Punakaiki is a small village on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It is located between Westport and Greymouth on State Highway 6, the only through-road on the West Coast. Punakaiki is immediately adjacent to Paparoa National Park, and is also the access point for a popular visitor attraction, the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes.
The coastal caves and overhangs of the area bear traces of seasonal Māori occupation, and by the time Europeans arrived the area was the home of the Ngāti Waewae people, a hapū of Kai Tahu, who traded much-prized pounamu.
Early European explorers navigating the coast encountered sheer cliffs at Te Miko, navigable only by climbing ladders totalling 46 feet high (or so Haast estimated) made of harakeke and rotting rātā vine. Charles Heaphy noted in 1846 that "…as several of the rotten steps gave way under our feet, our position was far from being pleasant. A number of cormorants and other marine birds, too, that had their nests in the crevices of the rock were screaming and wheeling about us at the intrusion." During the gold rush of the 1860s these were replaced by chain ladders, soon known as "Jacob's Ladder", but the wooden rungs were destroyed by overuse, and travellers slid down the chains instead or jammed sticks into the links.
There was, however, an inland trail crossing a higher terrace through rātā forest; prospector William Smart was guided through it by local Māori to avoid the "rotten" ladders. By October 1866, the authorities had cut a track to avoid the ladders, but it soon degenerated into a morass. In 1867, under-employed "diggers"(prospectors) were used to cut the "Razorback Road", now known as the Inland Pack Track, to avoid the coast completely, heading up the Fox River, south through rough hill country, and emerging at the mouth of the Punakaiki River. The route which linked Cobden, north of Greymouth, with the gold workings at Brighton on the mouth of the Fox River, cost perhaps £10,000 and was completed by October 1867, but was not a success: it required too many river crossings that were difficult in times of flood, and after the gold rush ended and the diggers moved on it fell into disrepair. In January 1873, the Grey River Argus called the road "perfectly useless" and it was little-used after the 1870s.
Travellers who crossed Te Miko plateau stopped at the Pororari River lagoon, and waited for low tide to cross the mudflats (while avoiding quicksand). A dry limestone overhang on the north side of the lagoon was a convenient place to wait, and became known as the "Post Office", because diggers would leave messages and carve their names into the walls. As late as 1931, graffiti like "Sandy 1866" and "Hamilton Nov 20/65" were still visible.
After crossing the present-day site of Punakaiki, the path went over the Dolomite Point headland and down to Punakaiki River. There is no record of early travellers noticing or commenting on the Pancake Rock formations, which are only 15 minutes off the track, and Māori do not seem to have pointed them out to early European explorers. Those heading south to the diggings at Canoe Creek still had to navigate the Razorback, navigating a narrow path between a deep chasm on one side and a sheer drop to the beach on the other. A vehicular road was not built here until 1929, finally connecting Greymouth and Westport.
In 2018, the remnants of Cyclone Fehi caused severe damage to the road immediately north of Dolomite point. Improvements costing $7.8 million were completed by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency to provide more resilience to this section of State Highway 6.