Walking in nature: Paparoa Track a world of its own

The first purpose built dual walking and mountain bike track on the Great Walk network, the Paparoa Track is now open.

It is no surprise that there is general excitement on New Zealand’s West Coast.  

The small towns that make up the region are ready to welcome visitors from all over the world to see their backyard.

The first purpose built dual walking and mountain bike track on the Great Walk network, the Paparoa Track is set to become one of the region’s biggest drawcard for New Zealanders and overseas visitors.

Locals, or ‘Coasters’ as they are colloquially known, are infamous for their hospitality and extremely passionate about their home and the new track is of significant meaning to everyone from the area. The three day, 55km walk (or two-day bike) will act as a tribute to the 29 Pike River miners who lost their lives in the 2010 disaster.

Paparoa Track explores some of the most rugged, diverse and untouched environments in the country. The tenth Great Walk and first to be constructed in 25 years will take in stone cliffs, beech forest and glades of subtropical nikau palms at one end, while climbing to a unique alpine setting with incredible views out to the Tasman Sea.

The winding coastal road from Greymouth to Punakaiki is the perfect example of the untamed West Coast wilderness.

To the left is rugged coastline, seemingly endless, dotted with rocky outcrops and rough surf crashing into the shoreline. To the right, magnificent green of wild bush that sees the most rainfall in New Zealand annually.

Just past the entrance to the Pancake Rocks is the Pororari River carpark, the beginning the Paparoa Track if you choose to walk (or bike) it from western end. The nearby Punakaiki Beach Camp owned by the Findlay’s, a local family, have lived there most of their lives. They are offering transfers to the eastern end of the track near Blackball, car relocations, and a great place to stay before and after your walk.

The river guides you along the first section of the track as limestone cliffs, beech forest and nikau palms provide a spectacular backdrop. The track is perfectly formed, the barriers are new, and it is clear the scores of people who have worked on the track since the announcement in 2017 have had a monumental task. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) administer the land and with the help of local companies West Reef and Nelmac have produced a world class multiday hike. Signage can be found along the way emblazoned with local hapu (sub-tribe) Ngati Waewae’s designs. Rauhine Coakley, iwi representative on track interpretation, says eventually there will be carved gateways at both ends and a Pou (pole) whenua erected at one of the highest points of the track. It was extremely important for Rauhine and her iwi that they had a presence on the track so that visitors were aware who has the mana whenua (territorial rights) of the land.

“Our people have become somewhat disassociated with what were once our tribal ancestral lands. I saw this as an opportunity to ensure our visible presence was incorporated into the track. It’s my hope our hapu (sub-tribe) members will see our presence and feel comfortable to make use of the track,” says Rauhine.

“The carved gateways at both ends will represent the partnership and great working relationship Ngati Waewae currently has with DOC on the Tai Poutini (West Coast), like a new beginning, new way forward for the future.”

The first day ends at Pororari Hut, 16kms from the carpark and around a 5 hour walk. The hut is one of two new huts built by The Natural Construction Company, another local company. Both huts feature 20 bunks, heating, gas cooktops, toilets, and a water supply and being new, are very comfortable. The hut experience is a great way to meet fellow travellers or have a chat with the DOC hut warden who will happily share stories and knowledge of the area.

Up on ‘the tops’, the environment is a completely different setting to that of the Pororari River section. Rainforest becomes alpine scrub and tussock as the track follows the ridge of the main Paparoa Range. Above the Roaring Meg and Moonlight Creek catchments, on a clear day Aoraki Mount Cook can be seen in the distance.

The Moonlight Tops Hut has panoramic views across the Punakaiki River headwaters around to the escarpment, Pike Stream and Paparoa National Park. The rugged terrain provided a big challenge for Hamish Seaton the track router who specialises in mountain bike trails and helped set out the Old Ghost Road cycle trail, just north of Paparoa. DOC developed a preliminary route through some stunning (but very challenging) terrain using advanced 3D mapping which set in a broad sense where the trail would go. From there Hamish set about his role of fine tuning the track.

“One of the primary goals is to make the track surface comfortable for walkers and comfortable for riders,” he says. “For walkers that meant not making it too cambered (so fairly flat).  For riders you need a certain amount of camber on the corners to make it relatively easy and safe to ride, but not so much that you’re going to speed people up.”

On top of that, Hamish, DOC and the construction teams had to the keep the wildlife that called the area home top of mind throughout the process.

“Given that the track is in a national park, there was a lot of planning and prescription around the environmental impact,” he says. “I don’t think any other track in the country has had such a high focus on minimising impact and then remediating around the track. This environmental focus is now rubbing off on other trail projects around the country.”

The track is home to some of New Zealand’s rare native species like the kea, the whiō (blue duck), great spotted kiwi bird and the Paparoa range alpine snail. Important measures have been taken to leave as little impact as possible.

DOC works closely with the Paparoa Wildlife Trust maintaining a trapping network that effectively controls between 10,000 and 15,000 hectares of land. This important work has resulted in a 12.5-hectare pest-proof kiwi crèche on the Atarau plains and the Paparoa great spotted kiwi/roroa recovery project, has delivered significant gains for kiwi.

Now the Paparoa Track has opened, the onus won’t just be on the passionate conservation workers from DOC and the wildlife trust, it will be important for those walking the track to play their part. There are simple measures that can be taken; carry out what you carry in, decontaminate your gear before and after the walk, and if nature calls make sure you use a toilet or chose to do the deed away from people and waterways and cover it up when you’re finished.

Rauhine wants manuhiri (visitors) to Te Tai Poutini (The West Coast) to learn the stories of the land but also act as guardians while they enjoy it and take those lessons around the world. 

“I would like them to have an appreciation for the preservation of nature and natural landscapes. To become stewards of their own natural and living environments wherever they are or travel to in the world. Practising kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection).”

The Paparoa Track is bound to make hikers around world bucket lists. With an eager community waiting to welcome visitors and an environment that is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful but also untouched, the reward will be great for those that take up the challenge.

Key Statistics

New Zealand's walking and hiking offering includes three large world heritage sites - Tongariro National Park, Te Wahipounamu and the Subantarctic Islands - and ten Great Walks across the North and South Islands, as well as many one-day options.

  • As at September 2019 80% of all visitors to New Zealand said they Walked, Hiked, Trekked or Tramped while they were here.
  • 22% of all visitors cite walking and hiking as a factor influencing consideration of New Zealand
  • 7.3% completed a Great Walk, 23% did a walk over three hours and 58% completed a walk between 30 minutes and 3 hours.
  • Between 2012 and 2019 there has been a 38% increase in people using the Great Walk network.
  • Between 2012 and 2019 there has been a 20% increase in international visitors using the Great Walk network.
  • The Department of Conservation (DoC) is New Zealand's largest tourism provider.

Hiking responsibly – Tiaki Promise

When hiking in New Zealand there are some easy ways to ensure you minimise your impact on the environment

  • Before you tramp clean all your equipment and decontaminate. Following your tramp repeat the process.
  • Stick to the trails, going off trail can damage natural environments.
  • Carry it in, carry it out—recycle all your rubbish.
  • Take two bags, one for recycling and the other for rubbish/food scraps to carry out with you and dispose of responsibly.
  • Give wildlife space – Keep 20 m from all wildlife, a safe distance. Never feed our birds – even if they ask.
  • Poo in a loo – Please use a toilet when you see one. If you really can’t wait, chose to poo away from people and waterways and cover it up when you’re finished.

For more information visit the Tiaki Promise website

Note: The middle section of the track from Pororari Hut to Moonlight Tops Hut is currently closed due to a recent land slip in the middle section of the track, so the Great Walk will only partially be opened until at least December 22. More information here.