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The Paparoa Track

Published
April 1, 2021
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THE PAPAROA TRACK is New Zealand's most recently-commissioned Great Walk. Running from Blackball to Punakaiki, the Paparoa Track partly follows an old gold-miners' pathway with the hopeful name of the Croesus Track. And it partly also follows a brand-new course, including the epic gorge of the Pororari River.

This part of New Zealand is probably the southernmost place on earth where you will find "tropical" jungle with palm trees and giant tree ferns. It's 42 degrees south. But intense and continual rainfall and the moderating influence of the nearby Tasman Sea keeps the frosts, which are the main enemy of that kind of ecology, at bay.

The weather was mostly bad when I did the track even though it was late February, normally the sunniest time of the year. Apparently the views across Paparoa National Park are amazing when the mists clear. So, I will have to come back some time when there really is a break in the weather!

I've included some New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) videos filmed in better weather to demonstrate the views, meanwhile.

My own photos and video start from the Blackball end and finish at Punakaiki. But first, a map of the track, from DOC's official brochure.

From DOC, 'Paparoa Track' (downloadable brochure), October 2020, CC BY 4.0.

Beginning at Blackball

The track can be hiked in both directions, but I started from the south end, which is recommended, especially for mountain bikers but also for hikers, as it gets most of the climbing ouf of the way on a comparatively short section of track where you can also camp, if you want to split the climb, at historic old hotel and mining sites.

Here's the Smoke-ho car park at the end of the road from Blackball. From Blackball, which is a charming old historic mining town in itself – the site of a legendary 1908 strike for demands that included extending a miserable 15 minute lunch break to half an hour ('luxury': Monty Python)  – you go up Roa Road, which is sealed, and then an unsealed road called Blackball Road to the Smoke-ho carpark.

Blackball, which sports a Museum of Working Class History among other things, has grown in popularity as a place to live and visit in recent years. There's a relative housing shortage in the larger towns on the West Coast now, and so people are looking at Blackball for bargains. According to an article in Wilderness magazine, the founder of the Museum of Working Class History bought a house in Blackball for NZ $10,000. Mind you, I think that would be a bit more difficult now.

The only drawback with the course of the track is that if you only have one vehicle, you have to somehow either get back to your starting point or else have someone drive it to the other end. A range of transport services from vans to vehicle relocation are provided by at least two track services operators, PaparoaGreatWalk and Paparoa Shuttles. PaparoaGreatWalk also provide accommodation, and Paparoa Shuttles also provide mountain bike hire.

And a photo of myself looking all keen, beside the sign at the track's beginning. The first hut, some five hours along, is called the Ces Clark Hut, after a forest ranger who played a large part in getting the Croesus Track re-made in the early to mid-1980s. The next hut, after that, is called Te Whare Atarau or Moonlight Tops Hut.

The first part of the track, including a leg that branches off to Barrytown (not on the Great Walk), is the part known as the Croesus Track. It's a name that reflects the old time miners' hopeful expectations of being 'as rich as Croesus'. There's lots of historical memories along this part of the track.

They were even looking for uranium here for a while back in the fifties, but, fortunately perhaps, didn't find too much of it.

This is what the early stages of the track, near Barrytown, look like.

Eventually, the Ces Clark Hut, erected in the mid-1980s, hove into view in the mist: it's the little white building on the ridge. There's also the old, historic Croesus Top Hut nearby.

The Ces Clark Hut hut contained lots of interesting photos, maps and information books. There was a photo of Ces Clark (in the red shirt) and his uncle, from 1986. Ces Clark died on the track, and so the hut is dedicated to his memory.

There are good views from the hut's deck in fine weather. In this photo you can just see some plains in the background.

Here's the track between Ces Clark Hut and the Moonlight Tops.

The Croesus Knob View Point, though not much of a view on this particular day of course.

With all these hills, mists, and something that looks like heather, you'd think you were in Scotland! It's all the more remarkable when you think that closer to the coast, toward the end, the track descends into a jungle of palm trees. That's one thing about New Zealand, namely, plenty of scenic variety. It's not like you have to drive hundreds of kilometres for a change of scene, as in some countries.

Eventually you come to a spot where the Croesus Track branches off and heads down to Barrytown. Meanwhile, Paparoa Track walkers head onto the Moonlight Tops.

It pays to book well in advance: the huts are currently NZ $45 a night for adults, and all the details and arrangements are on DOC's Paparoa Track and Pike29 Track page. It doesn't cost anything to simply walk or bike the track, and it is possible to camp for free at a few historic locations on the Croesus Track south of Ces Clark Hut as well. A detailed description of the Croesus Track and the places you can camp is given on this New Zealand Tramper page.

Hiking the Croesus Track from Barrytown to Blackball with a tent is a good option for a fit person if the huts on the Paparoa Track are booked out. You'd then arrive at the historic campsites late in the day, and be able to pitch your tent and crash there for the night, before getting up the next day and carrying on to the Smoke-ho carpark. You can't camp at the carpark, by the way.

Along with Croesus, the name Moonlight has its origins in mining days. It commemorates the nineteenth-century prospector George Fairweather Moonlight, one of those larger-than-life characters who seem to have populated old-time New Zealand and left their mark in various placenames. There's a Moonlight Track and a locality known as Moonlight near Queenstown, too, not to mention an ancient body of water that laid down limestone near Queenstown, which geologists now call the Moonlight Sea.

With none of today's modern equipment, Moonlight nevertheless discovered several of the South Island's most famous goldfields, in areas that were incredibly remote and inaccessible at the time. Goodness knows how. It was as if he could sniff it out.

Moonlight's discovery of gold in the Paparoa ranges around 1865 is regarded as his greatest single achievement as a prospector. He was to make a fortune, go broke again, and tragically perish from the cold in the hills above Nelson while trying to discover yet another goldfield in order to restore his fortunes.

I think that that even after the passage of years there are still novels to be written, and films made, about such characters. This particular seam of storytelling gold is by no means used up!

Te Whare Atarau, the hut's Māori name, means the house of moonlight, shadow, or the early dawn. You could read it as a translation of Moonlight Hut; but there is also a village nearby called Atarau, just up the valley of the Grey River from Blackball on the north side. Presumably that name existed before Mr Moonlight started looking for gold in the region. So, I suppose the Māori name of the hut must have a double significance.

Here's a DOC video about the building of the hut, which was deliberately designed to take advantage of the magnificent views from the tops, weather permitting.

I haven't got too many photos from these tops, ironically, as the weather was so bad. But they are supposed to be a highlight of the track. Here's a DOC photo of the Whare Atarau or Moonlight Tops Hut, which is apparently very good in all directions on a fine day.

Photo by Lauren Kelley for DOC, CC BY 4.0

And so from there on to the Pororari Hut.

On this leg of the track, you come off the bare tops eventually and into a type of gnarly, moss-hanging, Tolkeinesque forest that grows above tropical rain forests and also above New Zealand rainforests. Scientists call this kind of forest 'cloud forest', but New Zealand hikers call it 'goblin forest'.

The Waterfall Creek Suspension Bridge, one of four on the Paparoa Track

This section includes the Pike Escarpment, which has an emergency shelter and which is also supposed to command amazing views on a fine day (I wouldn't know!). The Pike Escarpment is near the ill-fated Pike River coal mine, which blew up as recently as 2010, killing 29 miners. The Pike 29 memorial track, branching off this section of the Paparoa Track, is being made in their honour and will open later in 2021

Here's a Television New Zealand news item from 2019 describing the opening of the Paparoa Track and how, in the interim, the Paparoa Track was considered a tribute to the Pike 29.

There is now a memorial garden at the village of Atarau. However, the Pike29 track and any fully-fledged interpretive site on it still won't be open for a while, as it awaits the completion of forensic investigations and remediation of the mine, somethng that will take until the end of 2021 on the current schedule.

After more than nineteen kilometres from the Whare Atarau/Moonlight Tops Hut, I got to Pororari Hut, a fairly sizable edifice on top of a 545-metre local promontory, once more chosen for its views.

At the Pororari Hut
At this stage the track is starting to dip down out of the goblin forest and into the lusher coastal rainforest

Some of the dead wood is being cut up to supply the hut with firewood: see the axe

I got lots of photos of the misty sunset here

More curious vegetation

A curious three pronged knob, amid the hills

A forest of giant tree ferns here, as if it were 250 million years ago. A literally Jurassic part of the park.

In the fabulous ferny forest

Watson Creek Suspension Bridge

The tops of tree ferns growing below a high spot on the track

Along the Pororari River, the Paparoa Track also crosses the Inland Pack Track, a very popular track, at least on the section that runs between Waikori Road and Bullock Creek Road.

Where the Paparoa Track crosses the Inland Pack Track at the Lower Pororari River Suspension Bridge, the fourth suspension bridge on the Paparoa Track (though the Paparoa Track remains on one side of this bridge, and you only cross it if you want to go on the northern part of the Inland Pack Track)

Slightly outdated map of tracks in the Punakaiki area including the section of the Inland Pack Track that runs between Waikori Road and Bullock Creek Road. This map does not show the section of the Paparoa Track which runs up the Pororari River from the Inland Pack Track, only the section that runs downstream (the pre-existing Pororari River Track). LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY-SA 4.0.

As you can see from the map just above, this last section runs through some pretty amazing country as well.

We are now in the warm coastal rainforest, which is perhaps at its very lushest in the sheltered gorges of the biggest local rivers, where cold winds hardly ever penetrate. This is New Zealand as it was twenty million years ago: the lost world.

Lastly, here are the gates of the Park at Punakaiki, Māori-themed but in a metallic, modern style. In New Zealand this would never be done as a matter of 'appropriation', or at least not these days. But rather by Māori artists themselves, picking up where the old traditional styles left off, and giving them a new twist.

Here's a video I made recapitulating my journey and its soggy highlights, from just after Ces Clark Hut through to the coastal jungles of Punakaiki. Which of course has its own attractions in the form of the famous pancake rocks and blowholes, as well as the short, coastal ramble of the Truman Track.

Finally, no trip itinerary that ends at Punakaiki is complete without a description of Punakaiki itself. The last thing you want to do is pack up and go, without taking in the wonderland of Punakaiki and its limestone 'pancake rocks'.

There is a really good tourism website for Punakaiki, with video: punakaiki.co.nz.

The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park. Photograph by Nicolas Lair, CC BY 2.0 via the DOC webpage on Paparoa National Park.

Punakaiki comes from puna, meaning spring, or ocean blowhole in this context, and kaiki, meaning 'in a heap': a reference to the heavily layered 'pancake' rocks.

For more, see the DOC webpage on the Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track.

Also, New Zealand Tramper pages on the Croesus Track and the Inland Pack Track. The relevant DOC pages on these are cursory by comparison.

The web page of PaparoaGreatWalk is paparoagreatwalk.co.nz and the web page of Paparoa Shuttles is paparoashuttles.co.nz.

There is a very good Wilderness magazine article which I linked to above when talking about Blackball, called 'More than a Track'. You should be able to manage a free read, though I would recommend subscribing if you have any interest in the New Zealand outdoors at all, as Wilderness, and another publication called New Zealand Geographic, are two of the best outdoors magazines I've come across worldwide, and both of them local productions to boot.

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