Magestical – it is the only word that comes to mind when I think of the remote Paparoa mountains and the track that traverses it. The Paparoa Track is New Zealand’s newest “Great Walk” - It’s also the first purpose-built, shared-use hiking & mountain biking track within the Paparoa National Park on the South Islands pristine West Coast.
Built as a memorial track in honor of the 29 coal miners who lost their lives in the Pike River Mine disaster in 2010, this freshly built track crosses the previously inaccessible Paparoa Range for 55km one way, taking you through alpine tops, limestone karst landscapes & thriving rainforests with breathtaking views if you’re lucky to ride it on a clear day like we did. It’s best ridden from Blackball in the southeast to the coastal village of Punakaiki. You are literally following in the footsteps of the old gold miners who first wandered these ridges 150 years ago.
Armed with 2 sandwiches each, 4 eggs, a couple of hot cross buns and too many Haribo snakes to count, we set off under the early morning light from the Smoke-ho car park, 8 km from the small mining town of Blackball.
Setting off on the historic Croesus Track segment you pass remnants of the area’s gold mining history along the way, we had plenty of time to think about the lives lost and the hard lives lived of the bygone mining era who came to this area full of hopes and dreams. Sections of the forest were so dense, dark and heavy, it almost felt claustrophobic pedaling through the thick beech and ancient gnarled podocarp forest. It was eerie, you could feel the sadness of the deceased miners hanging in the foggy mist. The first ten kilometers ticked by slowly, giving you time to appreciate this beautiful rich, green, lush, moss clad trail built in honor of these brave men, a symbol of freedom for them and for all of us to enjoy, acknowledging and appreciating the history in these hills and mountains.
Overwhelmed by my thoughts and with my senses under continual bombardment it was refreshing when we popped out into the open alpine scrub, onto the tussock topped ridge lines, feeling the autumn sunshine on my face. Immediately the mood felt lighter & brighter putting a kick back into my pedals. As we reached the first hut, Ces Clark, we caught our first glimpse of the Tasman Sea. It was a spectacular day and one to savor when you’re lucky enough to experience that part of the world on a sunny day, but the sea was still very, very far away with more than a few ridges and mountain passes lying between us and our final destination we had to reach before nightfall. Time for a quick snack before we set off to the Moonlight Tops hut another ten km away. I was blown away by the scenery, tussock ridges interspersed with alpine forest, stunted by the harsh environment exposed to the elements and the 1000 meters of altitude we had just climbed. We traversed our way along the top of the escarpment, the shimmering blue waters of the Tasman Sea drawing closer and closer for each turn railed and every pinch climb (of which there were many) summited.
After another feed at Moonlight hut it was another undulating (which if you are a mountain biker means mostly uphill) 19 kilometers to the third and final Pororari hut. We got our first taste of fast flowy fun downhill through old growth forest followed by a spine-like trail with steep dropping cliffs on either side, not to mention a couple of cascading waterfalls. We chose to have our lunch a little away from the bustling busy hut. Taking in the sights and sounds of the native bush and all its marvelous birdsong. Green as far as the eye could see.
It was time for the home stretch and that in itself always gives you that extra boost you need to get yourself home. As if this trail couldn’t get any better, we started descending the final 17km from the Pororari hut down through ancient podocarp forests. It felt like we were on a pumptrack or some kind of luge, just floating through the sweetest built trails that seemed never-ending. It was truly magical as we made our way through glades of Nikau palms and lush rainforest, descending towards the coast. I could feel the salty air on my skin and the air getting denser and more humid and I relaxed a bit knowing that we’ve done most of the hard work and it would be smooth and easy sailing for the weary legs from here on down to the Punakaiki River Valley and finally the beach. What a trail. Absolutely magic in every possible way. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I’d ever experience riding amongst such rugged and remote ancient forests like I’ve been fortunate to see and do here in this part of New Zealand. It’s not about the destination, it’s all about the journey couldn’t ring truer here!
We’re so fortunate to have so many of these long point to point single-track trails with amazing hut systems along the way in this relatively “small” Northwest corner of the South Island. A little further north we have the Old Ghost Road trail’s 85 mind blowing kilometers as well as the Heaphy track, another 79 km singletrack peppered with huts. The Paparoa track is a bit shorter (55km) and thus popular to tackle as a one-day ride when the weather is good, so it’s slightly busier than the other two, but it’s NZ kind of busy, which isn’t that busy at all.
What I love about these trails is the fact that it attracts all sorts of riders from all walks of life. You’ll have the full spectrum, from the lycra clad racing snakes to the 65-year-old in denims on his old (mostly) broken rigid bike, scooting past you at a pace. Coasters they call them - salt of the earth, hard buggers who have this wonderful can do, it’ll be right attitude about life. You get to have a wee yarn with all these interesting characters along the way and share a trail snack or two while they tell you some tall tales of riding back in the day.
There’s something about riding new point to point trails for the first time. I love leaving one town on my bike and making my way and over mountain ranges through ever changing eco system, never knowing what to expect around the corner or over a pass, the trail bending to nature at every turn, rise or fall. It’s always fresh and keeps you on your toes. It’s probably why I always did prefer blind enduro racing to practiced repeat loops. There’s something quite satisfying knowing you pedaled your ass from A to B especially when you crossed and couple of mountain ranges and roaring rivers.
Now that I’ve journeyed through here, I feel like I have a better understanding of these small mining towns and their communities and have a deeper respect for the land. It’s definitely not just another bike track, it’s a very special place indeed. Spirits are alive and very present in these rugged, remote mountains, almost like they’re the keepers of the trail - the guardian angels guiding us along these ribbons of sacred trails and through these rain forests…and we’re the fortunate one’s who get to enjoy and appreciate their hard work and sacrifice. May they find peace.
Words by Anka Martin. Photos by Sven Martin.