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Paparoa Track: A Great Walk on a roll

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September 2020 Issue

Paul Hersey rides the Paparoa Track Great Walk and finds the kind of views and perspective of the Southern Alps usually seen on alpine climbs

On a sunny, windless morning at Punakaiki, the seaward horizon and the bush-heavy inland hills are free of cloud. A decent swell butts up against headlands to the north and south of the small settlement. It’s early, which means the usual queues of campervans and tourist buses, not to mention the over-friendly sandflies, are yet to congregate. The blowhole at Pancake Rocks does its thing in relative privacy for a change.

And there I was, sitting on my bike, watching the waves and taking a moment to embrace the Coast’s unique ambience before starting out on New Zealand’s first Great Walk to be opened in 25 years. Before me stretched 55km of purpose-built mountain bike and walking track, following a route along the Paparoa Range. It’s fair to say that my excitement levels were elevated.

Rightly so, the West Coast carries a reputation for being a tough environment. It has a history of offering unrelenting challenge, sometimes with tragic results. Even today, civilisation has only chiselled a few pathways into and through the landscape. And the elements – the wind, the rain, the forest and the ocean – are always trying to reclaim these paths.

The Paparoa Great Walk (and ride) weaves through the heart of this country. In a first for Great Walk development, it has been specifically constructed for all year use by walkers and mountain bikers. According to the DOC website, the track is built to a ‘high standard’, with swing bridges across all of the major waterways. Looking at the map, I could see that it also incorporated some previously existing tracks, including a section of the Croesus Track – an old miner’s route. I had walked the Croesus Track before and knew that, while a steady gradient, parts of it might prove to be quite rough for riding.

At the Punakaiki end though, and indeed for the majority of the Paparoa Great Walk, the track condition was superb. In two hours I had completed the steady climb to Pororari Hut, passing stands of trees so dense that it was easy to wonder if I had gone back in time. Step even a few metres off the trail here and all sense of direction can be lost. Sounds are swallowed by the thickness of the forest and the cloying undergrowth. Yes, this is rugged country, and one that can quickly remind you of your limits if you don’t pay it enough respect.

From Pororari Hut, there was an unexpected decline before climbing again to Moonlight Tops Hut and then continuing on to Ces Clark Hut. For me, this was the highlight of the ride. The Grey River rumbled in the valley to the south-east, and the expanse of the Tasman Sea stretched westwards to the horizon. But it was the unobstructed view of the Southern Alps stretching south all the way to Aoraki/Mt Cook that I found most compelling. It is a special sight from such a perspective, one usually reserved for mountain climbers and high altitude trampers, and a graphic illustration of how the Main Divide has formed in an almost straight line along the fault line of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates.

Take your pick of which way to ride or walk the track. DOC reckons to start from Blackball and finish along the Pororari River Track at Punakaiki. This is a comfortable three-day walk, stretched to four by staying a night at Ces Clark Hut.

For bikers, I think it best to ride in the opposite direction. The gradient from Punakaiki up to and beyond Pororari Hut is more gentle and the track surface a better standard. The rougher Blackball end of the track is more easily negotiated on the descent.

Either way, this is a ‘must-do’ addition to our track network, and a track more than worthy of the ‘Great Walk’ mantle.

The Paparoa Track is the first purpose-built Great Walk for trampers and mountain bikers. Photo: Jason Blair

In the neighbourhood

Alternative track: The Inland Pack Track departs from Punakaiki and heads north in a loop to exit via Fox River over three days, giving trampers a good taste of Paparoa National Park.

Since you’re already here: Walk the 700m Truman Track to explore the rugged coastline, and a waterfall that plunges onto the sand.

Just got a weekend? Get on your bike, and tackle the Paparoa Track over a weekend.

Where to stay: There are plenty of accommodation options in Blackball and Punakaiki, including backpackers, hotels and AirBnB.

Where to stock up: Greymouth offers the widest range of food and equipment options.

Walking and riding the Paparora Track
The Paparoa Track passes through a landscape as diverse as the Heaphy, but crams this diversity into a three-day walk or overnight bike ride.

Smoke-ho car park to Ces Clark Hut
10.3km, 4-5hr
This first section has been in use for years. Known as the Croesus Track, it leads steeply and roughly past gold mining ruins and relics to 16-bunk Ces Clark Hut. The hut is right on the bush edge and has magnificent views to the Grey Valley and the Southern Alps. If time allows, take the side track to Garden Gully (45min return) where you can cross a suspension bridge and explore a century-old quartz crushing battery and collapsed mine site.
Mountain bikers will most likely skip this hut and ride on to Moonlight Tops Hut.

Ces Clark Hut to Moonlight Tops Hut
9.7km, 3hr
The trail climbs through alpine scrub and tussock to the ridge of the Paparoa Range and follows this north above the Roaring Meg and Moonlight Creek catchments. On a fine day, you’ll have views to Aoraki/Mt Cook. The 20-bunk Moonlight Tops Hut is at 1000m altitude and high above the treeline making it one of the most spectacular hut locations on the walk. It’s the busiest hut on the track and the most difficult to book due to it being the only hut mountain bikers stay at.

Moonlight Tops Hut to Pororari Hut
19.1km, 5-7hr
This section includes the dramatic escarpment – a gigantic sandstone bluff extending 2km along the main range and towering above the Punakaiki headwaters. The track traverses below Mt Hawera and then descends the ridge above Tindale Creek to 20-bunk Pororari Hut. The hut looks across the beech forested head of Pororari Valley, sweeping from Lone Hand (947m) to the Tasman Sea. Roroa (great spotted kiwi) are known to inhabit the surrounding bush.

Pororari Hut to Punakaiki
16km, 4-5hr
The track follows the Pororari River until a junction where the Inland Pack Track veers left – the route for mountain bikers – and the Pororari River Gorge beckons walkers dead ahead. Here, the river has cut a path through the limestone and the gorge is lined with lush rainforest, a confusion of nikau palms and kiekie hanging off giant podocarps, that give way upriver to temperate beech forest.

Total Ascent
3-4 days (1-2 days mountain biking). To Ces Clark Hut, 4-5hr; To Moonlight Tops Hut, 3hr; To Pororari Hut, 5-7hr; To Punakaiki, 4-5hr
Pororari Hut (20 bunks), Ces Clark Hut (16 bunks)
Smoke-ho car park, near Blackball, and Punakaiki on the West Coast

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