "Jolly Japes, I'm Elworthy the third,

I wish to catch some Whitebait", Jack said, "Yer got a net".

He said, "Oh no, I've used my rod, but haven't caught one yet".

Jack knew he had a right one, but sorted out some gear,

And took him to a possie, said, "You're sure to get some here".

He told him what to look for, and showed him how to do it,

Tof said, "By jove, that's top hole"; Jack said, "There's nothing to it".

Well, he net near twenty pounds, and Jack helped to lift it in,

And showed him how to slip the knot, and tip em in the bin.

Elworthy looked through monocle, and true as guide's name's Jack,

Said, "Golly gosh, they're all too small", and chucked the buggers back.

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