New Zealand: The Paparoa Track

I drove past the end of the Old Ghost Road. Everyone I’ve met who has walked it says it’s the best. I tried to get a booking but I’d left it too late. Another one to add to the maybe later list. With another week of rain on the horizon I’m torn between finding somewhere to hike. A few days at least of not caring about being wet. I spend an afternoon getting up to date. I tell myself I’m up to date. I still manage to put off replacing the front tyre, cleaning the storage boxes, sweeping the van, refilling the LPG bottle. I look long and hard at the Paparoa Track. The newest Great Walk. The one I was most happy to skip. If I can get in the huts, it’s not far from here. Two bunks are left. Why not?

I drove the length of the Buller Gorge, following the river from source to sea. The amber lights on single lane roads count down to the change from red to green. I pull all the way through Westport to the Denniston coal mining area. Half the tracks are closed, I realise I have no interest in walking them anyway. The view is decent but I drove up so I don’t feel like I’ve worked hard enough for it. The remnants of the old mining community have turned to rust. The old, but not that old stone walls are tumbling down. The wooden platform must have rotted away. New planks have been laid to retain some semblance of the past. None of the information boards are holding my attention. I’m not interested in the struggle of the white settler exploiting the land. I realise too late I’m not interested in anything today. I drive down to the beach, engage in mindless scrolling, consider ways in which I can improve my pasta with pizza sauce for the Paparoa Track. It’s only two nights so I can carry more weight. I end up with eggs, a cucumber, a carrot, sun-dried tomatoes, sachet of olives, dehydrated peas, and a few apples. I don’t quite stretch to buying a cheese grater. Shopping without a list is becoming a dangerous and expensive habit. I’m going to be eating better on the trail than I do in the van. I move on to Punakaiki.

I check in at the DOC office, not that I need to. I’m sure at some point this is a necessary activity I just haven’t read my notes. I go back to the van for lunch. A heavy raindrop but only one, square on my head. Two birds fly inland. I touch my hat, my fingers come away brown. Damn. I go back into the visitor centre toilets to wash my hands, rinse the worst of the shit off my hat. Maybe I’ll have some good luck, a change in forecast would be my best fortune. I wander down to the Pancake Rocks. A tarmac path, catering to the masses. One of the main stops on the West Coast, in all the guidebooks. I’ve been before, it’s fine. Terns nest on top of the pancakes. White streaks of poo the least appetising of toppings. Waves boom in the blowholes. Out on the walkway a man shouts of “There! There! There!” Hector Dolphins off the coast. A brief, sleek flash of dark grey. The tip of a head, the small curve of a fin. Were it not for the family, the Dad shouting I might have missed them. 

At camp I hard boiled the eggs for a protein snack that isn’t chorizo. Sorry vegans, I’m still taking chorizo. I have to be ready for 8am. I feel like I need so many things before then that I also need to pack. I get mostly done and settle in to catch up on the blog. The laptop doesn’t turn on. I press and hold the on button for the timeless IT hack. No joy. I search for other options pressing a combination of buttons. Plugging it in and leaving it. Nothing. Balls. I search for places I can try and get it repaired. Christchurch. The wrong side of the island. Not ideal. There’s nothing I can do now. 

I knew the forecast was for rain so when I woke up to the pitter patter on the roof of the van I wasn’t surprised. Bed is warm, comfortable. I do everything I can in order to stay there as long as possible which is a long way of saying I don’t have a shower. I’ve been left miles from the amenities which doesn’t encourage me to get up and get on. Time is running out. I move back and forth to the kitchen. Getting the last few things organised, things I still needed this morning. Coffee, toothbrush. Coats. My pack only seems half full and now I’ve got to do the rest in the rain. I throw the final things in, realise I haven’t replaced my boots since I cleaned them. Rush through that actually quite important task. I move the van to the long term parking area. I walk-jog to the shuttle departure. I’m bang on time, which for me is a bit late. There are four of us, plus some bloke we drop off in a town along the way. The woman up front works for Conservation Volunteers of New Zealand and I’m interested enough to put this on the list of things I can do next year that aren’t walking. Plant a few trees, give something back, have a legacy. 

We arrive in the Smoke-Ho car park. Again, there’s no shelter. The four of us huddle under the slight curve of the information boards. I strap up my pack and get to walking. The rain does not stop. At least the trail isn’t a river, yet. I realise a few minutes in water is coming in through the tongues on my boots. I never lacedvm them up properly like I thought I might in the shuttle. The bottom of my pack cover is hanging loose like a full nappy. Another puddle has formed. I really can’t deal with a wet sleeping bag again. My mood sinks. I wasn’t organised. I’m struggling with the wet. The thought of being wet for days. I’m struggling against the suffering. This is better than the alternative. Being dry but stuck in the van. I tell myself to embrace it. Get wet boots. Get wet socks. You can’t change it now. All you can do is keep your head down, keep your feet moving and get to the hut.
Even though I was having a bad time I opted to detour down Garden Gully. It’s only an extra half an hour. I am already wet. It’s not going to hurt. Starting, slowly to embrace the present. I pass incredible moss covered trees. I plunge ankle deep in grass covered pools. I pull myself up and over a rickety swing bridge. I fall short of crossing the river again on foot. There’s an old historic hut, somewhere to shelter. To adjust straps, laces and rain cover. To have a quick snack. To read ‘i wos ere’ tags from before 2010. I use the toilet, realising I also forgot toilet paper. This is a Great Walk, I reckon I’ve probably paid for the privilege of not having to carry in my own.

The trail climbs steadily. Leaving the forest, climbing above the clouds. The 1km to the hut post is nice but it’s not my hut. Ces Clark Hut is full and not with people staying there. This is my completion for bunks at Moonlight Tops Hut. I decide not to stop, to get ahead of this Gang of 11 and claim a better bunk. Spectres whisp across the tussock. Hillsides come and hillsides go. Black forest fades to grey, disappears into the sky. Orange warning poles with black exclamation marks are I guess for the cyclists. Stream pools. Dips in the trail. A low tree. The open, exposed, windswept tops. I finally find my good boy mentality. Enjoying simply being outside, being alive, being absolutely battered by the weather. Wind drives the clouds up the ridge, punching like a train. The bad weather is good for something, I don’t hang around for the view. Is it fog? Most? Cloud? Whatever it is, it blows across the trail. I see just once the bright white of the ocean far below. The rocks on the trail are now coated with water. I come across the for me this time 1km to the hut post. The uplift of mood complete. I arrive before the crowd. Three Ladies are already here, lighting the fire, putting the kettle on. I hang my wet hear out which thankfully doesn’t include my sleeping bag. I finally crack out my lunch.

The Gang of 11 arrive with a bang, crashing in, filling a room, taking a table to play nomination. Some of them sound like I’ve l played with them before. Shouts of “what’s trumps?”, “So I have to follow suit?”, “you wanted none but now you’ve got two!” I sneak dinner in while they’re busy, pleased with my pasta with chorizo, peas, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. The Gang of 11 play their highest trump. They’ve come in with sausages and mash, the mash is powdered at least. The Three Ladies froze an Indian takeaway, by the time they got up to the hut it had defrosted and was ready to reheat. There’s no way I’m ever going to be not envious of other people’s food. The Warden Henriette pops in to give a safety speech, to check our tickets.

Through the night alarms blare. Regular workers forgetting to turn them off. Other people get up regularly. “Old man’s prostate” one declares. It’s not the worst night I’ve had in a hut but I’m starting to suspect you never feel well rested. I make a fresh, hot Aeropress coffee. Farewell instant, forever. The wet weather gear goes back on damp. The forecast has been upgraded from rain to periods of rain. Right now, ready to leave during one of those periods. 15 minutes from the hut I feel like I’ve forgotten something. I tick off items, head torch, keys, wallet, phone. The mattress. I didn’t flip the mattress. I hope someone else will have cleaned up after me. Or if it is something more important, hopefully they bring it along to Pororari Hut. 

The plants are like coral, specialised to the alpine environment. The wind washes waves of rain through their branches. The open tussock descends once more into green, wet, goblin forest. Old creaking branches, fallen giants, shattered trunks all covered in thick lime moss. The small patch of forest ends at a coal seam. The answer to the question of how do we mine sustainability in the 21st century? We don’t, we leave things in the ground. The shift back to alpine vegetation offers no protection from the elements, from the sudden drop. An abyss of grey opens up where, maybe, on a clear day, you might get a view. Today there is nothing at all, an endless void. A screen of white, the empty slate. The track behind switching back and forth along the mountain slope. The gradual descent built for bikes is easy on the knees. A suspension bridge crosses over a rocky strewn creek. To the right, a waterfall of mist seems to descend directly out of the sky. The lack of view narrows my focus, I notice the trees, the cobwebs, the lichen. The water that drips through moss, over rocks, off the tips of leaves.

There are old huts from the track’s construction left at a suitable point to stop. I slam the door closed on one behind me. I snack, it’s too early for lunch. After an apple and a cereal bar I get ready to leave. There’s a reason I had to slam the door. It’s jammed shut. It was probably never meant to be closed. I’m trapped. The Three Ladies are ahead of me. The Gang of 11 are who knows maybe an hour away? I’m not in any significant danger at least. I don’t want to wait. I’ve seen enough action to movies. A leg up and kick out at the door, near to the lock. A satisfying crunch. A minor act of vandalism. I hope this particular hut is due to be taken down as part of restoring this area to its original state. At least now I can add “kicked a door down” to my C.V.
I slide past the Three Ladies while they stop to regroup. “Put the kettle on! Get the fire going!” are the instructions called to me as I move on towards Pororari Hut. I arrive as James the Warden is finishing the clear up from the previous guests. I take the same bunk as the night before in the carbon copy hut. We’re likely to arrive in an almost identical order. The Three Ladies arrive while I’m still setting up, I’ve done neither of the jobs. I let them get settled and start on the fire and then on the kettle. Pockets of blue sky appear. The first in two days. The lower ridgelines emerge briefly from the clouds, still pointing up in to the sky. Disappearing again as the cloud climbed higher.

The Gang of 11 arrive, leaving boots out on the deck. The first cries of the local fauna goes up. Somebody has left some toys out. Keeee-a. A falcon sized shadow flashes over the window. The Kea lands on the deck railing. Deep green scale like feathers. A smudge of yellow around a black beak. The bird shuffles conspicuously. Waiting for an opportunity. It makes a start towards a rain cover before being chased off. The flash of red, a hint of blue. He sits in the trees, screeching his dismay of not being allowed to play.

Rob and Dave, the other couple are keen to have a go at Nomination. Michelle off of the Three Ladies joins us while her partners take a rest. I can just about remember the rules and pull together a quick round. In return I’m taught to play. In among the hands Michelle and Rob get to talking. Rob is an ICU nurse, Michelle’s son spent time in her ward. The small world connects in person. You begin to feel like you’ve known these people for months but it’s barely been days. For once we become the rowdy bunch, out lasting the Gang of 11 only clearing to bed when it becomes clear two of them want to sleep in the communal area out of the noise. 

In the morning the rain continues. I walk out with my head down. I found out all but the Three Ladies are heading back to the Punakaiki Beach Camp. I want to be first in to make sure I get some hot water and prime wet clothes hanging spots in the drying room. The cyclone ravaged forest gives little protection. The wind picking up, pushing the rain into my face, inside my hood, down the back of my rain jacket. Things only get worse when the gale is channeled down the valley of the Pororari River. A few suspension bridges cross the mud brown waters. The forest shifts from beech to Nikau and tree ferns the closer I get to the coast. I walk down the valley walls. The sheer limestone cliffs reminding me of the heights I never really saw. A few women pass me going the other way, heading in. “How far behind you are the big group?” They ask. The wives and mothers of the Gang of 11 have come to collect them. “Not far, they were putting boots on when I left,” I’m close now to the end. Tumbling off the trail into the car park. Down the road into the campground. Out of the wet clothes in to the hot shower. The staff put the fire on in the drying room. I get everything hung out just as the Gang come through. I spent the afternoon desperately trying to get the laptop to switch on, a detour to Christchurch is really not ideal. Nothing happens. Rob pops her head around the corner to see if I’m coming to the pub. Everyone is there, the Gang a few beers in. The wives and mothers apologise for them being so loud but really they were good company. Rob, Dave and I eat together. I have one too many beers to successfully play pool but that doesn’t stop me taking up the offer to go back to their van for a game of Ticket To Ride. This is one of those surreal moments. At no point was I expecting to spend an evening playing board games in the back of a motorhome. Rob and Dave are wonderful company and extend their hospitality. “When you get to Dunedin, looks us up.” Rob says. “You seem relative low maintenance so they’ll be easy,” agrees Dave and I surely hope to play some more board games with my new friends.

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