As a first step in reopening international borders in my part of the world, Australians and New Zealanders can now (since April 19) travel freely between their two countries without the need to quarantine. Hopefully, other nations will be able to join us soon, but meanwhile I’ll be taking this opportunity to fly across the Tasman and gaze once more upon the spectacularly beautiful landscapes of New Zealand.
The rugged west coast of the South Island, for example, is a wild area I love exploring and a relatively new three-day hiking or two-day biking trail will show it at its wildest. (I haven’t done this actual walk because its planned opening in late 2019 was delayed until March 2020 and then entry was restricted by COVID, but I’ve travelled extensively in the region and know the area well.)
The Paparoa Track is New Zealand’s 10th and newest Great Walk and hikers will experience the Pororari River Gorge, towering limestone cliffs, remnants from the region’s mining history and ever-changing forest that transforms from beech to rainforest, studded with nīkau palms.
Māori for “long place”, the Paparoa mountain range looks out over the South Island’s dramatic west coast, punctuated by peaks and threaded with rivers. The trail offers breathtaking views that change with the seasons. There are steep sections, particularly challenging in rain, but the rewards make the slog an afterthought. Highlights include the Lone Hand rock outcropping on the north side of the Pororari River, the Pororari River Gorge, which is dotted with swimming holes, and the ridgetop vistas that extend from the Southern Alps to the Tasman Sea.
The walk begins on the Croesus Track, which, after about 20km, reaches the newly constructed Moonlight Tops Hut. With views across the Punakaiki River to the Pike Stream escarpment and off to the Tasman Sea, the 20-bunk hut is a welcome respite for hikers – especially at sunset. With mattresses, running water, toilets, gas cookers and heating, the hut feels as satisfying as checking into a five-star hotel after a long tramp through the wilderness. Bookings are essential year-round.
The west coast was built on precious resources, from the sacred pounamu (greenstone) that Māori would trek here to collect, to the gold found in the 1860s to the coal mined more recently. From gold-rush relics to old coal mines, there are reminders of the area’s mining history all around. Interpretive signs explain the region’s roots along the way.
A wealth of wildlife
Paparoa National Park covers about 38,000ha. The Paparoa Wildlife Trust works with the Department of Conservation to make it a haven for some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable species. With a network of traps to control predators and a 12.5ha kiwi creche, there’s a good chance of hearing – or even seeing – roroa (great spotted kiwi). Other birds unique to New Zealand that live around these parts include the ruru (native owl), korimako (bellbird), kereru (pigeon), whio (blue duck) and kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. It’s a good idea to carry a pocket guide to birds, or even download an app that recognises bird calls.
Getting to the Paparoa Track
The Paparoa Track starts near Blackball (Smoke-ho car park) and emerges at Punakaiki (Pororari River car park). The ideal time to walk is between September and May. At 55km from end to end the hiking trail takes three days to complete. It’s also open to mountain bikers who should be able to complete the trail in two days.
While in Punakaiki, check out the pancake rocks pictured below and elsewhere in this blog. They are the most visited natural attraction on the West Coast, their foundations formed 30 million years ago from the remains of marine life, resulting in a heavily eroded limestone area where the sea bursts through blowholes in the rock.
Greymouth is the nearest town to both the start and finish of the track. If travelling from Christchurch on the east coast, take the spectacular TranzAlpine scenic rail journey through the Southern Alps – which I can thoroughly recommend – and pick up a rental car from Greymouth Railway Station, where the train terminates. Blackball is 24km (25 minutes driving time) from Greymouth and Punakaiki is 45km (40 minutes driving).
The road between Greymouth and Westport – known as The Great Coast Road – has been lauded by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world. It's a 90-minute drive but well worth taking the extra time to appreciate the many natural features. There is also a range of shuttle services and tours for travellers who want to sit back and relax.
An add-on or standalone walk, the Pike29 Memorial Track, will be opened at a later date. It’s an 11km hike one way and will stand as a tribute to the men who lost their lives in the 2010 Pike River Mine disaster.