A long dream: Paparoa
Seven Wellington bureaucrats and a lawyer enter the Punakaiki Tavern. No, it isn’t the start of a bad joke, just of a jolly good adventure on the Paparoa Track.
I was mildly stressed as we sat down in the tavern. Well mildly might be putting it lightly. We had left it to the night before the trip to organise how we were getting to the start of the track at the Smoke-Ho carpark, just out of Blackball. My stressed turned out to be ill-founded however, as Moira and Scott had our dilemma sorted with a quick conversation with Craig at the campground. On their return we relieved any leftover stress over a pint before turning in for the night, eager for whatever adventure the rising sun might bring with it.
Day one: Smoke-Ho Carpark to Moonlight Tops Hut
Sure enough Craig was ready and waiting for us at 8am, smiling ear to ear as our contingent of 8 filled up his van that would have only had two mountain bikers in it otherwise. As we bounced down State Highway 6 Craig gave us a wonderful commentary on the areas we travelled through. Favourite moments included being told about the petrel-heads of the coast (the annual festival to celebrate the return of the Westland Petrel/Tāiko) and a coal mine that had been burning for 30 years (and still had 100 years to go). The latter brought visible tears to Scott’s Generation Zero eyes as coal smoke rose through the low fog that clagged the aptly named Grey Valley. The girls swooned in the back as we rolled past the ‘former’ Blackball Hilton, birthplace of the Labour movement in New Zealand. By this point I was starting to rethink my life choices… I didn’t have long to do this though, as after a bit of gravel we skidded to a halt at the Smoke-Ho carpark.
The rabble assembled, donned sunscreen and packs before posing for posing for a quick photo. We had left the fog in the valley, the skies clear before us as we began our walk up the track. The route the track takes along Blackball Creek follows old mining trails, the ground rocky and firm underfoot. Hidden in the bush all around us were artifacts of gold-hungry days, old stamping batteries hidden by undergrowth and grass paddock hotels, the only occupants curious weka. These locals were used to frequent visitors and even had a go at eating Joe’s boot off his foot.
Further up the track and after several choruses from non-other than voice of angels himself (me of course) we decided to take a quick detour down to Garden Gully Hut. The hut is a another remnant of goldmining in the area, the last hut of many that used to occupy the site during Government-subsidised prospecting in the Depression. Sitting on the grass a multitude of snacks came flying out of packs, we certainly weren’t going to starve on this trip.
Its hard not to enjoy a fine day on the coast, when the sun is out in full force and the bush is alive with birdsong. It was so hot that I decided to investigate Roaring Meg Creek for the possibility of a cheeky dip. The Meg isn’t so roaring this far upriver, the crystal water flowing casually down under the thick forest canopy. I wandered down the rocky bank of the creek, my eyes set on a sparkling pool of inviting water. Little did I know that this pool had no-vacancy, as a pair of rocks stood up in front of me and protested my presence! Two whio (blue duck) had been enjoying a good-ol sunbathe on the bank and weren’t keen on sharing.
A pair of whio are a good consolation prize for missing out on a dip in my books. After fan-boying about the birds I eventually told the others, who came for a look before we departed. The next section of the walk involved a steady climb up to Ces Clark Hut. This might have been a drag if I didn’t have the pleasure of spending the time questioning why Scott was trying to justify National Socialism (he might disagree with this conclusion). Soon enough we broke out above the bushline, entering a strange environment of stunted bush, long dead trees and rocky outcrops. Ces Clark sat superbly placed not far from the tree-line, a multi-level masterpiece of a hut with expansive views out over the mountains of the Westcoast. The hut itself is the first hut that was build by the Department of Conservation (DoC) in 1987, explaining its over-the-top architecture, looking almost like as if a spaceship had landed on the hillside.
The new deck of the hut made an excellent spot to stop for lunch, and so again out came the many bags of snacks. Slip, slop and slapping was the order of the day for the intelligent among us (I am not included in that tally… I did wear a snazzy hat though). Sufficiently full of every snack Allison Holst could imagine we set off again, this time heading in the direction of Croesus Knob.
The turn off to Croesus Knob isn’t far from Ces Clark Hut. The knob and the track it sits on is named after the mine that used to sit on the site, which in turn was named after a king of ancient Lybia renown for his great wealth. Everyone was keen for a trip up to the top, so I led the charge up the track after leaving my pack at the junction. Not far from the turn-off I was faced by another junction, a big DOC sign marked the well-benched Mt Watson Track, whilst a line of scraggly poles led a steep route directly up to the knob. I of course choose the latter, but encouraged the others to follow the Mt Watson Track, assuming this would climb up to the knob also. So imagine my surprise when standing on top of the knob I see the others walking far below me, traversing the lower slopes of the knob. I shouted to them, but they ignored me. Classic.
I watched them, a line of ants marching into the distance past me. There are worse places to contemplate abandonment. I sat among the tussock under the sun, the ridge to Mt Watson snaking in front of me, with the rest of the coast in view terminating with views of Mt Cook.
I had a nap. I contemplated the meaning of life. Still the others were fucking around. Eventually they came back from the far ridge heading in my direction before I lost sight of them. I called out in vain, they ignored me again. I walked down towards the track junction, via a quartz vein and some old mining equipment. I called out again, but they had well and truly abandoned me, leaving me to my fate on Croesus Knob. When I got sick of being abandoned, I rather grumpily pranced down the slop back to the Paparoa Track junction, to find the others gayly standing there talking among themselves. I spat passing venom at them before stomping off down the track, like some tired toddler. Once sufficiently out of sight I climbed up to the old track that runs down the ridge (rather than sidling below it). From this vantage point I waited for the others, watching them weave a path up the broad bench of the Paparoa track.
When I got bored of being left behind I trotted down the track and cruised along the line of the ridge, meeting Bea and Tom at the top of a wide zig-zag. The others soon followed and starved of attention I begrudgingly forgave them and with the band back together we walked on our way.
This did not last that long, as I had spied a tempting track up to Mt Ryall. None of the others could be convinced to come with me so alone again I ran down the track. I almost came to grief in a few mud puddles but soon I was slogging my way up the zig-zags to the top. As I reached the tussock slope that leads to the summit I caught sight of a runner ahead of me, who explained he had run up from Barrytown after doing a night-shift (as you do).
After a brief convo I trotted back down in the direction of the Paparoa Track. Somewhere along the way I got it in my head that I would catch up with the others before Moonlight Tops Hut. As a result I spent the next quarter of an hour running full tit (as full tit as you can do with a pack on) up the track in pursuit of the others. I found them leisurely snacking on the track, unphased by my herculian efforts to catch up to them.
From this spot it was just one final push on to the hut. The best part of Moonlight Tops Hut is the moment you come over the ridge, with the hut coming into view in the foreground and colossal wall of stone known as the ‘Embankment’ looming behind it in the distance. The rest of the Paparoa Range stretched out into the distance and the coast lay out to our left.
On the otherside of the Paparoa Range ridge from the hut is the Moonlight catchment, named after George Moonlight. George lived a transient life prospecting on various goldfields overseas before moving to the Westcoast. He build up quite a name for himself, although he never found much gold. Gold was discovered in the creek in 1868 by a Mr Cabbet and ‘Panama Bill’, and they decided to name the creek after George. A goldrush soon followed, fueled by men mad with ‘gold fever’. Most had left by 1875, however in 1917, 50 years after the first discovery of gold in the catchment, prospectors found New Zealand’s largest nugget ever, the 87.5 ounce monster nugget ‘Victory’. George was long dead by this time, having died in 1884 on a lone prospecting trip.
Inside the hut we found an eclectic collection of walkers, some guided, some not. We chatted away with the hut inhabitants, before getting on to the real priority, dinner. Scott might have 2/10 chat, but his garlic paneer curry was definitely a 10/10. After dinner we climbed the hill behind the hut to enjoy the sunset, the land around us slowly turning a crimson under the rays of the dying sun. Not a bad way to send out a good days walk.
Day two: Moonlight Tops Hut to Pororari Hut
I gingerly opened my eyes the following morning and was greeted by an explosion of pinks and oranges radiating through the window. I knew I had to act, and so in a dazed state I stumbled out of the bunkroom and on to the balcony outside, camera in hand. I stood outside half-dressed, soaking up the unreal scene before me, the cool morning breeze rustling through the trees. When the colour dissipated and the chill got to me I retreated inside and started on a book, unsure when the others were going to emerge.
By the time the sun had risen properly the others were out and about in the hut getting themselves ready. The day was shaping up to be a beauty, with blue skies all around. The other groups in the hut had filtered out down the track by the time we chatted to the DOC warden on our way out, she had a more than a few yarns to tell. Before we left we got her to snap a quick group photo, for posterity (emphasis on posterior).
Ed the guide had given us very clear instructions before he set off that there would be two water sources, a shitty one soon and then another better one at about 40 minutes walking, so we wouldn’t need to fill up our water bottles until then. Who were we to argue with that? Not far from the hut the track cuts into the bushline, winding its way through pleasant mossy forest as it traverses the upper slopes of Mt Anderson. We kept our eyes peeled for this water, but for the first half an hour the track was dry. Then we passed a trickle coming out of the side of the track and I thought “this must be the shitty one”. Ten minutes after that we passed a small stream cutting across the track, to which Katie reassured that “this is the shitty one, the better one will be just around the corner”. I didn’t agree, but I was eager to savour the sweet flavour of “I told you so” , so I let it go and let events unfold.
After an hour or so we stopped for snacks (as was customary by this point) and I suggested that we had in fact past the water source. Of course, no one was particularly keen to go take a half hour detour to fill water bottles so we soldiered on dry instead. The feeling of being right was sweet, although in retrospect I think I would have preferred a full drink-bottle. A couple of kilometres on from Mt Anderson we found ourselves on a ridge overlooking the Pike Stream catchment, of ‘Pike River’ infamy. Far below us we could see the mine portal, with helicopters buzzing around it like bees on a flower. Our best guess was this was part of the mine sealing project. Continuing down the track we soon found that we were standing a top ‘the Escarpment’, the impressive shape of which we could see from Moonlight Tops.
The rocky bluffs were hard to digest (metaphorically and physically I guess), their sheer scale being awe inspiring. The track was a thin thread, weaving a path along the tops of this colossal formation. One could not help but stop for photos whenever a fresh perspective revealed itself.
At various times I egged people to sit on the edge of rocks. Some obliged and others were too intelligent (I’ll let you guess who was who). At one particularly impressive bluff Moira decided it was time for me to have my own photoshoot, to which I had to oblige, if just to preserve her feelings.
The others kept plodding on without us, so we had a good jog to catch up with them. By the time we did we were nearing the shelter that marks the point at which the track drops steeply off the Paparoa Range. This was our arranged lunch spot and so we flopped down next to the shelter under any scrap of shade we could find. The distinct lack of water was an issue, not only because we were all mildly dehydrated by this point, but also because I’d had a slight tuna explosion whilst making my lunch. To make matters worse my cucumber had disintegrated inside my pack and was unfortunately flaccid.
After lunch we started the steep decent off the range onto a lower ridge. Right before I considered eating the flaccid cucumber to rehydrate a stream came into view around a zig-zag. Maybe stream is exaggerating - a trickle of water was flowing down a rock next to the track, and we took turns to position our bottles underneath this. Katie was a bit too keen and ended up on her ass in the puddle below the trickle.
As we continued further down the track we welcomed the shade brought by the forest’s canopy. Then the most unexpected and spectacular thing of the entire trip was encountered. Through the trees a bridge came into sight. The bridge crossed high above a jumble of boulders. To the right a sheet of water cascaded into the aether, and after brief flirtation with flight it came crashing down to rejoin terra-firma. The mist caught the sun, making a multi-coloured carpet through the air. After rejoicing at the sight of a mossy drip only an hour before this certainly made us grin.
It was only fair that we took the opportunity to take a (well-needed) shower under the pounding water. We clambered over the jumble of slippery rocks to reach the centre of the cascade. The overhang of the rock sheltered a wall of swaying leaves , lush and green. After our wash we lounged luxuriously on the rocks next to the bridge, soaking in the sun.
The others would have stayed there indefinitely I think I didn’t walk off, eager to get on my way again, aware of the varying speeds in the group. From the waterfall the track undulated up and down the ridge, criss-crossing the spine of the hill.
This seemed to go on forever, a path blasted from the rock, carved through the ancient forest. Sasha was feeling the weight of his pack, and so the pace of the group was slowing. It had been a long day under the hot sun, and although we had a bit of a revitalization at the waterfall, we were all pretty foot weary. As we continued down one of the many sections on the ridge we caught sight of Pororari Hut through the trees, perched like a fort atop the hill. Unfortunately to get there we had to cut steeply down a number of zig-zags before climbing up to the hut. It was at the bottom of this climb, something truly amazing happened. Sasha just… accelerated away. I really had to push myself to keep up as he powered up the hill. I was trying so hard I didn’t realise we were at the hut until we were on top of it!
The others eventually caught up and collapsed at the hut. Of course our first priority was of course dinner. Luckily Scott had a spare cucumber, so the flaccid cucumber could be left in its cocoon. This, combined with a number of other veges, a healthy dose of cheese and cous cous made a pretty edible dinner.
There was plenty of dinner to go around, and we were well stuffed by the end of it. After dinner a couple of things happened. Moira got grumpy at some boomers. We had story-time, each taking turns to read the legend of the taniwha Poutini. We played several rounds of cards. Oh and the slights went out, resulting in some hand waving hilarity.
Day three: Pororari Hut to Punakaiki
When the sun rose I followed it. The sky was on fire with orange flames, how could one stay in bed? This didn’t seem to bother the others, it was some time till they emerged. I traded my usual morning porridge for some of Ed’s pancakes, no complaints from me. Before we left we spent some time mucking around with the three women Ed was guiding, I think they had become rather fond of us during our time together at the huts.
When we eventually started on our way it took some time to dust off the cobwebs. The track zig-zagged its way down to Tindale Creek, where it assumed a much lazier tack. The forest was mossy and lush, every shade of green imaginable surrounding us. A few kilometres from the hut the track crossed the Pororari River, its green water flowing slowly under the thick canopy of overhanging trees.
Over the bridge we walked along the cobbles of an old road, one that had faded into the forest almost as soon as it had appeared. But rediscovered following the construction of the track, it made for a bit of something different. As the road faded the track steadily climbed away from the river, which itself was cutting down steeply into a gorge. The sheer verticality of the landscape was such a juxtaposition to the lazy river country we were just walking through.
Far in the distance we could see another canyon in the distance, and beyond that, our journey’s end at the coast. We passed through the tight walls of rock and dropped down to the plateau above the river. The forest here was a jumble of fallen trees, twigs thrown around by cyclones of yester-year. It was getting warm and we looked longingly down at the river, hoping for a good spot to swim.
We found this where the Inland Pack Track crossed the Paparoa Track. Some of us stopped for lunch first, but for others (i.e. Moira) the lure of the water was too much. The water was fresh, cold and reinvigorating. Not being a fan of hypothermia though I chose to get out after a quick dunk. In contrast, Moira happily floated down the river munching on her cruskets, without a care in the world. I seriously worry about that girl sometimes.
From the bridge the mountain-bike track splits off, so the track down the Pororari Gorge is rougher, ducking through holes between large boulders and up tight staircases. The lower section of the gorge was dominated by nikau studded forest, high limestone cliffs above and sand underfoot.
It was bittersweet for all of us I think. On the one hand Scott still really needed a shower, even after that swim. On the other, it had been a magical few three days in the hills, with some very uncharacteristically good weather for the Westcoast. There was no hiding that Sasha was keen for civilisation, as he powered off towards the cars, passing unceremoniously across the ‘finish line’.
We caught up with Ed and our fan club at the Punakaiki Tavern, before we were on the road again. We had our big post trip feed at the Cobden Take-away and Scott tried to paint himself with souvlaki (yes really). After way too much fish and chips we carried on to Lake Rotoiti, where we had plenty of time to reflect on our trip, eat food, laugh, lick trees, and yes, a bit of swimming for Moira, before catching the ferry home.