Punakaiki to Charleston

Punakaiki to Charleston


Sheltered by the Paparoa Ranges and brushed by warm sea currents, Punakaiki thrives in a subtropical microclimate of its own. The landscape of the 38,000 hectare Paparoa National Park is like no other in the country, full of towering cliffs and fissured rock swathed in dense tracts of moss and fern-covered rainforest. A well-worn network of historic gold mining trails allows easy access up the spectacular river canyons, but days can be spent just checking out its secluded beaches and dramatic seascapes including the iconic Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Dolomite Point. You’ll find plenty of arts, crafts, and funky places to stay.

Punakaiki is the gateway to the dramatic limestone country of the Paparoa National Park. It lies halfway between Greymouth and Westport on one of the most spectacular coastal highways in New Zealand.

The Punakaiki township has a National Park Visitor Centre, café and tearooms, craft shop and plenty of car parking. The surrounding area is scattered with accommodation – upmarket hotel apartments, boutique bed & breakfasts, self-catering motel units, a campervan and camping ground, and backpacker accommodation.

Tourism activities include canoe adventures, horse trekking, caving and climbing to name just a few. Punakaiki has many colourful local crafts people – jewellers, carvers, painters and potters.

Within a few minutes drive of the Punakaiki township are many walks for various fitness levels – take a 10 minute stroll along the beach or equip yourself for a overnight trip into the heart of the National Park.

Punakaiki means (“a spring of food” to the Maori). It is likely that early Maori settlement of this area was relatively sparse and coastal because of the difficult and steep ranges inland but there is not a lot of archeological evidence to find, because of the erosion in this area.

The Pancake Rocks and Blowholes

The Pancake Rocks that Punakaiki is famous for, are limestone formations that began forming 30 million years ago, when lime-rich fragments of dead marine creatures were deposited on the seabed, then overlaid by weaker layers of soft mud and clay.

Paparoa National Park

Paparoa National Park was established in 1987, Paparoa National Park was one of the first to contain a large area of lowland temperature rainforest, including distinctive nīkau palms close to the coast.

The Coast Road

Punakaiki is located near the centre of the “Coast Road”, one of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world – in the top ten according to the Lonely Planet Guidebook. The roads are well sealed and to State Highway standard all the way. To allow time to stop and enjoy some of the walks and coastal views, we recommend allowing much longer than the drive times given in most travel guides.

The Westland Petrel

Following his 1945 radio talk about petrels, biologist Robert Falla was contacted by pupils from the Barrytown School to say that the birds in a nearby colony laid their eggs several months earlier than he had described. This led to the discovery of the unique Westland petrel, Procellaria westlandica, which is only known to nest in a small area between Punakaiki and Barrytown.

More information can be found on the Punakaiki Tourism Website.


Just twenty minutes south of Westport lies the historic gold mining township of Charleston. Here you can relax and take in primeval rainforest with ‘Underworld Adventures’ from the Rainforest Train and visit the glow worm caves, or for the adventurous experience the fun of tubing down the gentle rapids of the Nile River. More information can be found on the Underworld Adventures website.

The beautiful scenery in this area was used for filming the BBC’s Lost World dinosaur documentary. The galaxies of glow worms and incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations in one of New Zealand’s largest caves will astound you.

The beautiful Awakari Valley is the destination of ‘OutWest Tours’ 4WD backcountry tour ‘Johnny’s Journey’ where you will see red deer roaming free in their natural habitat and have a chat and a cup of billy tea with Johnny Curry, a backcountry character who lives ‘off the grid’ in the valley. More information can be found on the Outwest Tours website.

Tiny secluded bays, wild waves and short dramatic headland walks are centred around Constant and Joyce Bays.

This charming small settlement today is totally at odds with its wild past when it boasted over 80 hotels to service a thirsty population of goldminers from all over the world.

There are some beautiful walks here and river swimming, fishing, and a range of accommodation from motel type to backpackers, campground and beachfront holiday cottages. And don’t miss the old stamping battery at Mitchells Gully Gold Mine – it was specially designed to extract gold from iron sand – as most of the goldmining around here was exactly that, alluvial gold in black sand.  Most stamping batteries are used to crush quartz rock to extract the gold from the rock.

A short history of Charleston

From the junction of the Buller Gorge road southwards to Charleston, the road passes over a series of flat terraces. These flat areas were originally under the sea, and have gradually been uplifted over thousands of years. Concentrations of fine gold accumulated with black sand along ancient beaches. The area was swarming with gold prospectors in the 1860s and 1870s, and original forest was cleared. There is now little sign of mining activity except at Mitchells Gully mine, open as a tourist attraction, where old tunnels and mining machinery can be seen.

Founded as a gold-mining settlement, Charleston exploded to a population of about 2,200 in early 1868.

The birth of a national shoe business

The rugged country meant that shoes and boots constantly needed repair or replacement, and even small towns had a shoe shop. Robert Hannah opened his first shoe shop at Charleston in 1866. His business expanded, and he eventually became New Zealand’s largest shoe manufacturer and retailer. Hannahs is still a major nationwide shoe retailer.


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