On the West Coast Beauty Doesn’t Stop
Though now only partially open to the public owing to a slip, the 55.7km Paparoa Track on the West Coast is the first addition to the Great Walks in 25 years. Sebastian Modak, The New York Times ‘2019 52 Places Traveler’, previews the track for the newspaper’s series, in which he reports from all 52 places on the annual New York Times list.
“The Paparoa Track is the tenth of the New Zealand Great Walks, multi-day treks overseen by the Department of Conservation that cut through protected mountains, forests and valleys,” Modak writes. “[It] can be completed in three days by foot or two on a mountain bike. Three huts are placed at intervals along the trail, which cuts through Paparoa National Park, passing river gorges, up onto mountain ridges that overlook the sea and through dense primeval rainforests.
“When I arrived, the Paparoa Track was still days from opening. But I was able to get a sneak preview of it, meaning I covered about 9km – or 17 per cent – of the whole journey. After travelling through a landscape dominated by alpine forests and craggy peaks, it was jarring to head into the dense rainforest of Paparoa National Park. I couldn’t make sense of the terrain’s quick transition. Prehistoric ferns the size of golf umbrellas stretched over the dirt and stone paths and smaller ferns stood coiled, ready to spring to life. Mushrooms grew on the roots of trees felled by passing storms. The path sloped upward until it offered views of the Pororari River far below.
“Construction crews were putting the finishing touches on the track. Helicopters transported buckets of gravel to hard-to-reach switchbacks. Workers spoke about every curve and big tree as though they were in their home neighbourhood. One explained that the path we were walking on was actually revamped, not brand new. It had been used by gold prospectors in the 19th century: history woven seamlessly into nature. The Paparoa Track intersects the Pike29 Memorial Track, dedicated to the 29 people who died in a methane explosion at the Pike River Mine in 2010.
“Watching the landscape pass by [returning to Christchurch from the TranzAlpine train], like a flipbook of postcards, I realised what was so special about New Zealand. There’s the environment, of course; it can feel like you’ve travelled to Hawaii, Ireland, Norway and the Azores over the course of a single day. But it’s also how New Zealanders interact with their environment. Around 86 per cent of land in the West Coast region is protected by the Department of Conservation. Most of the tourists I encountered were locals, out for weekend family trips to hike, camp and picnic. The Paparoa Track was finally opening after being funded by tax dollars and blessed by local Māori. This is a place that has been given a disproportionate serving of natural splendour and people here recognise its value. Honouring it is a national pastime.
“By the time I reached Christchurch, I was rejuvenated. Despite the wear of daily hikes and inclement weather, I felt better rested than I have in a long time. Nature, unleashed like it is on the South Island of New Zealand, has the power to reset your entire being. Just a month from the finish line, it was like I was back at day one of this year of travel. And all it took was a little fresh air.”
Original article by Sebastian Modak, The New York Times, December 17, 2019.
Photo by Sebastian Modak.