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Paparoa Track: New Zealands Great Walk is just the tonic for the Covid-weary


Staff member
Dec 16, 2021
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For the Covid-weary, the Omicron over-its and self-isolation saturated, New Zealand's newest Great Walk may be just the tonic.
As recovery models go, the Paparoa Track in the spectacular Paparoa mountain range and national park, forged the template. Calamity, catastrophe, collapse, this track and its environs have survived the lot - often more than once and now stand testament to regeneration being possible after even the darkest of days.

The examples are many and inspiring.

Reconstituted from historical mining and farming access ways, the Track rose from the proverbial ashes of the 2011 Pike River mining disaster as a memorial to the 29 miners lost in the tragedy. A partnership between their families, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Ngti Waewae, both the Track and its Pike29 Memorial Track adjunct which opens in December 2022, overlook the mine area at one point, ensuring its significance to our nation will itself never be overlooked.

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Also significant is the Track's boost to the local economy. Part of a renewed focus on a low carbon, co-operatively managed and more sustainable future for the South Island's West Coast, its users pump welcome cash into a region hard hit by the downturn of the coal mining industry. Nowhere is this more evident than at Blackball and Punakaiki, the townships nearest the Track start and finish, where new and old enterprises flourish, such as transportation services to reunite track users with their vehicles and historic West Coast pubs re-inventing themselves as hiker and biker accommodation.

The Paparoa Track is the tenth Great Walk.

Nature has done its share of revitalising, too, albeit after having wreaked considerable havoc. Day Three of our walk brought evidence of catastrophic cyclone damage, the bleached carcasses of massive beech, rimu and kahikatea trees strewn across hillsides in a gigantic game of pick-up sticks.

However, Day Four bore witness to Nature's response. A veritable arboretum of new shrubs and saplings thrived in the light created by the felled forest giants, breathing health back into shattered landscapes and kickstarting interrupted ecosystems.

It was a similar life reboot that our group of mature hikers wanted from their Paparoa Track experience. For maximum pandemic pick-me-up - and maybe because of our age - we opted to complete its 55km (56.2km for mountain bikers) over four days and three nights, rather than combining the first two shorter days into one, as many walkers and most bikers do. So, it was with hopeful hearts that we flew to Christchurch, drove hire cars to Blackball for an overnight stay, and kicked off Day One on the Track with a pre-booked shuttle ride to its Smoke-ho carpark start.

John Gardiner
We delighted in graceful bridges crossing bouncing rivers.

Despite carrying all our food, eating and cooking utensils, bedding and clothing, Day One's 10.3 km uphill climb was (almost) a walk in the park due to the delightful distractions. We soaked in the oxygenated air, songs of the bellbird and shining cuckoo, graceful bridges over bouncing rivers and wind-whooshed beech and podocarp trees. Doffing my pack at the base of a massive rimu, come lunchtime, it was with a deep sigh of appreciation for the remarkable capacity of alpine forest to restore sanity and spirit.

And oh, the view from Ces Clark Hut that first night! Perched atop the sub-alpine bush line, it was tonic indeed, with some in our party even moved to add gin.

Day Two pushed the reset button in a different way. The 9.7km trail from Ces Clark Hut to the purpose built Moonlight Tops Hut follows the tussocky spine of the Paparoa Range, Aoraki Mt Cook visible in the distance on a clear day. Sadly, cloud cocooned us much of the day, lifting only occasionally to offer vignettes of the spectacular coastal, mountain and river views we were missing.

Rare it would be to walk the Paparoa Track without the weather closing in at some stage but, strangely, this also proved restorative. We walked alone with our thoughts or in companionable silence with tramp mates, arriving at Moonlight Tops primed to enjoy a convivial evening and the breathtaking sunset and escarpment views.

We would cross that escarpment on Day Three, one of many distinct and distinctly beautiful environments along the 19-kilometre stretch from Moonlight Tops to the modern, 20-bed Pororari Hut. Despite the distance, the gnarled rock outcrops, pick-up-sticks hillsides, ancient forest, precipitous bluffs, surprise waterfalls and Lord of the Rings grottos, kept wonder and energy alive.

That evening we were introduced to yet another of the Track's metamorphic miracles, this one resulting from the successful efforts of the Paparoa Wildlife Trust to grow populations of iconic wildlife species in the Paparoa Range, particularly Great Spotted Kiwi, or Roroa. DOC ranger, Doug, encouraged us to listen for the one that regularly called near the hut around 9.30pm, and I would certainly have done so had sleep not overcome me much, much earlier.

John Gardiner/Supplied
Day Three featured a dramatic escarpment on the left and a view toward the Pike River mine on the right.

Day Four's symbol of hope that was the regenerating trees and shrubs, along with its picture perfect rivers, lush nikau groves and prolific bird life, made this my favourite walking day, helped in no small measure by lighter packs and a downhill slope.

Emerging after 16km through the carved archway into the Pororari River carpark, I felt elated. Completing the walk had been no small feat, but more I felt cleansed of the lockdown lethargy and the Covid fears and frustrations of recent years.

In their place was greater faith in our ability to recover - from the perils of a pandemic or anything else. Granted, it would take healthy dollops of patience, collaboration and good old West Coast determination, but if the people and nature of the Paparoa Track could do it, time and again, then surely we could too.

John Gardiner/Supplied
Exiting the Paparoa Track at the West Coast settlement of Punakaiki, I felt elated.

To learn more about the Paparoa Track and Pike 29 Memorial Track, or to make accommodation and vehicle transfer bookings, go to the Department of Conservation website here.

More information at here.

Sue Halliwell is a Whngrei-based travel writer specialising in adventure travel opportunities for the 60-plus age group.

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