The morning clouds are lying so low, you’d think they’re on the run from the law. Not necessarily a major problem when setting out on a long walk, but unfortunately in this case the route is not yet complete, so I need to begin by helicoptering over the unfinished section. And that can’t happen until the thick cloud cover has cleared.
‘If you start reading the walls, you’ll need to book in for a month,’ quips Cynthia Robins, proprietor of the quirkily-named Formerly the Blackball Hilton. Stuck in the small town of Blackball — the start of the trail — waiting for news of the chopper, my attention has been grabbed by the eclectic assortment of ceremonial plates, newspaper clippings, and political paraphernalia adorning the walls of this old-fashioned hotel bar. A famous strike in 1908 (over miners’ wishes to be able to take half an hour for lunch, instead of the allotted 15 minutes) makes Blackball the spiritual home of the New Zealand Labour Party — whose current party leader, Jacinda Ardern, is the present day prime minister.
But the gradual closure of mines throughout the latter half of the last century saw money, residents and businesses all leave town. ‘People couldn‘t afford to move in the 1960s,’ says Cynthia, ‘so they’d burn the houses down and take off with the insurance money. Just stick a candle in the rafters and go visit Auntie Maisie down the road with your family silver tucked under your arm. Eventually you couldn‘t get insurance in Blackball for love nor money.’
The pair of us stare out the window of the hotel bar at the silent, foggy street outside, 1980s pop songs playing quietly on the radio in the background. Admittedly it’s outside the main tourist season, but I’m fairly confident I’m the hotel’s only occupant. That, however, may soon be changing, for one key reason: the Paparoa track.
Set to open in December, Paparoa will be the tenth of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks, and the first to be added since the previous nine were collectively branded as such in 1993. Starting in a car park just outside Blackball, the 55km route will follow the path of the existing Croesus track — used by gold miners during more prosperous times — climbing to an altitude approaching 1,200m, before traversing along the dramatic Tindale ridge, then finally descending a series of large river valleys down to the coastal town of Punakaiki. Being home to the start of a Great Walk will really put Blackball on the map.
It’s already generating substantial new-found optimism. ‘The town is quite different even from what it was a few years ago,’ says Cynthia. ‘People who’ve moved away are coming back, buying houses and doing them up, turning them into Airbnbs and so on.’
Finally, the sun breaks through the haze, and I’m cleared to travel. Angus, a local helicopter pilot, navigates the agile chopper up the valley, freezing winds gusting through the cabin. The view is spectacular; thick subtropical forest sprawling across the rugged landscape. Quietly, I hum the Jurassic Park theme tune to myself.
There’s only one visible structure up here, the Moonlight Hut, and Angus heads straight for it. Upon landing, Ben Hodgson, senior ranger at the Department of Conservation, welcomes me into the hut. A shiny building that will eventually be a vital overnight stopping point for passing hikers, it currently serves as base camp for the track’s construction crew. Muddy boots are strewn across the floor, steaming mugs and hunting magazines cover the table, an acoustic guitar sits quietly in the corner.
In a country where hiking (‘tramping’, as it’s known here) is almost a national sport, and passionate hikers from around the world descend to undertake such iconic walks as the glacier-ridden Milford sound, and the dramatic volcanic craters of the Tongariro crossing, this new walk will open up the Paparoa ranges — previously out-of-bounds due to its rugged isolation, as well as the intensity of mining taking place.
‘This is probably the least known national park in New Zealand,’ says Ben, as we step out onto the deck to admire the view. ‘There was no track here, so the only visitors would be hardcore hunters and trampers. Now people will have a chance to explore this fantastic scenery.’ He waves his arm in the direction of the looming Paparoa escarpment, shining in the midday sun, thin clouds seemingly frozen above the nearby mountain summits. It certainly feels unfair to keep this scenery all to ourselves.
To see the construction team’s handiwork getting the trail ready, our first step is to turn heel and head back towards Blackball. The path rises to near the top of the ridge line, occasionally falling away to reveal glorious panoramas: the Tasman Sea on one side, the broad Grey River valley on the other. After an hour, the path begins to deteriorate back into the rocky, boggy terrain that stretches across the landscape. Douglas, a Wyoming cowboy who’s found himself on the other side of the world, operates the main excavator, slowly scooping out huge wads of earth. Behind him, a crew of four or five run around turning the excavated gully into the beginnings of a path; removing large rocks, smoothing out the path, scattering gravel and replanting tussock vegetation on either side of the trail. A weka, a common endemic flightless bird known for its bravado and sassy attitude, risks life and limb by wandering recklessly behind Douglas’ excavator, in search of an easy meal amid the upturned earth.
‘The alpine environment is very delicate, so we need to be as unintrusive as possible,’ explains Ben. Kitted out in a bright orange polo shirt, dark hiking trousers, and a luminous lime green ‘Paparoa Track’ branded cap, he’s a walking advert for this project. ‘This is the first Great Walk made from scratch,’ he says. ‘It has to be as good as the other nine, so we work to extremely high standards and expectations.’
Much of the work involves creating the right look, so that it doesn’t appear brand new on day one. ‘It needs to look like it’s been here a hundred years,’ says Douglas. ‘But the biggest problem with this kind of trail building is managing water.’ Pointing at the track behind the excavator, he explains how the wide variety of gullies and rock culverts they’re constructing help prevent water from ruining all their hard work.
The next day we begin the onwards journey towards the track endpoint in Punakaiki, through a poignant middle section that is essentially the reason why the track exists at all. At 3.44pm on 19 November 2010, a huge explosion at the nearby Pike River mine trapped 29 men underground. A second explosion five days later led to the grim conclusion that no lives had been spared.
Among the soul-searching and endless enquiries into the tragic incident (despite a Royal Commission finding inadequate health and safety regulations, and an apology from then-Prime Minister John Key, no charges have ever been filed) it was proposed that a hiking trail might be a good memorial to the so-called ‘Pike 29’.
‘The only reason we’re here is because of the Pike river mine,’ says Ben, as we crunch our way down the track, thick green moss dangling from the twisted podocarp trees that close in on us on all sides. ‘We’re a legacy. And we’re here because of the families, this was their idea. This is a memorial to them, and to the 29 miners who were killed.’ The families have also been heavily involved in the construction process, meeting with Ben and colleagues every two weeks for consultation on everything from track signage to the opening ceremony.
As well as this symbolism, there is also the economic importance of the track, in the hope that tourism — both domestic and international — can replace a regional mining industry that was already flagging compared to the heyday of the early 20th century. After the Pike River disaster, underground mining on the West Coast has now effectively been shut down completely (although a fall in the international price of coal may have made this an inevitability anyway).
‘The families wanted this track to revitalise the West Coast, it’s not all about Pike,’ continues Ben. ‘Everyone involved knows it’s a privilege to be working on this.’ As exhibited by the return of residents to Blackball, the hope is that decades of economic and demographic decline can be reversed by the track, that tragedy can be turned into opportunity to bring something good from the disaster.
We slowly descend the mountainside, passing gigantic rimu trees lying on their sides, upturned by vicious winds, their roots now exposed for the whole world to see. The path meanders through the forest, past many awe-inspiring medieval trunks whose lifespans could easily predate human habitation on New Zealand. We duck the occasional low-hanging branch or overgrown stinging nettles, evidence of where finishing touches need to be introduced before the grand opening. Occasionally, Ben will halt in his tracks, a finger to his lips, and proceed to identify the orchestra of birdsong that accompanies us along the way; bellbirds, kea, and kererū (New Zealand wood pigeons) being frequent contributors. Fantails flit between branches, their twitching movements making it impossible to capture their stunning black-and-white plumage on camera, while tiny tomtits hop from tree to tree, their yellow chests giving them the appearance of miscoloured robins.
Eventually we enter the Pororari river valley, where the path clings desperately to the rocky cliff edge during our winding descent. Picturing the construction team down here precariously carving this path through the valley gives me an uncomfortable shot of vertigo, especially with nikau palm trees seemingly defying the laws of physics as they dangle from rocky outcrops. Pulling cobwebs from my face — evidence of the little footfall that has been seen to date — we follow the river along its final home straight, before eventually emerging at the river mouth. We collapse on a sundrenched grassy patch, the vast Tasman Sea opening out in front of us.
For a region of the country that’s experienced little more than gradual demise for at least half a century, people are daring to believe that a corner is being turned. By the end of the year, the construction crews far back up on the ridge line will have finished their work, packed up and gone home, and the empty track behind us will be alive with trampers. The key question is whether the Paparoa track will be simply a nice walk in the forest, or whether it can also act as a highly symbolic catalyst to commemorate extreme tragedy, and help pull the West Coast back up onto its feet again.
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