The Paparoa Track, the first new New Zealand Great Walk in two decades, opened earlier this year. Huw Kingston took to it by boot and bike.
Just before we dropped west off the escarpment on the second day of the walk, I peered under the cloud into a deep valley, the valley that held Pike River Mine.
The explosion at this mine 10 years ago trapped and killed 29 miners and remains one of the darkest days in modern New Zealand history. The Paparoa Track is a memorial created by DoC in partnership with the families of the Pike 29; a trail from tragedy.
The Paparoa is the first NZ Great Walk to be added in two decades, the 10th in total, and the first to be purpose-built. The trail winds through West Coast ranges set back from the town of Greymouth. With access via slow, winding mountain roads, West Coasters are renowned for their self-sufficiency and a stubborn spirit hewn from the mountains to their east and distilled from the wild Tasman Sea to their west.
En route to the southern trailhead at Smoko, you pass through Blackball town with its eclectic mix of businesses and buildings. Formerly The Blackball Hilton, a grand building run by the fabulously direct Cynthia, proudly displays a letter from lawyers for the Hilton Hotel chain, ordering them to cease using their name. The owners just added "Formerly" and carried on regardless.
Paparoa Track by foot
Rain was falling steadily as waterproofs were donned beneath the marginal shelter of the trailhead sign at Smoko. The first part of the 55km-long Paparoa follows the Croesus Track, an old miner's route that has stood the onslaught of time remarkably well.
After climbing steadily through beech and podocarp forest, my friend Wendy and I popped above the treeline and arrived at Ces Clark Hut, 9km in. Perfect timing as heavy rain and horrendous wind and rain buffeted the hut. We happily took shelter for a long lunch.
The forecast was for worsening weather although in truth I did wonder how much worse it could get. We were booked that night at Moonlight Tops Hut, 10km further and, although keen to reach it, knew the most exposed part of the trail lay between our current safe haven and the next.
Conditions were certainly challenging - I held on to Wendy a couple of times to stop her taking off toward the Southern Alps. Apparently, on a good day, you can see Aoraki/Mount Cook. We'd have happily just taken the good day as, soaked through, we were glad to reach Moonlight Tops before moonlight.
Purpose-built for the Paparoa, the hut sleeps 20. Twenty trampers moving between wet gear strewn around a welcome fire and jostling for a kitchen burner to create hot brews and condensation.
At dawn, a mist hung in the valleys, but we all cheered when a watery sun warmed the cloud and picked out the main escarpment in a glorious, tangerine light. With smiles and boots on, we set off down a trail that dropped into the most enchanted of mossy forest before emerging on to the escarpment. An airy few hours followed with the track clinging to the edge of cliffs dropping away to the west.
Far below, to the east, we could pick out the final piece of the Paparoa jigsaw. The 11km Pike29 Memorial Track, which will lead walkers and riders steeply down to the mine site. Here a memorial and interpretive centre will unfold the story of the disaster. Although much of this side trail is complete, it won't open until current investigations are complete and the mine sealed off again.
After a lunch overlooking distant Tasman surf, we plunged off the escarpment, threading a route through the cliffs and across to a ridge holding Pororari Hut. The drying games of the previous night were replaced, at Pororari, with outside dining and a sunset over the ocean. Occasional sandflies did little to spoil the moment.
Our third day on the Paparoa led us, through fern forest, to the Pororari River. Once across, via a swing bridge, the trail followed on down the river. Now deep in limestone country, the final few kilometres of this grand walk headed below huge cliffs that step down into verdant vegetation along the Pororari.
The northern trailhead at Punakaiki came too soon, so we prolonged the pleasure with a short diversion and a more fitting finish on a wild West Coast beach.
Paparoa Track by bike
The best direction to ride the Paparoa is undoubtedly south to north. You get the long, steep climb out of the way early, undulate across the top of the range and then swoop down, for the most part, the final 20km or more.
After a couple of days relaxing, cleaning up and exploring Punakaiki - Pancake Rocks and all - boots were swapped for bike and I travelled back to Blackball to meet my riding buddy Laurence. From Blackball it's an 8km pedal up a gravel road to Smoko; a chance to work brekkie off and warm up the legs.
With a strong sense of deja vu, we arrived at Ces Clark Hut just as the rain began. Waterproofs were off again, on again for the ride across to Moonlight Tops Hut and we copped a solid buffering in the wind. But there were some fabulous descents on the meandering trail, with views west to the Tasman Sea and north deeper into the mountains.
While fit riders might complete the trail in one long day, the Paparoa more than deserves to be savoured over two. The ideal is probably to stay at Moonlight Tops. However, it was fully booked when we made reservations so, after a late lunch, Laurence and I pushed on a further 19km to Pororari Hut.
All that is good about biking mountain trails followed. The track dropped into the mossy forest, down a lot, up a bit, to emerge on to the escarpment with astounding views all around. Looking beyond the edge we could pick out Pororari Hut on the ridge below. Below, of course, meant more gravitational fun to be had.
Soon we were leaning into tight turns, endless turns, before the Paparoa sidled across to the ridgeline that held the hut. After seven hours and one final climb we arrived, well spent, well satisfied.
This was pre-Covid and international borders closing, but we were the only riders that night, enjoying the company of a walking group from Taranaki and a Korean couple. Laurence whipped up a fine vege curry. Not for him the freeze-dried meals so beloved of Kiwi trampers.
We woke to drizzle and, despite only 16km of generally downhill trail to finish, Laurence served up at least three morning's worth of porridge. It stuck well to my sides despite the shaking it would soon endure.
The run down to the two crossings of the Pororari River was a grin and tonic for any mountain biker. Chuckles and whoops from us both, first through tree fern forests then, once across the first swing bridge, on to a track cut into the steep-sided valley, hanging high above the river. Finally, we barrelled straight to the second crossing to where the Paparoa splits for the final kilometres.
As riders, we turned left on to the old Inland Pack Track. A steady climb over a ridge hurt, but we were soon into a fine and final descent to a finish at the Punakaiki River.
The Paparoa Track is another excellent addition to the quiver of New Zealand's "must-do" walking and MTB trails. So - whether by boot, bike, or both - book your bed and get out on to it.
The Paparoa Track is a 55km one-way trail for walkers and mountain bikers. There are three Great Walk huts along the route, and bookings are now open for the October 1 to June 30 season. greatwalks.co.nz/paparoa
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