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.
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.