There was a moment when I couldn’t feel my toes – when it was dark and I was standing waist-deep in cold river-water, balancing my bare, callous feet on mossy rocks kilometers away from civilization. It was in this moment that I wished I hadn’t dropped out of Boy Scouts. I wished I had a copy of Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s Junior Woodchuck Guidebook that seemed to have all the answers for sticky situations. I wished I wasn’t carrying the weight of a small child on my back. I was cold and wet and my destination eluded me. It was then that I wanted to slap myself for not listening to the lady at the Department of Conservation who warned me that this trail was closed – that the water levels were too high and the currents too strong for safe passage. She tried to tell me the conditions were generally unfavorable, tried to steer me towards another trail, but I didn’t drive all the way to Punakaiki to let a little red tape stop me from sleeping in the ballroom.
Most people come to Punakaiki to see this:
These famous “Pancake Rocks” are columns of limestone that began forming 30 million years ago when lime-rich fragments of dead marine life were deposited on the seabed and overlaid by weaker layers of soft mud and clay. The seabed rose above sea level in earthquakes and now these pillars stand like totem poles at watch over the Tasman Sea. The irregular complex is assembled like a palace conceived by Gaudi, continually battered and redesigned by the sea with the coming of high tide. Every formation is open to vast interpretation as a careful gaze steers the eyes to various shapes hidden in the rock.
The salty seawater pounds below and splashes skyward through blowholes towards camera-poised tourists above. The gently sloped, handicap-accessible path loops its way out to sea along the rim of the rocks and back again to the safety of the shore where welcoming cafes, capitalizing on their location, invite you to sit for a stack of pancakes. It’s neatly packaged, viewer-friendly, and easy. Most travelers driving south along the scenic coast on Highway 6 will stop for an hour, make this loop, eat some pancakes, and drive on, completely bypassing the beauty of greater Punakaiki and the Papora National Park.
Felipe and I made the loop with a gaggle of tourists and then headed north out of Punakaiki towards Westport along the hazy coast, past sandy beaches and rocky cliff. We stopped at a small car park on the north side of the bridge where the Fox River meets the Tasman. Packing my backpacker’s bag with all of our camping supplies and Felipe’s backpack with food and beverage, we set out.
After forty-five minutes heading away from the sea and into the forest, we approached the first of the three river crossings on the initial leg of the journey before the trail splits in two. One path followed a tributary to the left while the other went straight through the river at its widest point. Removing our shoes and socks we toddled across the Fox River. The first two crossings we had found “refreshing.” Halfway across the third, my feet went numb. Yet, this was a welcome change as it dulled the pain of the sharp rocks. When my feet emerged from the chilly water on the far bank, I felt the fuzzy fervor of returning blood.
The only other person we would see on this trail, the guy who built the fire that guided us to safety, wore a blue sweatshirt, a red Speedo, and a pair of Jesus Sandals. He had it all figured out. Crossing the first river, my pants were rolled just below my knee. By the second, they were around my thighs. Later on, I would not care where my pants lay on my leg. It didn’t matter. Wet jeans stay wet.
The Fox River carves its way through the lower hills of Paparoa National Park, an area known for it’s delicate caves and bizarre rock formations. When not crossing rivers or walking along the bank, the trial steered us up and down the cliffs that line this sharp limestone canyon. Water trickled down the sides of the muddy trail, cascading over the cliff into the river below.
The air was thick in the foggy forest, covering the remaining dry patches of my clothes in a thin layer of dew. As we turned off the Inland Pack Track towards the Ballroom Overhang, a sign warned that there was no longer a trail, “simply follow the river.” Though, there was nothing simple about following the river. Up until then, hand-sized orange triangles had guided us across rivers, around tricky turns, and through unmarked zones. Now, we were on our own to head up river, transferring from left to right bank as necessary to forge our way east.
After the 8th or 9th crossing (but who’s counting?) I kept my shoes off, gritting my teeth as I tiptoed from one stone to the next. My feet grew tough in the two years I lived barefoot in the Virgin Islands. Felipe’s were softer and he continued the routine of removing and reapplying his shoes. Certain transfers were made through strong currents where balance was tricky at best. One precarious step found our tent in the river.
It was getting dark and my lower body was soaked, my accommodation wet, and my spirit dampened. We began to give up hope of ever finding the ballroom as we forged onwards down a nonexistent path. Our prospects looked dim as darkness hastily engulfed the forest and Felipe thought it best that we turn around and, “head three rivers back. Remember that small overhang in the rock? We could sleep under there.” I did not want to sleep so close to the river with the swarming sand flies and I was fairly confident that we had not passed the massive structure, but my judgment was already in question for bringing us here in the first place. At my request, Felipe agreed to cross one more river to round a slight bend. If we saw nothing, I promised we would turn around.
I waited with the bags muttering unhappy thoughts as Felipe disappeared into the dark. When he reappeared at the far side of the river he was calling for me to cross. He had spotted the faint flicker of a distant fire. Pulling out the flashlights, we scrambled across the rocks as fast as our achy, battered feet would allow.
Had there been no fire, we would have certainly turned around, lost and defeated. Instead, we entered into the grandeur of the fire-lit Ballroom.
“You’re a little late!” The Italian welcomed us and helped unravel the wet tent to dry by the fire. Changing into dry clothes, we walked through the grassy null, marveling the impressive overhang, and reveling in the comfort of our massive limestone roof.
Laying on a blue tarp later on next to a bottle of wine and an array of breads and cheese I stared up into the depths of the stone dome asking Felipe, “I wonder what this looks like in the daylight? I don’t even care… right now, it’s perfect.” The radiance of the fire in the misty air lit the Ballroom in an amber haze while tiny glowworms twinkled on the rocky roof. The hardest journeys always have the best rewards.
Opening my thick eyelids the following morning, I rolled down the tent zipper to see the Speedo-clad Italian heading out into a heavy rain. Immediately, I zipped back up and returned to bed. The thought of putting on my wet jeans and crossing any more rivers was too much for this early hour.
Waking a few hours later, I talked myself into the journey with this decision… the shoes will stay on. I will slosh around, I will risk loosing these shoes, but the shoes will stay on through mud, puddle, and river. Instead of fighting the pain of large stones, I walked to the pinprick of tiny pebbles in the soles of my $100 hiking shoes. It was the best decision of the trip (although the shoes remain damp and contain an immovable odor).
The last leg of the trek back was done in the rain and when I reached the car, there was not a dry part on my body. If it was easy to get to the Ballroom, I may not have been so impressed. But, the fact that to get there took a great deal of effort and discomfort, made it all the more spectacular. Sometimes you ask yourself, why would I walk through rivers carrying a heavy load and get all my belongings muddy and dirty just to rest my head for a night and do it all over again? However, I think the fun of it is getting muddy and dirty and getting out of your everyday comforts. The destination is just the excuse for the journey.