Aligned for Greatness
Our Track Story
My Paparoa Track Great Walk experience began long before it became great. You see where I now rest atop the West Coast’s Paparoa Ranges on the track’s official opening day was, four years ago, my campsite that was anything but restful.
Here a violent storm raged, gales flattened my tent and rain poured from above like heaven’s riot hose. Laying damp in the darkness, I wondered if I ever got this survey completed, could anyone wrangle our country’s latest Great Walk from this staunch wilderness?
Perched here now on a magic West Coast day I am rewarded to see the answer stretched out before me and I realise my Paparoa Track experience has become two-fold. Firstly, as part of a ten-week track survey team to find the alignment and establish gradients suited to walkers and riders, and secondly, returning now on opening day to map the track for the Great Rides App.
Our first track survey begins with a helicopter flight to the tops. My companion is conservation ranger Dave who is my pal in the hills for the next few months. Our task is clear: take a rough line on a map and translate it into a blue taped line on the ground. We are one of two survey teams working at opposite ends of the map. One team starts at Blackball, the other at Punakaiki.
Unlike the trail builders that come later with excavators, chainsaws and shovels; our skills are the ability to grovel through rough terrain and use tools such as maps, GPS units and a shiny silver clinometer. My Swedish clinometer is no larger than a matchbox, a hole in the side for one eye to look through at a rolling gauge measuring gradient to achieve a 1:10 grade, while my other eye looks across the terrain. Hanging around my neck it sways as I walk like some hippy medallion – a modern aid to make the backcountry grade.
Our first week in the sub-alpine is in blinding clag. Together we form a system of exploring nature’s canvas, sketching up the best the route in our minds before confirming the line by painting the track alignment with blue tape. The work is both physical and creative.
Every few hours the cloud briefly parts giving us a tiny glimpse of the terrain ahead … this is when the big mountain tops become our circus stage. Like a clumsy clown in large boots, I race around on the uneven ground to get views, sometimes cartwheeling over tussock mounds. How we found our lost GPS unit in waist-high grasses after one of my cartwheeling mishaps is still a mystery to me!
Each week in the hills is different. One week I work on the Pike 29 Memorial branch. Close to the mine portal, we lay out the groundwork, the Pike men never far from our thoughts as they lie deep underground. Another week we discover karst springs and find a route that follows a historic pack track. My favourite week though is the Pike escarpment.
This 5km long, 300-metre precipitous face looks as if a sculptor ran out of clay and only shaped half a mountain. This feature will become the poster shot of the track and my imagination runs wild with route choices while I try to envisage biking along its razorback edge. My final track alignment memory is our reunion with the second survey team. High on the escarpment we tie together the blue ribbon track lines and eat jetplane lollies before we fly out together and go our separate ways.
Over the next few years, three track-building teams work hard on the steep, wet terrain of Westland. Like our time in tents, they too are tested by the elements. Ex-tropical cyclones send torrents that destroy new bridges and slips that wash away freshly-built track culminating in the track opening in stages. Finally, it is announced that the fully completed track is ready for opening and I return on the last official day of summer to be one of the first along its way. I am ready to ride, reflect and record data for the app.
Pushing play on the GPS units, I pass under the carved gateway at the Blackball end and ride to the tops. By lunch, I reach the spot where our survey party first landed - the untracked now tracked, and I love the riding experience. At the far end of the ridge just short of our weather-beaten survey camp I reach the luxury of the Moonlight Tops Hut. This backcountry home has stunning views, its windows gazing across the valley to the edge of the escarpment. Just behind the hut, the closed section of track opens tomorrow … only one more sleep!