New Zealand


Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS PHOEBE SMITH

With the tenth New Zealand Great Walk set to launch, we take an ex­clu­sive peek at the trail that is look­ing to bring new life to the West Coast’s old min­ing towns

As New Zealand’s West Coast looks to move on from its min­ing past, a new Great Walk may of­fer a life­line to one of its for­got­ten com­mu­ni­ties. We take an ex­clu­sive look at a trail in progress

Over on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Is­land there is a town that few know even ex­ists. Made up of small clap­board houses, wide and fairly empty streets and a lit­tle com­mu­nity of around 300 peo­ple, its name is Black­ball. I stood out­side a small build­ing deep within this tiny ham­let and looked up to a weather-beaten sign that de­clared this to be ‘For­merly The Black­ball Hil­ton’. Across the road the cur­tains twitched. I felt like I was the only per­son to have vis­ited in about 40 years – which is pos­si­bly true.

Black­ball was once a thriv­ing min­ing com­mu­nity famed for its strikes and union ac­tion in the early 1900s. But all that changed in 1964 with the clo­sure of its last mine. Over the years that fol­lowed, res­i­dent num­bers de­creased and Black­ball be­came one of the South Is­land’s for­got­ten town­ships. Un­til now. Be­cause this set­tle­ment is about to be­come the start­ing point for a brand new of­fi­cial Great Walk – the tenth in New Zealand’s list of rec­om­mended and des­ig­nated hikes and the first new one for 25 years.

“It re­ally came about be­cause of the lo­cal fam­i­lies,” ex­plained Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion ranger Ben Hodg­son, who I met in nearby Grey­mouth, a 20-minute drive from Black­ball. He ex­plained how, fol­low­ing the min­ing disas­ter in 2010 at the nearby Pike River Mine, which saw the loss of 29 men, the com­mu­nity was keen to cre­ate some­thing pos­i­tive to re­mem­ber them by.

“The idea was to build an in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre and walk to the site, but it kind of grew into a three-day tramp that not only nod­ded to the area’s min­ing past but was also a pos­i­tive way to re­call those we’ve lost, and hope­fully bring tourism to the area, too.”

Back in Black­ball, I wan­dered into the yel­low-and-red-painted wooden ho­tel with my walk­ing com­pan­ion and kiwi na­tive, Hanna.

“What kind of cof­fee do you have?” she asked the older, grufflook­ing man be­hind the bar. He looked at her as though she had asked the ques­tion in French. “Latte? Flat white…?” she per­sisted.

“Black or white?” he replied, perplexed. She nod­ded her un­der­stand­ing, or­dered and we took a seat.

The ho­tel’s name, I learned from its owner, Cyn­thia, had been changed to in­clude the word ‘for­merly’ in the 1990s, fol­low­ing a law­suit from the cor­po­rate chain of the same name. It re­sem­bled less a pub and more a liv­ing room-cum-work­ing men’s club, com­plete with wry posters about min­ers, shov­els stuck to the wall, sepia pho­to­graphs of dusty-faced men and mis­matched cush­ions scat­tered around (very comfy) chairs.

“The town doesn’t re­ally know what’s com­ing,” ex­plained Cyn­thia as she showed me around the hun­dred-year-old ho­tel, its floor­boards creak­ing un­der my boots. “But I keep telling them that this walk is a big deal; it will help re­vive the com­mu­nity. I’m adding camper­van park­ing; we’ll be putting on a shut­tle to pick walk­ers up from the end of the lin­ear trail and bring them back to the start. It could re­ally be the mak­ing of Black­ball – if we do it right.”

One foot in front of the other

Pleased to be start­ing a Great Walk from a truly char­ac­ter­ful ho­tel (rather than a face­less, mo­not­o­nous chain), shar­ing drinks with lo­cals and with­out a coach party in sight, Hanna and I set off

⊳ on a high, mak­ing for the track that be­gins a few kilo­me­tres north of the town at Smoke-ho car park.

Day one shares the route of the pre-ex­ist­ing Croe­sus Track, which was orig­i­nally cre­ated in 1881, dur­ing the min­ing boom, as a pack road for horses and bul­locks. It was built to al­low ac­cess and, cru­cially, trans­porta­tion into the Pa­paroa range – the site of sev­eral gold and quartz mines. Within just a few min­utes of walk­ing, we were im­mersed in a ver­dant for­est of beech trees and podocarp conifers. The track was clear but rough un­der­foot, our boots crunch­ing on the lit­tle stones that lined it. The sound­track was that of run­ning water as we crossed the epony­mous creek sev­eral times on wob­bly sus­pen­sion bridges that lim­ited foot­fall to one hiker at a time.

The thick, earthy scent of an­cient wood­land filled our nos­trils, mak­ing me feel as though I was amid a land­scape so much older than my­self. We walked in con­tem­pla­tive si­lence, the kind that only scenery such as this tends to in­spire. I felt as though some­thing was fol­low­ing us, and jumped mo­men­tar­ily as a bird flit­ted across the path in front of me. It was a fan­tail (or pi­wai­waka, as it’s known in Maori), named af­ter its long, white-edged rear feath­ers that do in­deed fan out when it perches on branches and calls out in a loud, chat­ter­ing sound. Our com­pan­ion fol­lowed us for at least a kilo­me­tre as we as­cended the gen­tle slope up­hill, feed­ing on the myr­iad in­sects we dis­turbed as we walked.

We stopped around the half­way point dur­ing this five-hour me­an­der, rest­ing at a pretty stream to eat and watch more fan­tails emerge and fly boldly close to us. While Hanna en­joyed the sun­shine, I searched the un­der­growth for ex­am­ples of gi­ant ferns and came across an En­toloma hochstet­teri mush­room, which was so bright blue in colour that I thought it couldn’t pos­si­bly be real.

A lit­tle fur­ther up was the turn-off for a short de­tour to Gar­den Gully. When this track was first forged in 1864, it was de­scribed by its cre­ators as travers­ing through ‘some of the rough­est coun­try ever trav­elled by man’. Thank­fully, in the years that fol­lowed, it was im­proved and is now just an easy stroll to the hut of the same name, which was built in 1903. Made of cor­ru­gated iron and cal­ico walls (which were re­placed a lit­tle over ten years ago), the struc­ture is found in a lit­tle clear­ing. When en­ter­ing, it feels as though you’re emerg­ing through a wood­land por­tal and into an­other time.

Ex­plor­ing nearby, I reached the fork of Black­ball Creek and star­tled a na­tive – and supremely rare – blue duck (aka a whio). Once found all over the coun­try, due to habi­tat loss, pre­da­tion by in­tro­duced mam­mals and damming schemes, their num­bers are rapidly dwin­dling, with only five thought to be in this par­tic­u­lar re­gion and less than 700 pairs on the en­tire South Is­land. I re­garded my en­dan­gered find cu­ri­ously, watch­ing as he stared with yel­low eyes. His grey feath­ers were speck­led brown on his chest and the tip of his beak sparkled a deep black, as though it had been dipped in fresh ink.

‘We walked in con­tem­pla­tive si­lence, the kind that only scenery such as this tends to in­spire’

⊳ See­ing a blue duck is a sign of a healthy water source, as they need fast-flow­ing sup­plies with a healthy canopy above. Sci­en­tists be­lieve they are one of the world’s most an­cient species, show­ing fea­tures from the early stages of wa­ter­fowl evo­lu­tion. For­get the gold the min­ers sought, I mused, this was Pa­paroa’s real trea­sure.

Do­ing it right

Amid the won­der­ful wildlife, we were con­tin­u­ously con­fronted with rem­nants of the hu­man past, from a bat­tery site to old mine en­trances and rusted rails where tramways would once have trav­elled. It was funny to think that a place now so peace­ful – where we only passed a cou­ple of other peo­ple who were de­scend­ing the trail on moun­tain bikes – was once a bustling hive of ac­tiv­ity.

A cou­ple of hours later, we emerged from the green­ery and out onto open hill­side. When the Pa­paroa Track is fin­ished in 2019, the first stop will be a newly built hut called Moon­light Tops. This was still un­der con­struc­tion when I vis­ited, how­ever, so we were des­tined in­stead for the Ces Clark Hut, a 16-bunk cabin that over­looked not only the for­est through which we’d wan­dered but Grey River to the east, the Tas­man Sea to the west and across to the Pa­paroa Na­tional Park, through which this new­est Great Walk passes.

“There may well be oth­ers here tonight,” warned Hanna as we ap­proached the wooden door. I knocked – out of habit – and en­tered to find that we had the place to our­selves. The views from the huge win­dows were mind-blow­ing. It was hard to be­lieve that such a place is avail­able to walk­ers for just the tiny sum of NZ$15 (£7.70) per night.

As the sun set, we de­cided to take our food and wan­der along what is now the brand new Pa­paroa Track. It took us up and over un­du­lat­ing hill­side cov­ered in tus­sock grass, where elu­sive kiwi roam at night and red mark­ers still flap in the wind as in­di­ca­tors for the track builders. Clouds swirled as we got ever higher along the range, near­ing the 1,200m mark. Af­ter about an hour, we stopped on a lit­tle rise from where we could see, for now, that the track ended and a lit­tle bull­dozer sat wait­ing for its op­er­a­tor to con­tinue.

“Be­yond there is the Moon­light Tops Hut that will sleep up to 20 peo­ple,” ex­plained Hanna. “Then a lit­tle fur­ther on is the turn-off for the de­tour along the Pike 29 Me­mo­rial Track, down to the site of the in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre.”

When the fam­i­lies of the lo­cal men who had died came up with the idea for the new walk­ing route, it was ini­tially go­ing to be named af­ter the disas­ter it­self. How­ever, in work­ing with the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion, they de­cided that a bet­ter way would be to cre­ate a much longer-last­ing cel­e­bra­tion of the lives of those lost in the in­ci­dent, nam­ing the route in­stead af­ter the great moun­tain range that de­fines this part of the West Coast, with an op­tional add-on trail to the mine that will also be com­pleted next year. With a visit to Black­ball at the start – a place steeped in lo­cal min­ing his­tory – plus the many re­minders of silently rust­ing machin­ery found

‘The trail took us up and over un­du­lat­ing hill­side cov­ered in tus­sock grass, where elu­sive kiwi roam at night’

⊳ along the trail, those men and the hardships that they en­dured were never far from our minds.

The next morn­ing, we woke early, roused from our sleep by sun­rise peek­ing up over the neigh­bour­ing moun­tain tops. As I emerged from the build­ing, I found that we were sur­rounded by thick white clouds. Seem­ingly perched on an is­land in the midst of it all, I called to Hanna to wit­ness this cloud in­ver­sion. There we sat, eat­ing break­fast on the bench out­side. Though it was still damp from the morn­ing’s mildew, we didn’t mind – it was a small price to pay to be part of this dawn­scape.

Mak­ing tracks

With the track cur­rently go­ing no fur­ther along the moun­tain ridge, our only op­tion for the next day was to cut out the gap in the mid­dle and do some of what will be day three of the of­fi­cial walk. But Ben had come up with a rather cun­ning plan.

The me­thod­i­cal buzz of ro­tat­ing he­li­copter blades be­gan to fill the still moun­tain air. Used pri­mar­ily to trans­port work­ers to con­tinue con­struc­tion on the path, Hanna and I were of­fered a lift back down with Ben in the chop­per, from which we would get a bird’s eye view of the track’s planned tra­verse.

There’s some­thing supremely spe­cial about see­ing a path as it’s be­ing cre­ated. From the air, the range seemed to rise and fall like the bumpy spine of a rep­tile, while tiny fig­ures in or­ange vests moved along it like bustling ants.

“There’s Moon­light Tops Hut,” said the pi­lot, ges­tur­ing down to the skele­tal form of a build­ing that will soon be ready to ac­cept hik­ers. He pointed over to the trees head­ing down into Pike Val­ley where red beech trees and dwarf alpine scrub twisted to form a thick pocket of wood­land so Tolkienesque in char­ac­ter that you’d be for­given for imag­in­ing an orc or a troll might emerge from be­hind their trunks at any sec­ond. We soared over the point where the Pa­paroa Track winds along the sprawl­ing es­carp­ment, tee­ter­ing along­side sheer drops and knuck­les of ex­posed gran­ite and gneiss veined with quartz, be­fore de­scend­ing back into the wood­land to the site of the sec­ond hut – Poro­rari. We couldn’t land there and walk out as there was still no path to be trod­den, but we did get dropped off near to the Poro­rari River (af­ter which the hut is named) and walk most of the third day’s fourhour hike in re­verse.

Ben joined us on a path where nikau palms jos­tled for at­ten­tion be­tween the broadleaf trees, mak­ing it feel sub­trop­i­cal and very dif­fer­ent from the wood­land to the south. De­spite be­ing dis­tracted by the shrill call of the tui birds, stop­ping when Ben pointed out the white-and-turquoise-breasted New Zealand pi­geon (or kereru) and al­most stum­bling over a na­tive ground-dwelling weka (also known col­lo­qui­ally as a ‘false kiwi’), I trained my eye on the path it­self. Con­sid­er­ing that this stone-cov­ered trail had been in the mak­ing for over a year now, it looked re­mark­ably nat­u­ral.

‘We soared over the es­carp­ment, tee­ter­ing along­side sheer drops and knuck­les of ex­posed gran­ite’

⊳ “That’s what’s so good about the Great Walks,” ex­plained Ben. “They make a man-made path look as though no work has gone into it at all; as though it’s just nat­u­rally cleaved its way through the ter­rain.”

We fol­lowed the river for sev­eral kilo­me­tres, and as we did, rain be­gan to fall in thick glob­ules and the path be­came in­creas­ingly muddy. Just as we reached a large bridge, we stum­bled upon the very men who were painstak­ingly cre­at­ing it.

“We’ve had a real set­back,” said one, mak­ing a fu­tile at­tempt at wip­ing his brow, only to be im­me­di­ately pelted again with the now hard-fall­ing rain. “Last month, we had so much bad weather that two month’s worth of work was es­sen­tially washed out overnight. You can go a lit­tle fur­ther, but not much.”

It was dif­fi­cult to imag­ine what a thank­less task it must be to build the kind of walk­ing tracks that New Zealand is fa­mous for. The frag­ile na­ture of these trails en­sures that they are highly sus­cep­ti­ble to de­struc­tion – es­pe­cially when in their in­fancy – mean­ing those build­ing them of­ten have to work on the same sec­tion sev­eral times. Then there is the knowl­edge that if you’ve done your job well, hik­ers won’t ever ac­tu­ally ac­knowl­edge any of your hard graft at all.

“It’s what we do,” said an­other worker when I men­tioned it. “Our thanks come from the plea­sure it brings the tram­pers (hik­ers) who come to New Zealand and the last­ing legacy we are cre­at­ing here.”

Full of hope for this walk and the ben­e­fits it could bring to this oft-over­looked re­gion, we headed back, fol­low­ing the trail to­wards its ter­mi­nus at Pu­nakaiki – also known as the Pan­cake Rocks.

As we emerged into the busy car park, where fam­i­lies were buy­ing ice-creams and tourists were snap­ping self­ies next to the lay­ers of lime­stone that make up these coastal ge­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tions, it was funny to think that a new type of vis­i­tor – the hiker – would soon be here, too. Walks are ubiq­ui­tous in this coun­try, and great walks even more so. As Cyn­thia told me be­fore I set out from Black­ball: with the com­ing of the Pa­paroa Track, the fu­ture for New Zealand’s West Coast is look­ing in­fin­itely more promis­ing. For a com­mu­nity that his­tor­i­cally has searched be­neath the earth for an in­come, things – and peo­ple – are fi­nally look­ing up. And if we’re very lucky, Cyth­nia may even add cap­puc­ci­nos to the menu.

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