Before anyone takes a step on Paparoa Track they know the backstory: the Pike River mine is nearby and this track was propelled into life by the families of the miners who lost their lives on that terrible day in 2010. It is their living memorial.
The trail will eventually have a direct connection with the 11km-long Pike29 Memorial Track, cutting back through to the mine portal.
The walk starts, typically, from the Blackball end. A few hundred metres in from the trailhead a curious weka tiptoes across our path. I take it as a good omen.
The early miles follows the old Croesus Track, named, you'd suppose, for riches dreamt of by the gold prospectors who hard-grafted into these hills in the 1880s. The stretch is punctuated by two long-abandoned hotel sites, gold rush memorials now reduced to red rust iron scraps.
My girlfriend and I walk through beech forest, the path ever-rising up the backbone between Blackball Creek and the Roaring Meg catchment. Looking up, the Paparoa Range start to reveal itself.
We arrive at a place called Garden Gully junction. Down a side track is a green-grass clearing with a welcome patch of warming sunshine. A tiny miner's shack sits to one side, a relic from the Great Depression when make-work schemes sent desperate men into the bush to chip out gold-bearing quartz veins. Inside, the hut redefines basic: timber bunk frames and a fireplace.
We munch apples back out in the sunlight. There's an add-on detour 15 minutes away to an old stamping battery. Given the long day ahead we decide to skip it and focus on the main drag.
Soon, the subalpine flora starts to thin and we finally see the welcome sight of our lunch stop, the Ces Clark Hut.
We lay our socks out in the weak sun to dry, then eat and rehydrate on the hut's deck. We're about 950 metres up here, looking south towards Lake Brunner. The day is pure blue, windless and clear: in other words, a miracle. Another tramper points down the line, claiming they can make out Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Break over, we press on. Up through hard-baked alpine tussocks, rising steadily towards the sky. Nothing stirs. Weka aside, so far the fauna side of things has been slim. Finally we make it to the ridgeline and the West Coast view opens up.
The Tasman Sea shimmers like textured glass. It's a joy to be walking a horizontal line after the long uphill and to fill our lungs with the pure, cool air. Now we can see the track stretch out a long way ahead, wrapping around peaks and brows. The scale is large and we walk steadily, deep into the day.
We skirt some rugged granite outcrops and see fat seams of quartz jagging down banks to the right of the track. The facets glow as they catch the lowering sun to the west. As the day is dimming, hut fever sets in. We finally get to Moonlight Tops and needless to say it's a very welcome sight. 'Hut' is an undersell.
This is the Hilton of backcountry huts: a phone charging station, running water; warm, everything new. I like it, but my girlfriend, conditioned to more basic tramping accommodation, thinks it's a little fancy.
The next day is a peach, just like the first. Windless, deep blue skies. We contemplate the ridge track stretching north along the stunning coal-seamed escarpment, one of the showpieces of the track.
Navigating the curve of the ridge we keep an eye out for that side trail, the Pike29 Memorial track, which our map shows bearing off to our right. It doesn't appear. I hear later the last stretch has been left uncut to deter stealth walkers.
As the morning drifts on we drop down below the escarpment and into a stand of ancient podocarp forests – rimu, kahikatea, mataī, tōtara. Fat, moss-covered trunks rest on the forest floor and sometimes over the track, in thousand year reposes.
They're embraced by lianas, the thick, woody, climbing vines that make you think you've roamed into Fangorn. These virgin forests trace a line back to Gondwana land 300 million years ago. Whatever thoughts are drifting through your mind pale into insignificance in this world. We are just shadows passing through. Weka scamper though the tree-ferns, too shy to get near.
We walk the Tindale ridge, then drop down through to the valley, via many tight switchbacks, the odd cyclist scooting past. North of the Pororarī River we see the Lone Hand, a rocky fist up on the skyline. Trackside we see, movingly, many small offerings: tools, trinkets, mementoes, left by Pike families to remember their loved ones.
Then we're hard against a heavy bank and rising again, after many hours, to the Pororarī Hut. As we arrive we see splintered trees shaping off down the hills to the west. In 2014 a titanic cyclone blew up the gorge, match-sticking thousands of acres of forest.
We wake to a misty morning. Our final day. It feels good, weirdly, to have some moisture in the air. We set off and descend through a dazzling sequence of sections. Boulder sites with stones as big as houses that have tumbled down off the hills; lush primeval forests in infinite shades of intense green. The birdlife increases noticeably: korimako (bellbirds), fantails and more weka, lurking like little mysteries in the tree roots and undergrowth.
We strike more storm-crushed forest, then the sound of water: the Pororarī River. We cross the river over a large, flash suspension bridge. From there the track embraces the upper reaches of the gorge, rising and falling away from water level, then easing down to the lower reaches of the gorge through beech and rātā forest.
Finally we hit a fork that indicates the start of the Punakāiki River valley.
The Paparoa offers one final flourish: the river is drama and beauty in equal measure. Deep, clear turquoise water. Plump eels and trout make their way lazily over submerged sand banks, framed by stands of lush, nīkau-studded rainforest. Huge limestone bluffs tower towards the sky on the opposite bank. The last stanza of the walk is nature at her most effortlessly beautiful.
This has been a proper adventure. Even without the marketing epithet, the Paparoa Track is truly a Great Walk.
And the haunting story of the Pike River Mine tragedy walks the trail with you: the tangible links may be few, the emotional connection is there every step of the way.
Reported by Michael Lamb for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue
New Zealand's newest Great Walk runs 55km from Blackball to Punakāiki on the West Coast. Walking takes three days, mountain biking takes two. The Pike29 Memorial Track is not yet open.
To book huts and for more information, see the Department of Conservation. Pick up a free Must-Do’s Walking guide from an AA Centre.