Before We Walked
After the happy times on the Heaphy Laura and I were keen to go tramping some more on this trip. We were chatting about the possibilities and as we were already on the West Coast it made perfect sense to try getting on to the Paparoa track, the newest member of the Great Walks of NZ family of 10. There was only one very small problem with our plan – there was no availability for the huts. We still thought it was possible as people make bookings months in advance and there are very often last minute cancellations. However, another more insurmountable problem we were faced with was that two consecutive days of heavy rain had led to the closure of the Great Coast Road, cutting out access to the Paparoa track.
In the morning after we finished the Heaphy, I was pottering around the tent when I spotted Laura in the distance engrossed in conversation with the DOC Ranger of the Kohaihai campsite. The Ranger had the latest news about the situ with the Great Coast Road. It had re-opened. The possibility of the Paparoa was once again open to us. The hut unavailability issue persisted, though. Well, we thought maybe next time and decided to look at what else we could do instead.
By the time we drove off towards West Port that day we had set our sights onto Lewis Pass and then Christchurch on the East Coast. Once we got to West Port we had a lovely cooked meal which gave us the impetus to make final plans for the next stage of our travels. Lewis Pass seemed to be the way we were going to go. Before committing to this plan, a final look at the weather forecast for the next few days made us drop this idea, without second thoughts. It was going to be subzero temperatures (well, just a bit above zero) in Lewis Pass and the East Coast was going to be soaking wet . On the other hand, the forecast for the West Coast was sunshine and nothing else but pure sunshine. There was still no availability on the Paparoa but there were other things we could do in the area, like do day walks in the Paparoa ranges or go climbing. Although most of the crags in the area are way above my climbing ability I would still have enjoyed hanging under beautiful rock formations and staying dry and warm.
We got accommodation in Barry Town at the All Nations Hotel. We got here around 8 pm and it felt like we were the only guests. It is rather stark to see how the pandemic has affected places dependent on international tourists. In Wellington where I’m based things have been back to normal pretty much since the end of lockdown back in June, minus a little hiccup we had in late September. Anyhow, here we were doing our small bit for our backyard. I enjoyed our stay here very much. We had the wonderful opportunity to wash our tramping gear followed by a great night’s sleep. We also had a deck with lounge chairs with a bit of a view of the ocean but did not get to enjoy them as we did not stay long enough.
First thing in the morning was to check with DOC if there were any last minute cancellations. They said that there was one bed. We needed two. They told us to keep an eye out on their website as they would update it if there were any further cancellations. We got on with enjoying breakfast, and talking about all the wonderful things we could do in the area once we got petrol from Greymouth (we had about enough left in the tank to make it to the nearest petrol station).
Around 11.30 am we were ready to get going and had a final look at the DOC website. Hooray! There were two spots available now. All that laboring as Santa’s Chief Elf paid off. With the speed of light, we made the booking and speedier still got all our bits and pieces into the car and drove to Graymouth to get provisions for our tramp.
Similarly, to the Heaphy, the Paparoa is a non-circuit track so we would need to make it back to the start of the track (that was Smoke-ho for us) to retrieve the car once we were done with the tramp. There was no time to figure this out as we had about 20 km ahead of us and it was already getting quite late in the day.
Day One – Smoke-ho to Moonlight Tops Hut, Sunday 27 December
Once we got our food provisions and a deck of cards in Greymouth we drove straight to Smoke-ho car park. We got our backpacks packed, waved our goodbyes to the car and got walking by 2.30 pm. The recommended DOC walking time meant that we would make it to the Moonlight Tops Hut between 9.30 and 10.30 pm.
The walk starts on the incredibly well-formed Croesust track. There are remnants of civilization strewn across this section everywhere you look pretty much. It was the site of the gold rush and other mineral excavation pursuits. We wound our way through the beautiful West Coast bush for about 10 km before getting above the tree line just before the Ces Clark Hut. The elevation is around 800 m but it is very gradual. Despite the gentle incline and being in the shade we did work up a sweat by the time we got to Ces Clark. We were making good time and got there in 2 hours and 30 mins.
We were getting hungry so sat down to have some food at Ces Clark. One of the other trampers came round to say ‘Hi’ and naturally ended up having a tête-à-tête with Laura. It was a touch too breezy and I was getting numb from the cold so we got going about 30 mins later. From Ces Clark to Moonlight Tops the track is an undulating escarpment with gorgeous views of the Tasman Sea to the west and the snow covered tops of Mt Aoraki to the east. The skies were clear but there was a consistent wind with a frosty edge to it. That kept us moving and deterred us from stopping until we pretty much got to Moonlight Tops. We made it there by 8pm.
When we walked into the hut the other 19 trampers who were already there were very surprised to see us. It turned out they were 3 or so families and had booked the whole hut for themselves. However, they’d had 2 of theirs drop out last minute and had decided to let DOC know, which is super courteous of them, as there are no refunds for late cancellations. They did not expect anyone to book so late in the day and on their way had picked another tramper, by the name of Pip, who had wanted to do this walk but because of the lack of availability was going to be doing an overnight tramp to Ces Clark only. It meant that there was one extra person. Well, until two mountain bikers turned up after 10pm and decided to call it a night here too. They were meant to ride through to Ces Clark but troubles with their gears had slowed their progress considerably. It’d been a long day for them and with another 10 km to Ces Clark they made the sound decision to stop here for the night and continue the following day. The DOC Ranger provided them with mattresses and they spent the night on the kitchen floor.
Day Two – Moonlight Tops to Pororari Hut, Monday 28 December
The next morning we had 19 km to tramp. We were on our way by 8 am. One hour or so into the walk and we started encountering cyclists along the way. We got news from them that there were runners behind too. Yup, people run the whole 55 km in a day. That day there were about 7 runners. As we were striding happily Laura’s phone started beeping loud and clear. We stopped in our tracks. We had reception which was an opportunity to check what the shuttle options from the Porarari River car park to Smoke-ho were. As we were crouched by the road googling our options Pip caught up with us. She stopped over for a wee chat. It turned out that her husband was going to pick her up tomorrow then they were going to drive through Greymouth. She said that they could give us a lift to Greymouth. We had half of the transportation sorted then. We just needed to get the other half sorted but this could wait until we got off the track and had a clearer idea of when we were going to make it to Greymouth.
We put our phones away and continued with our walk. It was a gorgeous sunny day with next to no wind. One could easily be fooled into believing that it is always like this here. However, the evil face of highly volatile island weather is visible through and through. There were signs of cyclones past and gone which had left their mark. There were quite a few recent slips too. One of the slips had swept off the track and there was a detour through the bush which was rather treacherous as it turned out. We were okay going through but later we learnt that one of the other trampers had slipped and got his ankle twisted. He made it to Pororari Hut that day but the next morning he got lifted by a helicopter as his ankle was very swollen and he could barely put any weight on it.
We got to the hut around 2 pm and with the whole day ahead of us we had not much choice but to chill. Laura sunbathed. I took refuge in the shade of the hut. Here I got reading a book about the history of how the Paparoa track came to be. It was decided after the Pike River mining disaster, only a few kilometres away from Moonlight Tops, that the area wasn’t suitable for mining due to the unstable weather conditions. There was a desire to honour the memory of the 29 miners who tragically lost their lives by doing something positive for the whole area. That is how the idea of turning the area into a place for recreational pursuits was born and the track became the Great Walk it is today.
We picked up the cards again later that evening. I lost and Laura won. Our friendship was being tested to a breaking point. We called it a night still friends. Not long after jumping into the comfy hut bed I heard clamour in the kitchen. A kea had showed up and was hanging on the deck. I crawled out of bed to check the bird out. All I can say is that I love kea.
Day Three – Pororari Hut to Pororari Car Park / Punakaiki, Tuesday 29 December
The next day we walked with our new friend, Pip. She was right at the front setting the pace for the group. I believe that we should not let age define us but still I could not help but be massively impressed by how fit Pip still is in her 60s.
We had another stunning day and this part of the track is a real treat. The track goes along the Pororari River gorge which has some stunning lime rock walls. The bush was aglow with northern rata trees in full bloom. And the palms made it feel a lot like a walk through the Jurassic era. That day was over too soon as we were at the Pororari car park by 12 pm.
Our friend’s husband and dog Wha (Maori for four) were waiting for us at the car park. It turned out that Pip’s husband is a local and a teacher so I had a pretty good guided tour of the area we were driving through. We had a quick pit stop at the All Nations in Barry Town. Then our new friends drove us to Greymouth where Laura and I had a coffee while we were waiting for the shuttle to pick Laura up. She managed to get the last available seat.
We then drove south to Queenstown as we had set our sights on to the Routeburn next. Santa must have been finished with his New Zealand run by that point as this time we got 4 consecutive days of consistent heavy rain and as we do on a rainy day picked up the deck of cards and stayed indoors instead. And although Laura continued wining we still remain friends. Very good friends.