Image of the September 2016 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
September 2016 Issue
Home / Articles / Features

West Coasters get their track back

Left: Cyclone Ita destroyed the track two years ago; Right: Nearly 400 beech trees were cleared so the track could reopen

The Inland Pack Track, closed for two years after severe storm damage, has reopened much to the surprise of locals.

The Inland Pack Track, Paparoa National Park’s only multi-day tramping track, has re-opened to surprise, more than two years after it was closed when Cyclone Ita lashed the West Coast.

Department of Conservation workers used explosives and chainsaws to clear a path through nearly 400 downed beech trees, reopening the closed portion of the track between Fox River and Bullock Creek.

The move has surprised trampers and tourism providers on the West Coast, as DOC said the track was not used enough to direct resources toward fixing it, which would cost $62,000. The draft Paparoa National Park management plan had scheduled it to reopen by 2019.

Greymouth Star reporter Laura Mills has described the track turning into ‘a political football’ after West Coast-based list MP and Green Party conservation spokesman Kevin Hague got involved in its closure, questioning Conservation Minister Maggie Barry over what he says is chronic underfunding.

But DOC Westport operations manager Bob Dickson says they had always hoped to have a plan to re-establish access on the closed section of track, and funds became available at the end of the 2016 financial year when there was money left over that had been previously budgeted for storm damage on tracks.

“A local contractor worked their way through it with chainsaws and blasting material,” says Dickson. “We still have some minor repairs to carry out and plan for in the next month.”

He says the final cost was about $40,000. “It’s good to have the track open again.”

Dickson says the track is a “very low-use track”, but provided another branch to the mix of recreational experiences at Punakaiki. “It’s an interesting walk,” he says. “It’s a backcountry experience – no different to what it was before the storm, though a bit more light gets in now.”

Punakaiki Beach Camp manager Jed Findlay says the work surprised everyone. “It was such a spontaneous thing; we were really not expecting it to happen right now, but we’re super stoked that it’s opening again,” he says.

The camp has been missing out on business since the track has been closed. People used to stay there before and after walking the track, and would book rides from the camp to the Fox River entrance. “We would have a lot of people staying a couple of nights, one before and after, but we just haven’t had that,” Findlay says.

He had checked out the track when it was closed and said the trees were “like pick-up sticks, all piled on top of each other. It was pretty smashed.”

Findlay said the community “made it pretty obvious” they wanted the only track in the park reopened earlier, with submissions to the Paparoa draft management plan. Some in the community also felt it should be opened before construction began on the new Pike29 Great Walk, a memorial to the 29 miners who were killed in the 2010 Pike River Mine explosion.

“It’s crazy beautiful up there,” he says. “It’s the only track that we’ve got in Paparoa National Park until they start building the Pike29. The local community thought it should be opened first before we go building a new $10m one.”

The Pike29 track will provide a fresh surge of energy to the area, he says, particularly with new structures. “It’s going to be great around here. Everyone’s excited. It will be sweet to have some huts.”

West Coast Alpine Club vice-president Karen Grant says there had been strong dissatisfaction in the area when the Inland Pack Track wasn’t attended to. “We’re all totally ecstatic,” she says. “We want the existing historical tracks reopened and the old ones maintained before focusing on building new tracks.

“It gets a lot of use and to have it open again will encourage further use.”

Jim and Margaret Costello of Punakaiki were part of a local group who took matters into their own hands, taking out some of the smaller windfall for DOC with hand-saws. Jim Costello says the track is still a bit of a bush bash, with some of the boardwalks and netting needing repair. But it is passable. “The track itself isn’t up to the standard it was, but it’s pretty good.

“We’re really happy now that it’s open again,” he says. “It’s in really good nick because it hadn’t been used much for a couple of years.

“It’s a big thing for the locals. There was talk about it being left, which really worried people; when it was closed there were some groups who have concessions to take tramping parties through,” Costello said, noting that these tour groups usually stayed in Punakaiki, but with the track closed they stayed elsewhere, which  negatively affected local accommodation and businesses. “It was a very pleasant surprise when they found the money to reopen.”

When it struck in 2014, Cyclone Ita closed most popular walking tracks over a 400km length of the West Coast, and was so strong it blew away the Copland car park toilet. Two hundred homes needed repairs in the Grey district. The Inland Pack Track was initially deemed too dangerous to repair.

DOC said the track wasn’t popular enough to prioritise reopening, receiving between 750-1200 visitors a year between Bullock Creek to the Fox River when tracks like the nearby Pororari-Punakaiki Loop received about 26,000 visitors a year.

The track is the most accessible multi-day track on the coast, and is a popular two- or three-day walk for school parties and trampers. It’s been described by Rough Guides as the best way to appreciate the limestone features of the Paparoa National Park.