New Zealand is a geological wonderland featuring a range of fascinating formations – some as old as time, some more recent arrivals.
Smooth round spheres or squished pancake stones, New Zealand boasts all manner of rocky curiosities that make visitors scratch their heads. What are they? How did they form? Here’s a brief guide to some of the country’s most interesting and otherworldly arrangements.
Dinosaur Eggs, Kaikōura
The 2016 Kaikōura earthquake unearthed a cluster of previously unseen stones. The size of beach balls, these newest kids on the geological block have been dubbed “dinosaur eggs”. Part of the uplifted seabed at Gooch’s Beach, the boulders are concretions – distinctive masses of mineral material that have embedded themselves in sedimentary rock. Some are cracked in two while others are perfect spheres. One thing is certain: they were not apparent before the mighty November shake. The question on all the locals’ lips is will these stony orbs give New Zealand’s famous Moeraki Boulders a run for their money?
Kaikōura is about 200km north of Christchurch and 155km south of Picton on the South Island. Most visitors come for the town’s famous seafood (Kaikōura means ‘eat crayfish) and to spot whales, dolphins, seals and shorebirds. The Southern Alps meet the ocean here, and the region is welcoming year-round. Gooch’s Beach, a stony bay popular among surfers, is a short distance from the Kaikōura Esplanade.
Split Apple Rock, Tasman Bay
Created via a process known as ice wedging, this whopping nugget of granite is shaped a little bit like an apple that’s been cut in half – hence the name. Historically, Māori people explained the oddity with a tale that involved two mighty gods fighting over who owned the rock. To settle the matter, they chopped it in half. Resting on a boulder pile that seemingly floats on the sea about 50m off the beach between Kaiteriteri and Marahau, this wonder (called Tokangawhā in Māori) is accessible by foot or kayak and, when the tide is out, you can even wade over and peer directly into its core.
Tasman Bay, near Nelson at the top of the South Island, is a tourist hotspot – the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park and home to all manner of hikes, cycling adventures and wildlife. Visit any time, though the cooler months between April and October mean less people and more peace.
Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki West Coast
Punakaiki’s layered Pancake Rocks were formed 30 million years ago from the penetration of marine creatures and plants into submerged limestone by extreme water pressure. Over time, seismic activity lifted the limestone above the seabed, and acid rain, wind and waves further sculpted the striated stone. When the tide is high and the sea is rough, some of the rocks become gushing blowholes. Make time for the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk, which takes about 30 minutes.
Punakaiki is between Greymouth and Westport on the South Island west coast. From Christchurch drive through the Southern Alps via Arthur's Pass or take the spectacular TranzAlpine scenic rail journey into Greytown and pick up your car from the handy Hertz rental car desk in the railway station. The road between Greymouth and Westport was rated one of the world’s top 10 coastal drives by Lonely Planet. If you’re not in a hurry, spend a night at Punakaiki Beach Camp, where the stargazing is out of this world. There are also walks, glow worms and the Pancake Rocks Cafe, which serves delicious food – yes, even pancakes.
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula
Known to Māori people as Te Whanganui-a-Hei, this stunning natural formation near Hahei Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula is accessed via a relatively easy 2.5km walk. The cove features dramatic coastal scenery and an archway that frames a giant sea stack (which stars in countless photos). With towering white cliffs that burst out of the earth during an eruption some 8 million years ago, Cathedral Cove is named for its photogenic triangle-shaped cave. From the car park, the walk takes about 90 minutes return, though you’ll want to spend the better part of the day here.
Hahei is a roughly two-hour drive east of Auckland. Besides hiking in Cathedral Cove, visitors can snorkel at the magnificent marine reserve off Gemstone Bay, kayak, take a boat tour or soak at heavenly Hot Water Beach. Take food and drinks with you, or try one of the delightful cafes at Hahei when you’re tuckered out.
Elephant Rocks, North Otago
Discovered on a private farm in North Otago, 5km from Duntroon, these sizable limestone rocks – some 10m wide – squat in the green grass like animals. If you didn’t have your glasses on, you’d be forgiven for mistaking them for elephants. At least if you squint. Access is via an easy five-minute walk, whereupon visitors wonder how these permanent pieces found their way into this paddock. It’s also refreshing that the farmer hasn’t chosen to charge admission so long as visitors respect the rocks and the stock.
A 40-minute drive from historic Oamaru on the South Island (today also known as the steampunk capital of New Zealand), tiny Duntroon is home to Vanished World, a facility that shares the magic of the area’s fossilised charms. The Māori rock drawings Takiroa are also in the region, as is the Alps 2 Ocean cycleway, which passes Elephant Rocks.