The views from the mountaintops are superb. On one side, forest-clad hills drop steeply towards the dazzling Tasman Sea. Snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps fill the horizon in the other direction.
The Paparoa ranges hold some of New Zealand’s most pristine wilderness.
Lower down, some of the best old growth bush in the country sprouts from the steep slopes, home to some of the country’s best-loved wildlife. Until now, much of this national park has been inaccessible to all but the hardiest of trampers, with few trails to provide passage through the tough terrain.
But that’s about to change, with work underway on the Paparoa Track.
The new track is a symbol of hope for many in West Coast communities struggling through the decline of mining. Tourism is a way forward for the region, playing on its exceptional natural beauty.
But this project comes from a disaster which devastated the local community and left the country reeling. The bodies of 29 men remain under the Paparoa ranges, killed by a methane explosion in the Pike River Mine on November 19, 2010.
It’s the families of those men who pushed for the Paparoa Track to be built – as a tribute, a thank you, and a new future. The hope is for something positive out of tragedy.
Those building the track feel that responsibility, and it guides what they do in the mountains.
FIRST NEW GREAT WALK FOR 25 YEARS
The $10 million track will span 55 kilometres of pristine wilderness in the Paparoa mountain range, linking the villages of Blackball and Punakaiki. About 10km of existing track is being used, pulled from the Croesus trail in the south and Pororari River Track at the north end, but the bulk will be newly built.
Another 10km of trail from the Pike River valley will join the great walk near its halfway point. Named the Pike29 Memorial Trail, it’s being built in memory of those who lost their lives in the Pike River Mine disaster. Some of the mine buildings near the start of the trail will be turned into an interpretation centre which explains the Pike River Mine tragedy.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) has given the Paparoa Track Great Walk status, marking it as one of the premier outdoor experiences in the country. It’s the first track added to the great walk network since it was set up in 1993, and the first to be built with both walkers and mountain bikers in mind. Two new 20-bunk huts will offer welcome refuge for trail users.
DOC aims to have the track open in April, though access to the Pike29 Memorial Trail will be barred until the Pike River Recovery Agency finishes its work to re-enter the mine. Three options to re-enter the mine have been developed, costing up to $35m, which the Government signed off on Thursday. Re-entry could start at the end of the year.
Jim McIlraith describes the pristine area as “a jewel in the crown” of DOC land. McIlraith is a project manager for the WestReef construction crew based out of the new Pororari Hut – “spiritually halfway in our journey to the completion of our section.”
BATTLING TORRENTIAL RAIN, GALES
Since last August, McIlraith and his team have been working through lush native forest on a section of trail running from the Pororari River Basin to about the halfway point, facing baking sun, gale force winds and torrential rain – Paparoa National Park averages 6000 millimetres of rain a year.
A veteran of the Old Ghost Road build, McIlraith has been building tracks in remote corners of the West Coast for seven years. He says it takes a certain mindset to do this type of work, which is remote, physical and can be hazardous.
Some on McIlraith’s crew used to work in the mine and were friends with some who lost their lives in the disaster. For them the job is personal, and they feel they are part of something unique and powerful.
“The most rewarding part of it is actually the fact that we are privileged to be part of that, we’re privileged to be the construction teams out here, charged with this responsibility. We feel that. We live that. We breathe that.”
Their role involves clearing fallen trees using chainsaws, before a small digger comes through and forms the rough track. Workers then come through with hand tools and shape the trail to make sure the camber works for walkers, bikers and drainage requirements, before replanting shrubbery around the edges.
But building such a trail is technical work – it’s not a ‘cowboys in the bush’ type of situation – with preparation and planning key. The main focus is working safely so workers “go home at the end of the day without a scratch”, McIlraith says.
The route has been mapped out by a small team lead by well-known trail designer Hamish Seaton. Choosing the best course involved months of walking in the hills before Seaton carefully constructed a detailed 3D digital map of the area.
DOC Paparoa Track project director Tom Hopkins says the track will take in a wide range of terrain and environments. From Blackball, it climbs through some “really nice mixed beech podocarp forest” before emerging into the alpine tussock of some classic South Island tops country, but with a view of the ocean.
“So you’re cruising along the tops and you’ve got the Tasman Sea down there, and then you’ve got the Southern Alps in the other direction and behind you Mt Cook, on a good day.”
Crossing the Pike Stream headwaters, it moves into an area with leached soils and big sandstone cliffs, before dropping down a ridge and back into the beech forest. The final stretch, along the Pororari River basin, is Jurassic Park country, taking users through the limestone gorges and nikau palms familiar to Punakaiki.
So far the track builders have completed 23km of the 55kms total.
HOME TO KIWI, KEA, KĀKĀ
Over in the Pike River valley, the Pike29 Memorial Track runs through some of the best old growth forest on the coast. The valley is home to quintessential New Zealand wildlife; kea and kākā watch from the canopies while whio (blue duck) navigate the icy waters of the river. At night, the cry of the kiwi echoes off the hills.
Tom Woodward is part of another group working on the track, the Nelmac team. Two crews of three spend alternate weeks on the trail, living out of the Pike River Mine buildings – though they will move to a camp on the hills as work progresses.
He says a huge effort has gone into weaving the trail around the trees and getting it to flow through the forest so it’s “not a highway through the bush”. Even the native ferns are carefully pulled out before the digger comes through, then replanted on the track’s fringes.
Their gentle care means the track very quickly looks like it belongs in this precious landscape.
“I think we’re all quite proud to be part of it and we’re looking forward to having it finished and seeing what the reaction is,” Woodward says.
The crew often think and talk about the men who remain in the mine – those they are building the track for.
“When we come in we stop down at the bottom at the memorial … we always get out and have a look at the names and the photos that are down there.”
Hopkins says the families have been heavily involved in the project from the start.
“We’re working very hard to deliver their vision for what this track was intended to be, and that’s front of mind the whole time.”
A THANKS AND A FUTURE
Stephen Rose says there were “times when we had nothing left in us, and the people of New Zealand would step forward and embrace us and support us” after his stepson Stuart Mudge was killed in the mining tragedy. He sees the Paparoa Track as a way for the Pike River families to say thank you for that help.
“The whole basis of the track was born from the families’ desire to thank the West Coast community and the people of New Zealand for the support that they gave us when we needed it most.”
Stephen Rose and his wife Carol Rose have been involved in the track since its inception, two of 10 family members who have thrown themselves into the project. The idea was raised in late 2014 after a meeting at the Ashley Hotel when Solid Energy, who bought the mine after the explosion, told the families they were calling off efforts to re-enter the mine.
He says there was great trepidation when it was suggested mountain bikes could use the track, with concerns of conflict with walkers. “But the way I saw it, it was the track of the future not the track of the past”.
There were fears Solid Energy would seal the mine and rip up the roads and bridges leading to it, so putting a track in was seen as a way of keeping that access open – for the public and for any future re-entry efforts.
“We felt it was important that public access to the portal was maintained, because until you stand at the portal and look in, that’s when the whole immensity of the whole thing really hits you – when you’re looking at a tunnel that’s two-and-a-half kilometres long, and to think that the mine’s rescue guys were prepared to walk into that gun barrel.”
Standing at the portal, there’s a real presence and beauty, Stephen Rose says.
“Some people really hate the portal. Some of the families, they see it as a hell-hole, but when you take your eyes away and and look at the hills, the mountains, the rivers and the bush around you, it’s just the most beautiful place.”
He’s pleased the mine’s buildings will be turned into an interpretation centre, to tell the story of the disaster, but would like to see part of the complex used as accommodation and maybe a cafe.
Carol Rose says the families see the mine site and the new track as intrinsically linked. She says most are on board, especially those living on the coast, but believes there is less of a sense of “ownership” for those living further afield.
The couple have been up to see how the track building work is progressing and are impressed with how the work is being done and what’s being produced.
“It’s being constructed with enormous respect for how it came about, and for those 29 men,” Carol feels.
As well as a thank you, the track is seen as a new hope for the region which has struggled economically due to the generally downturn in mining. Carol says Greymouth and the region need as much draw as they can get, and she sees the track as an “ace in the hole”.
‘THERE ARE GOING TO BE CHANGES’
First to reap the economic benefits from the track are Blackball and Punakaiki.
The two villages, at either end of the trail, are very different – Punakaiki groans under the weight of visitors to the Pancake Rocks, which pulls in about 450,000 tourists a year, while sleepy Blackball has suffered as the mining industry winds down.
In December the Government pledged $600,000 to Blackball for toilets, car parks and other infrastructure to prepare for the Paparoa Track’s opening, but its 300-odd residents may still be in for a shock when the trail opens.
Currently there is a workingman’s club, a hotel and backpacker’s , a shop and the famous Blackball Salami Company delicatessen on the main street – hardly the infrastructure needed to deal with an influx of hikers and bikers.
On the main street, Wayne Saunders enjoys a tea on his front porch in the early evening. He thinks the track will bring money to the town. “It needs something to keep going.”
The Blackball Hilton is a West Coast institution, now over 100 years old. Co-owner Cynthia Roberts thinks the track will be marvellous for Blackball.
“There’s going to be changes in Blackball and I think people are coming to accept that.”
It’s already started. Residents are looking into setting up Airbnbs, bike mechanics, shuttle services, provisions stores and equipment rental.
The village is also in a good position to add overnight visitors doing day trips from the Pike29 trail to Blackball, the 35km distance very achievable for mountain bikers.
Punakaiki is also set to benefit from day trippers, more likely walkers, but the discussion there is around whether they can handle the extra numbers during peak season – and whether they want them.
The tiny town of fewer than 100 residents is at capacity during the summer season, with no real room to expand as its wedged between the ocean and the mountains.
Neil Mouat is enthusiastic about the new walk but believes Punakaiki needs to have a discussion on its future; is it a remote location to enjoy before visitors go elsewhere for services like accommodation?
That discussion needs to happen soon, as the Government announced $100,000 towards a Punakaiki master plan in February to improve infrastructure and prepare for higher visitor numbers.
Mouat says visitor numbers at the pancake rocks degrade the experience. If people were to stay longer, the extra vehicles would become a problem, even with the planned toilets and carpark expansion. “You can’t manage that away”, he says.
Mouat, who co-owns The Hydrangea Cottages and Punakaiki Horse Treks, sees it as a thorny problem and one which the community needs to resolve.
He says its tourism is extremely seasonal. “For six months of the year, trading here, you make no money.”
Patrick Volk, who owns three local businesses including the Pancake Rocks Cafe, is hopefully the Paparoa Track will be a boost for the village, especially in the shoulder seasons when visitor numbers drop off.
“I think it’s one of the best things that could have happened to the area, because it puts the West Coast – and in particular Punakaiki, Blackball and Greymouth – on the map.”
THE NEXT OLD GHOST ROAD?
While there are concerns, you don’t have to look far to see the type of benefit Paparoa Track might bring.
About 70km to the north, the Old Ghost Road track has many similarities to the Paparoa Track.
Both cover long distances through some of New Zealand’s most remote and beautiful back country, and both are open to bikes and walkers, though the Paparoa Track is closer to Christchurch and is an easier ride.
Since it opened in December 2015, the 85km Old Ghost Road has spurred a new industry in the struggling Buller district.
More than 11,000 people used it in 2017, and this year is tracking at a similar level, according to the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust. Nearly 90 per cent were Kiwis, mostly mountain bikers.
Chairman Phil Rossiter said the trail’s economic impact has been “significant” on the small surrounding community, bringing in about $3m annually.
Rossiter says new enterprises have set up, marginal or seasonal businesses have been revived and about two dozen businesses maintain a formal working partnership with the trail, providing support services and products.
Rachel Townrow has also noticed more bikes on the back of cars in Westport since the Old Ghost Road opened. The resulting new businesses have been a boon for restaurants and cafes which feed hungry walkers and bikers alike.
The Buller District Council community and environment group manager says the recognition and attention the trail’s received has galvanised the local community.
She sees the Old Ghost Road and Paparoa Track as complementary, a view shared by West Coast Tourism chief executive Jim Little.
Little hopes those visiting one track will take in the other on the same trip, meaning they stick around on the coast for longer. Cyclists may also be enticed by riding the West Coast Wilderness Trail or the tracks around Reefton.
He says tourism was never taken seriously on the West Coast until the demise of mining, but people have suddenly realised it’s a growing and sustainable industry.
Last updated 13:16, July 21 2018