Big day today; cycled the new'ish Paparoa Track. It's a shared hiking/walking trail which goes high into the hills from near Blackball, follows ridge lines, and then drops into the Pororari River valley most of the way back to Punakaiki. It’s not to be underestimated, rated Advanced: Grade Four and remote high-country.
Driving to the start, nearly
I thought about a shuttle but decided it was more flexible to drive to Blackball, leave my car there overnight and collect it the next day. After an early start, and big (for me) breakfast watching a spectacular sunrise (clouds lit by sun rising over the alps behind).
I loaded up the Bravo and headed South to Blackball, about 63km away.
I left my car in Blackball itself, rather than the remote Smoke-Ho trail start carpark, as thought it probably safer. It would be there overnight, left a note in the (closed) glovebox outlining my plans in case things went horribly wrong! Although the coast was clear as I headed inland to Blackball there was thick fog. This was at about 9am and it was still quite chilly, but hopefully things would clear as the day went on!
For this ride I was carrying more clothing than the usual day ride; my proper Gore-Tex raincoat (as well as my usual bike rain shell), extra merino thermals, a spare set of merino socks and gloves. That meant not enough room in the front bag for food so used a small backpack (intended for a water bladder) to carry some light gear and food supplies. I had plenty of water, one bottle on the bike and two in bar mounted 'feed bags'.
I set off wearing my long-sleeve Ground Effect 'Berglar' merino shirt, T7 cycle shorts, lycra leggings, and thin Icebreaker merino socks inside SealSkinz waterproof socks.
The other consideration was the climb to the track start, a not inconsiderable ~400m over 7km, would be better on fresh morning legs today than at the end of tomorrows ~70km ‘collection ride'. It turned out the gravel road was quite rough and corrugated, better suited to the mountain bike, rather than tomorrow's gravel bike, anyway. Thankfully by the time I got to the Blackball Rd climb, just 15 minutes later, the fog had lifted.
About halfway up the road (below) was both a photo stop and to take off the leggings. Once out of the Blackball fog and climbing it was warm!
The Smoke-Ho Carpark, trail start, where I could have left my car. Met some people, a shuttle dropped, heading off on supported walks, their guides carrying massive packs, but didn't see any other cyclists.
Paparoa, the newest (when I rode it) great ride.
The Paparoa is an epic ride which opened in December 2019 after a three-year build. Soon after slips mid-way meant the track wasn't rideable end-to-end until 1 March 2020.
History and culture of the Paparoa Track
The Ngāti Waewae hapū (sub-tribe) of Ngāi Tahu are the kaitiaki of Paparoa National Park, guardians of the area’s native species and ecosystems. This kaitiaki responsibility is passed down the generations and draws on mātauranga (traditional knowledge) to care for the land, rivers and species.
In the 1860s, the discovery of gold on the West Coast sparked a gold rush and a sudden influx of European settlement. Between 1881 and 1899, the Croesus Track was constructed to allow better access to mines in upper Blackball Creek. The first part of the Paparoa Track follows this route. You can see the remnants of the gold-mining days by taking a side trip to Garden Gully.
The section of track between Pororari Hut and Punakaiki also follows historical routes.
The stretch between Waikori Road car park and the Pororari River follows the 1867 Inland Pack Track, once one of the main access routes between Greymouth and Westport. The track up the Pororari River was originally built to open up the area for farming. Few farms were formed and the route languished, but it was revitalised in the 1950s for a short-lived uranium-mining venture.
On 19 November 2010, 29 men perished in an underground explosion at the Pike River Mine. Created in partnership with the families of those 29 men, the Department of Conservation and Ngāti Waewae, the Paparoa Track is a memorial to the men and a thank you to New Zealanders for their support of the Pike River families. | Credit www.doc.govt.nz Paparoa Track
I first saw it, either a ride or making of documentary, at The Big Bike Film Night. One of the many contributions Brett's epic film collections made to my decision to do this trip. This short (3 min) clip from DOC shows the some of the formidable obstacles faced, both terrain and elements, building the highest Moonlight Tops section.
My Strava profile (below) shows the trail from about the 6km mark as includes my ride up from Blackball.
Smoke-Ho Carpark to Ces Clark Hut
The trail starts with a short climb to the formal 'starting gate' and view of where you're heading.
After that there's a reasonable descent, ~100m, to the Blackball Creek Valley. The first 10km is a re-purposed, and it seems little changed, hiking trail. The bridges on this section are not rideable, by me anyway, as are the narrow two plank walking style with wheel rails to aid getting your bike up/down the stairs.
My wide trail bike bars are a tight fit even when walking!
After the valley, a relentless climb takes you up to the mountain top ridge.
View up the creek (left) and the trail (right) not dissimilar!
Had a short break, a snack and drink, at the 'Hotel 1898' site. After that, the trail was nice leafy smooth riding for a while...
The climb is tough going. It's not so much the gradient, more the rocky surface. Lots of rock riding, both embedded and loose, had me glad for the large tyres and suspension (for traction more than comfort) on my Trance bike.
Had a couple of near falls in ‘rock garden like sections’ but unclipped fast enough to avoid harm or was on the flat, no-clip, side of my pedals already!
The trail is up there somewhere, clouds kissing the ridge I was heading for.
Near to here (below) a sign indicated '1km to Ces Clark Hut' but both it and the track seen in this shot are deceptive.
Having ridden all the way several hundred metres of that last km were so rough and loose it had me off the bike and pushing.
In some ways it was the toughest kilometre of the whole ride!
Ces Clark Hut
When they said allow 2-3 hours for the first 10km they weren't kidding, took me two with nothing more than photo stops. I stopped at the hut, but it was already quite busy with hikers, either stopping for lunch or the night, so didn’t stay long.
The views were stunning, would be a neat place to stay but not for me today.
Had some food—fruit, cookies, and gummies—before setting off for the next milestone: the Tops!
Riding the ridges to Moonlight Tops Hut
The trail is better from Ces Clark Hut onwards as is new build cycle trail, but still rated grade 4. It's a 1.5-2-hour 10km ride to the next hut, Moonlight Tops, at about 1140m elevation. This is the second stop for hikers and where most cyclists stay the night on a two day ride.
It's stunning riding, a flowing trail threading along ridge lines, but despite the sun the forecast rain showers loomed ever more imminent.
The swirling clouds, vast landscape, glimpses to the coast, and the remoteness of it all; just stunning
A few kilometres from Moonlight Tops Hut the clouds came in for real giving an eery feel as the trail threaded through the mist.
It is lovely riding, so nicely graded and flowing, the trail picking a line along the ridge swapping to whichever side offers the best riding line. There was a bit of wind but nothing threatening; I imagine on the wrong day (evidenced by the stunted vegetation) it could get dicey up here.
It started to rain as I approached the hut, my light rain-shell was cover enough, but a sign of more to come.
Because of the weather I forgot to take a decent photo of the Hut, photo below by DOC (on a much nicer day) shows what an awesome overnight it would be. I got there in 1.5 hours but staying was not an option as it was fully booked out.
I stopped there for lunch; chatted to a couple of hikers (who were staying) and walking the trail over three days. The weather deteriorated, proper West Coast rain, as I ate but decided to press on as it was already about 13:00. You are not allowed to ride the trail at night (to protect nocturnal animals, not you!) and I was a little apprehensive about running out of daylight if had any delays.
I had to break out the serious wet weather gear—leggings, winter gloves—I've been carrying for weeks and my insulated Gore-Tex raincoat (purchased for the Antarctic Trip) as a top layer. It wasn't especially cold but was careful to stay dry and warm in case the weather got worse.
Moonlight Tops to Pororari Hut
Moonlight Tops to Pororari Hut is 20km and claimed to take 4-5 hours. Was glad I didn't wait for the rain to pass as was about an hour before it eased and cleared.
It was soon after I passed the start of what will be an emergency shelter in the middle of this leg. Quite a big building pad, like the huts, with a helicopter landing clearing nearby. It's a pity this isn't another hut, would be ideal for 2-day riders and ease the pressure on Moonlight Tops Hut where cyclists and hikers both stay.
Yet more fantastic riding as the track runs along more ridges, with more amazing scenery, then descends into high country bush.
I saw about four hikers (a couple going the other way, others I caught and passed) on this leg.
Just love the way the clouds linger...
Spectacular construction as the trail picks a path down from the ridge. Can't imagine how much rock was moved to build this section alone, beautifully done.
A suspension bridge under a waterfall with stunning mountain rainforest vistas, just another feature as you descend into the lush bush.
Off the bridge and ever downwards, at one point, through a giant rock!
I saw another two couples hiking on this part of the track. They were walking the direction I was riding but you can do it either way. Must bear that in mind as you ride.
Constant maintenance keeps this trail ridable and walkable. I think this was one of the post-opening slips which delayed the through ride after opening.
Made great time on the downhill after the rain was gone, such fun! I arrived at the last hut about 16:00, after just two and a half hours riding, over an hour earlier than I guess'timated. Stopped for a snack and chatted to three hikers who had walked in from Punakaiki to stay the night.
View from the hut towards Punakaiki. Another wonderful place to stay, but another hut fully booked!
Pororari Hut to Punakaiki
This carving signals the turnoff for the short trail up to the hut or, for me, the direction to Punakaiki.
It's worth stopping frequently to take in the stunning detail in this vast landscape.
From a tiny bloom to a mountain ridge in one frame (below left). Down in the valley the trail follows the river, plenty of rideable bridges on this section.
The last leg, 17km and 2.5-3.5-hours, is a lovely flowing descent down to the Pororari River valley but there's one last climb before the finish.
The trail splits with hikers continuing along the river valley and cyclists getting another climb/descent on the Inland Pack Track then following the Punakaiki River to the highway. The reason is the walking track is un-ridable as threads through rocky overhangs and caves requiring stairs and short climbs.
Part of the hikers track from when we walked it in 2006
Although in the valley, there's still some great riding and views back to the hills on this section.
Some guy taking photos...
In the last part of the ride—crisscrossing the river on suspension bridges, sparkling water below, early evening sun in clear blue sky above—my phone must not have locked after I took a photo. It randomly, bouncing around in my jersey back pocket, opened the music app and (from over 3,000 off-line tracks) started playing this version of Tim Minchen's 'Not Perfect'. Fate could not have made a better choice as I rode towards the end of this stunning experience.
This is my earth
And I live in it
It's one third dirt and two thirds water
And it rotates and revolves through space
At rather an impressive pace
And never even messes up my hair.
And here's the really weird thing
The force created by its spin
Is the force that stops the chaos flooding in.
This is my earth and it's fine.
It's where I spend the vast majority of my time.
It's not perfect, but it's mine.
Tim Minchen - Not Perfect
What a ride!
The track is stunning, a true high/back country experience. Although a hut stay would have been awesome not carrying food and extra gear for an overnight stay made the riding better. I suspect that was a big part of me achieving the 'faster times' even with multiple photo and 'take it all in' stops.
Some more Tim (except for edited age*) seemed fitting...
This is my body
And I live in it.
It's fifty-six years and two months old.*
It's changed a lot since it was new.
It's done stuff it wasn't built to do.
This is my body and it's fine.
It's where I spend the vast majority of my time.
It's not perfect, but it's mine...
Tim Minchen - Not Perfect
The Punakaiki River, just a couple of kilometres from 'home', and one last look back to the mountains I'd ridden.
Punakaiki, two bikes, no car!
Got back to my cottage, just a kilometre from the trail end, about 18:30. It was odd riding into the carport without a car in it. I hope it's still in Blackball tomorrow or I'll have a long cycle home to Auckland!
After a hot shower was time for dinner and an early night. In part because I was knackered, but also as have a compulsory ~70km ride tomorrow. Also, the 2022 Formula One Season starts tonight. I'll be up to watch the first practice sessions live thankful the cottage has great Wi-Fi to stream it!