In spite of its recent addition, the Paparoa Track is already the fourth most popular Great Walk on the network. The 55km stretch was selected as a rival to the Milford and Kepler, and trampers have been flocking to walk it since 2020.
The first new track to be added in 27 years, the first purpose-built trail and the first dedicated all-year bike and hike track, there is plenty to be excited about. Every corner, every step of Paparoa - from Blackball to Punakaiki - has been carefully considered.
Though, from the trail, it was hard to see where this popularity came from. Through the windows of Ces Clark Hut, it was hard to see anything at all. Rain was running full pelt into the windows. Flax and wind grass flailing in the grey, the cloud left few clues of the view where the hillside fell away.
The other group in the hut were less concerned. An all-female party of walkers in their 60s, celebrating a birthday, they had seen the trail in much worse conditions. In fact, this was their second attempt.
The previous summer they had been snowed off the route.
Mary held up a photo from the aborted trip. There was the very same window under three inches of snow. "And that was January last year," she said. "January!"
While it didn't provide any further clarity on the view, it confirmed that things got pretty extreme up here. This part of the coast has a reputation for hardiness.
Only a few hours ago I had taken a shuttle from the subtropical palm beaches of Punakaiki to Blackball. The other side of the Ranges exists in its own microclimate, worlds away from the Jurassic palms of the coast. The mining town of Blackball has a unique character and outsized place in the country's history. The coal pits claim to be the birthplace of the New Zealand Labour Party, the New Zealand Communist Party even. Today, the Blackball Hilton and the open-air museum are dedicated to industrial action, miners' strikes. There's a red streak that runs through the town like an open seam. One it wears proudly.
The hike proper starts from Smoke-ho Park.
Trampers are welcomed on to the track through the carved red and green waharoa, but there are signs everywhere that we have not yet left the mining heritage behind. You'll find the remnants of two stone hotels across thin, single-person swing bridges. Back in the late 1920s, the valley was home to 1200 people looking for gold and other riches in the hills. Following their pack-mule track, it is an endless procession of switchbacks up, up into more grey. You'll still pass shelters left by Depression-era miners.
The only thing more depressing is the procession of cyclists pushing heavy mountain bikes up that route. The ascent to Croesus Ridge is not the kindest start.
I had the good fortune to be walking it with ranger and national park supervisor Jacob Fleming. He too has seen the wilder sides of Paparoa. The first season lasted just 22 days before torrential rain and subsidence closed it. That experience had not clouded his optimism.
As we followed the track, the torrents under feet and the fogbound mystery continued.
Out of the cloud loomed the orange jacket of a DoC worker on two wheels. At the end of an eight-day shift, Bronwyn dutifully stopped to talk to us, though you imagine she might have had less time to talk had she not bumped into her boss. Ruddy-faced and soaked through, she leaned across her handles into the wind, with a smile on her face that said, 'I really ought to get going.' Gusting 70km winds, we wished her safe journeys.
"Oh I can cycle this," she said, getting back on to the saddle and freewheeling back towards Barrytown.
By the time we made it to Moonlight Tops Hut and the second hut talk, the mood was almost mutinous. It was up to Jacob, as honorary hut warden to give the hut talk and field the questions from the soggy trampers.
One cyclist seized the moment:
"Where are the swooshing turns? Tell DoC we need more swooshes!" emphasising each point with a cycling gloved hand. Other hikers chewed their freeze-dried meals and boiled water, condensation adding to the fog outside.
One of the newest huts on the network, Moonlight Tops offers space and simplicity. Two bunkrooms, with 10 places in each and a shared log burner with an all-important drying rack for soggy kit. There is also a stack of wet weather puzzles. Among them were DoC trivia cards and a puzzle whose lid bore a warning in the form of a log:
November 10 - five pieces missing.
December 12 - ten pieces missing - do not attempt if you wish to save your sanity.
April 22 - twenty pieces missing, sanity already lost.
It was like retracing the doomed tracks of Scott and Captain Oates: We've gone to walk the Paparoa, we may be some time.
One by one - tired walkers went to their sleeping bags, squeaky mattresses, raspy snores and dreams of the impenetrable mist.
It might well have been a dream because by morning the difference was night and day. Dawn broke through the windows with a vengeance. DoC huts don't do blinds.
There, below us, was the roof of the Pororari Hut. A tiny glimmer of morning light, 19.1km away and the next stop on the route.
A unique aspect of the Paparoa Track, under clear skies, is you can see the day ahead. As the first purpose-built track on the network, not following existing trails, it follows the ridgeline from hut to hut. You rarely lose sight of progress, which does wonders for morale.
Although wispy mists still hung around in the beech forests, on the horizon were the knuckles of the Lone Hand Range and the first glimpse of the Tasman Sea.
Nowhere was the view clearer than the cliff-top descent, with little more than a few cables to stop cyclists from careening into the Pororari Gorge. Although it did little to slow them.
"Now, here are swooshes!" they crackled gleefully.
You could see how much attention and energy had been put into each step by those building the trail. In spite of pristine views, it was hard to miss what a monumental effort had gone into making a path through it. We passed blast holes and impressions left from dynamiting rocks, huge sections of gravelled trail and even the odd carved seat and stumps by the wayside.
Every now and then sounds of work drifted in from the Pike River Memorial Track. The connecting loop to the site of the 2010 mine disaster is expected for the summer of 2022/23, but repairs and maintenance of the main Paparoa route are nearly continuous.
In the huts, which were home to many of the track builders, were still notes and memories left behind. Up to 30 workers at a time were in the bush, making their mark on the West Coast.
"Every tree, every boulder was a conversation," read one left by Mark Nelson. DoC's project manager would have around 700 such conversations with the track builders as to whether there was a way to go round and conserve as much of the woodland as possible.
Having finally removed my boots and pack at the Pororari, I sat down to read through some of their accounts.
"How is the $10,000 bench?" asked Jacob.
The furniture in the huts was reclaimed from a very expensive, and very short-lived bridge over the Pororari River, lost in the 2019 floods.
Apart from significantly more upmarket furniture, there was little difference between the Pororari and Moonlight Huts. This is something of a rarity in DoC's hodge-podge collection of backcountry huts. Built off the same blueprint, being able to claim an identical bunk makes it an instantly familiar space. However, the mood after this day's walking was completely altered by the clear skies.
The hut hummed with happy walkers playing cards, preparing meals and sharing stories from the day's hiking and many gone before. Boots were lined up outside to air, swapped instead for jandals.
After offloading the weight of their packs teams of trampers sunning tired muscles in the evening air. The ridge-top hut gave an unrivalled view of the route we'd taken and the final day ahead.
On the ridge behind us, windows glinted in Moonlight Tops Hut, as I imagined the freshly arrived trampers there were doing much as we were: watching the West Coast sunset make a last dip over the sea and nikau palms and preparing for another day's walking.
CHECKLIST: PAPAROA TRACK
One of 10 Great Walks, the 55km Paparoa Track is open year-round for hiking (3 days) or mountain biking (2 days). E-bikes are not allowed. Fees are $45pp, per night (free for children 17 or under), and hut bookings are required. If you are hiking or biking the track in winter, check for snow and ice conditions before you leave and allow extra time. doc.govt.nz