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How does the Paparoa Track stack up?

After a stop/start first season faced with partial closures and the COVID lockdown, the Paparoa Track Great Walk is now fully open – and nearly fully booked. Wilderness walked the track to see if it lives up to the hype. 

Paparoa has set a new benchmark for backcountry tracks. Bikers can’t help but grin as they ‘flow’ along the carefully cambered, gentle grade. The design encompassed a whole new approach for dual-use tracks, also for drainage. It rains a lot up there. Underfoot, the surface metal has been crushed and compacted. It does vary along the way but essentially is not the harsh rock surface some trampers fear when tracks are built with bikes in mind. And trackside rehabilitation is impressive. Construction crews followed strict environmental protocols and worked wonders. The bush is bouncing back and the track looks like it’s been there for years.

Actually, one section has. Near Blackball, the Great Walk starts on the historic Croesus Track, built by gold miners in the 1880s. Their work has endured and when DOC closed this track last winter for an upgrade both trampers and bikers, who had long enjoyed this gently-graded climb to the tops, expressed concern (although other bikers bemoaned the rocks and mud). In fact, there’s been no structural change, just a bit of metal in boggy patches and a few small bridges. DOC’s Sam Symonds insists the track’s ‘awesome history’ and integrity will be retained. “We are formulating a plan that firstly will preserve and expose the historic fabric of the track, for example the old stone culverts, and secondly enhance the experience for all users.”

In terms of landscape drama, Paparoa adds a whole new dimension to the Great Walk collection. There’s karst country and its gorges, cirques and synclines. There’s a towering sandstone escarpment lording it over the middle section, all covered with gnarled, stunted goblin forest. Precipitous zig-zags descend off that escarpment alongside a massive waterfall that drops directly from those lofty heights. And there are tussock tops. And forests; ancient, mossy beeches, giant podocarps, nikau palms and coastal rainforest dripping with vines. Rugged is a term oft-used when describing our backcountry. In Paparoa, rugged definitely applies.

A word of warning before venturing onto this track: heavy rain, gales and cloud constantly hammer the Paparoa Range. Much of the track is in forest but not the Moonlight tops; 10km of exposed tussock tops between huts. The track sidles beneath the main ridge and is relatively sheltered in a westerly, but woe betide an easterly. The same goes for the escarpment. For several kilometres, the track follows the very edge, with deadly drop-offs to the west, and it crosses a few small, exposed saddles. 

And, when the clag does cover the landscape, the wildlife won’t hide. Kea and weka will check you out (watch your gear). Keep an eye open for Powelliphanta gagei – one of the world’s biggest and rarest snails, they won’t run off the track when they hear you coming. And listen for roroa, great spotted kiwi. The Pororari Hut warden says they are often heard “going off” at night.

Interpretation is another highpoint on this new Great Walk. It’s good to see the partnership with mana whenua, Ngāti Waewae, reflected in signage and stories along the way.

Mostly, it’s good to see the new track already achieving its essential aims; to remember the men lost in the Pike River Mine disaster, and to bring business to the community that supported their families.

As a spokeswoman for Greymouth-based Paparoa Shuttles says: “There’s bikers, walkers, runners, every man and their dog up there and for a local business it’s just fantastic.”

And for Kiwi bikers and walkers, it’s a great new Great Walk. But do book early.

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