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January 2017 Issue
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Where history and tragedy collide

Goblin Forest just below Mt Hawera. This forest is just over the top of the Brunner Coal seam that was mined at Pike River. Photo: Neil Silverwood
Is the Pike29 Memorial Track, due to become New Zealand’s 10th Great Walk, worthy of such status? Wilderness walked the route to find out

THE ANNOUNCEMENT in late 2015 of a new Great Walk came as something of a surprise to the outdoor community. Even before the first tree was cut down, or the park’s management plan updated, DOC had created a brochure advertising the track – it would go ahead come hell or high water.

The announcement was made after consultation with the families of the Pike River mining tragedy. Outdoor user groups were given no say on the route that crosses an untracked section of backcountry in the northern Paparoa Range. There was apprehension among these groups about the track’s location and type of use. Perhaps even more concerning was that instead of creating a low impact trail, the plan called for a well-graded track suitable for year-round mountain biking. It sounded like something more akin to a road than a tramping track.

Unsure of which side of the fence I sat, I decided to see it for myself and walk the route before track building began.

Above the Smoke-ho car park near Blackball, the Croesus Track winds its way up alongside Blackball Creek. Two thirds of the way to Ces Clark Hut is the historic gold mining village of Garden Gully. Village might be a slight exaggeration; in its heyday there were just five huts on the river flat. Miners were attracted by the initial rich pickings during the 1930s depression, but just one lonely hut remains. It’s in good condition after being lovingly restored in 2006. The gold mining operation in Garden Gully was short-lived and the village was abandoned in the boom and bust fashion that continues today on the West Coast.

An hour up the track is the more upmarket Ces Clark Hut. I’ve been here several times and the hut holds a special place in my heart. Ces Clark has to be one of the nicest backcountry huts we have. Massive glass windows provide views over the plains of the Grey River and to the northern section of the Southern Alps. The hut gets all day sun and on a tranquil day is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon.

The new Great Walk will utilise the existing benched track and extend this track, in a similar style right through to Punakaiki. Photo: Neil Silverwood

The new Great Walk will utilise the existing benched track and extend this track, in a similar style right through to Punakaiki.
Photo: Neil Silverwood

It is named after Ces Clark who was instrumental in its creation. Ces had a vision for a tramping track that would link Blackball and Barrytown. Unfortunately, he died while working on the track in 1986, just metres away from the hut. He never got to see his vision completed.

Beyond the hut, the track climbs onto the tops before dropping steeply to Barrytown. It’s a knee-jarring experience, but the Pike29 Track won’t go that way. Instead, it turns at a junction before Mt Ryall, and follows the poled Croesus-Moonlight Route north. En route I met a group of mountain bikers, their bikes hoisted on their shoulders, heading to the Moonlight Track.

The gruelling mountain bike trip involves a 5km carry and has become a test piece for ultra-fit bikers. Due to the carry, the route is unlikely to become crowded, though that will likely change once the track is upgraded to Great Walk standard. I chatted to the bikers about the Pike29. They supported the idea wholeheartedly. “The Coast really needs this type of development,” one said. “It would be pretty incredible to link up all the rides: The Heaphy, The Old Ghost Road and the Pike29 – that would really be something.”

I left the riders as they disappeared down the steep, rocky Moonlight Track and wondered if they’d be the last to carry their bikes along this route.

Beyond the Moonlight Track junction there are no official formed tracks and the route to the Pororari River and Punakaiki Township traverses wilderness. It’s an area without huts, tracks or any other signs of civilisation and it’s no surprise that few trampers venture here. It’s a place where those who do come, journey through the landscape on nature’s terms.

I set up camp on a bush-covered ridge north of the Moonlight Track. The cloud came in and my lonely little campsite disappeared into the mist.

This is coal country and a track 

traversing it is a fitting tribute

I was close to the site of the proposed Moonlight Tops Hut that will be built in 2017. It felt strange to be camping on what will become a Great Walk, on a place that, starting in 2018, thousands of tourists may tramp or bike through each year. For now though, I was the only person for many kilometres and my world was shared with a few kiwi calling into the cold night air.

Navigating in low cloud on the tops above the Moonlight Track. One of the concerns voiced about the route is inexperienced hikers will need to travel through long exposed sections with little shelter. Photo: Neil Silverwood

Navigating in low cloud on the tops above the Moonlight Track. One of the concerns voiced about the route is inexperienced hikers will need to travel through long exposed sections with little shelter. Photo: Neil Silverwood

The morning brought a change for the worse. Rain fell heavily and I disappeared deep into my sleeping bag as the temperature plummeted. A surprise front had come through. By midday, I could wait no longer and crawled out into the raging storm, stuffed my soaking tent and gear into my pack and marched into the gloom.

Beyond the bush-covered slopes the ridge broke out onto the tops. The rain blew sideways and high winds pushed me around. Within an hour I was wet through and freezing. Navigation was difficult as cloud engulfed the ridge. The idea of a Great Walk with fancy huts and fires suddenly seemed very appealing.

I soon noticed blue flagging tape tied to trees: DOC has been marking the new track in preparation for the work ahead. This proposed route does not follow the natural lay of the land. Rather, it contours around the side of ridges, taking the path of least resistance – or, it will once it has been cut and blasted out. Because of this, it was faster for me to navigate along the ridges overlooking the route.

A few hours into the day’s walk, I hit a dense section of scrub and was forced to crawl under the dripping wet leatherwood and turpentine. Suddenly, I found myself on a cut path. It started in the middle of nowhere and traversed the ridge. A little further along, it ended. After another dense bush bash I popped out onto a track again, only to have it end abruptly a second time. I learned later that these tracks had been established by geologists surveying the coalfields that are part of the Brunner coal seam. The tracks link up drilling sites rather than providing access to the area. The geologists would chopper in, landing at sites cut out of the scrub, often with a base of cut-down trees. I came across several of these sites and found a range of interesting modern mining relics and gear including a pinch bar, shovel, solar panels and a large pipeline.

I also discovered more evidence of the DOC track-cutting teams, and even came across a 40l jerry can of aviation fuel and a GPS lying in the tussock. It felt like a treasure hunt.

By late afternoon I was as cold as I’ve ever been, and after walking five hours through rain and sleet I stopped to camp. My speech was starting to slur, my hands were numb and swollen and I could barely pitch the tent. I realised how easily death from exposure can occur in the mountains. I had all the right gear, but struggled to keep warm through the bad weather.

Mountain bikers traverse the Croesus-Moonlight Route. The new track will be dual-use and gently graded throughout its length. Photo: Neil Silverwood

Mountain bikers traverse the Croesus-Moonlight Route. The new track will be dual-use and gently graded throughout its length. Photo: Neil Silverwood

The New Zealand Conservation Authority spoke out against the Pike29 Great Walk, stating it would be too exposed. The Paparoa Range is constantly battered by harsh weather and there is little shelter on the tops. The NZCA argued track users would be exposed to two days of travel on or above the bushline and many tourists may be ill-prepared. That’s true, but so are many of our Great Walks – the Milford and Kepler for example – and even our most popular day hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, is equally exposed.

After a cold night spent curled into my sleeping bag, I hiked up to Hawera (1190m). The blue tape disappeared into dense bush and it looked like the route would sidle below the mountain. I didn’t see flagging tape again until the following day.

Hawera is flanked by dense scrub and patches of misty, goblin forest; it’s an enchanting place.

At the bushline, there was a plastic pipeline running up a cut track and then a DOC repeater on the summit. The cloud lifted briefly as I climbed Hawera and I got a view to the east. Here I could see the Pike River Road and the ill-fated mine buildings beyond. Under my feet lay the coal the miners were trying to reach.

From its inception, I could never see the connection between the Pike River tragedy and the Pike29 Great Walk. But, standing on Hawera, looking at the land, seeing the mining debris, and having actually seen the coal seams, the connection was obvious.  This is coal country and a track traversing it is a fitting tribute.

North of Hawera, the ridge offered good travel. I wandered along, lost in my thoughts about the new track. I was travelling on the western aspect of the ridge, the visibility was good and my map and compass were stashed in the hood of my pack. But, I had become complacent. Woosh! I felt the wind pick up and within seconds a cloud rolled over the ridge from the east. Visibility dropped from a few kilometres to just a few metres. It was hard to believe that minutes before I’d been able to see the Tasman Sea.

I pulled out my map and compass and tried to pinpoint my location, but it was too late. The cloud had obscured the ridge that would lead me to the Pororari River.

There was nothing for it, but to sit and wait for the cloud to clear. Eventually, through a misty gap, I glimpsed an outline of the spur and dropped 300m to reach it.

This was my fourth day and I dreamed of making it to the road end. I still had 20km to go as the crow flies and it was already midday, but I was still hopeful. The ridge I was about to follow soon dashed those hopes.

The track ends near Punakaeki. Photo: Neil Silverwood

The track finsihes at the coast at Punakaiki. Photo: Neil Silverwood

The section between Pt960 and the Tindale Creek-Pororari River junction is not your average ridge; it doesn’t follow any of the usual rules. To begin with, most ridges have densely woven scrub shaped by strong winds and weather on the bushline. This usually gives way to stunted trees and then fully mature forest on the lower slopes. But here it was just dense, stunted bush from the bushline right down to the Pororari River just 160m above sea level. The ridge was also hard work to follow. Rather than gently dipping downward and delivering trampers to the valley floor, it went along like a staircase. The terrain would be dead flat for a few metres then – bam! – a vertical scrub-covered cliff that I had to bash my way down, hanging from tree to tree.

I didn’t get close to the coast that night. It was another wet night huddled in the tent in a muddy campsite halfway down that ridge.

The next day, I dropped into the upper Pororari River and found DOC’s blue markers again. Near here, at the junction of Tindale Creek, Pororari Hut will be built. It’s an idyllic location with the Pororari River meandering through flats before dropping into a limestone gorge. On the topo map, the contours above the gorge are crunched together and as I entered it around midday I started to worry that I’d be spending another night in the bush.

It began to rain again as I waded down the gorge, into thigh-deep pools. Just before the river squeezed through a narrow section, I climbed onto the true left bank and got one final surprise: a wide benched track. It was overgrown in places but for the most part navigable. Following this down the Pororari was a strange end to a strange trip.

I could already taste a cold brew at the pub; would I get Speight’s or something more upmarket? But then the track stopped dead and disappeared into a pile of windfall flattened by Cyclone Ita in 2014. I tried to forge a route through the tangled mess, but with 90 per cent of the surrounding forest in this patch bowled over, it was impossible to make progress.

I backtracked to the Pororari, climbed down to it and followed it as it twisted and turned, even folding back on itself in places. I crossed the river time and again before falling out onto the Pororari River Track.

It was over; only a short jaunt to the pub remained.

Thinking about it now, the Pike29 will be a unique Great Walk offering a very different experience to the others. The terrain is varied but rough and it will perhaps be more like the Hump Ridge Track than easier walks like the Heaphy or Abel Tasman Coast Track. I still have mixed feelings about the loss of an area where trampers can go for a remote experience. But in creating this track, nearly 4000ha of extra land will be added to Paparoa National Park. This area contains coal and gold and national park status will provide the land a higher level of protection than it currently has. Tourism is the future of the Coast, not mining.

I began the tramp with a negative outlook on the Pike29 Track. The lack of public consultation during the process of its creation was unacceptable. The outcome though, this new Great Walk for the region, is something I now think we should welcome.

– The name of the route may change to the ‘Paparoa Great Walk’ with the side track to the Pike River mine called the ‘Pike29’.

Pike29 Great Walk Opens 2018
Access From Blackball, follow the Roa Road 1.5km north-west and turn right onto Blackball Road which ends at the Smoke-ho car park and the start of the Croesus Track
Grade Easy-moderate (walking); Grade 4 (mountain biking)
Times 2-3 days (walking); 1-2 days (mountain biking)
Distance 45km
Accommodation Ces Clark Hut, Moonlight Tops Hut (to be built), Pororari Hut (to be built)
Map BS19, BT19, BT20

All photos from this trip…