The historic coal town of Blackball is tucked away on a terrace above the West Coast's Grey River. Once famous as the birthplace of the Labour Party and our nation's trade union movement, it's now a shadow of its former glory. Blackball's last coal mine closed in 1971, driving most families off in search of jobs elsewhere. It was gold though, not coal that gave birth to Blackball in the late 1800's.
As you'd expect, the town's first significant structure was its hotel. The once grand Blackball Hilton is still the star attraction. It has survived two world wars and a series of mine closures. Now it provides cheap 'n' cheerful backpacker-style accommodation.
After the easy alluvial gold was won from the rivers and streams, quartz mines were established. These required water races, stamping batteries, and steam boilers to power them. Remnants of fluming, overhead bucket-ways and all manner of mining paraphernalia can still be spotted today. Benched tracks were built so that supplies and heavy machinery could be hauled in. The miner's legacy to mountain bikers is the Croesus and Moonlight trails.
The Paparoa Range runs from Greymouth to Westport, dividing the Grey Valley from the Tasman Sea. Geography conspires to often shroud the tops in cloud even when the rest of the Coast is basking in sunshine. The Croesus climbs over the Paparoas from Blackball and drops to the Barrytown Pub - just a few hundred meters from the sea. To the east lies the Moonlight. A poled route along the tops connects the two.
You can count on a Croesus-Moonlight traverse to provide plenty of ego-subduing slippery rock, over-grown track and thick mist around the tops to make navigation tricky. But our last Blackball trip had none of these hazards. After an extended period of Coast 'drought', we were spoilt with bone-dry tracks, clear skies and DOC had recently cleared the windfall at the top of the Moonlight.
Ditte, Mike and I rode up the forestry road out of Blackball to the start of the Croesus. Loose gravel and the constant uphill quickly warmed up the ol' ticker. From the road-end the track climbs sharply over a coal seam and through a gnarly rock garden that I've only managed to rarely ride in the past. Extra-dry under tread, there were hoots of delight as our troupe slam-dunked the entire section.
The track drops into Blackball Creek where George Cundy discovered gold in 1864. Known as Garden Gully until its wealth of gold became apparent, it was duly renamed the Croesus. The track is a wonderful mosaic of rust coloured stones with a mossy green boarder. Very House 'n' Garden. A couple of meters wide, it follows the contours above the river, crossing a gaggle of swing bridges before arriving at the start of the main climb.
It's not overly steep but even in dry conditions it's a big ask to clear the numerous rock gardens. We grind it out, watched by spooky old beech trees draped in old man's beard. Young streams gurgle across the trail providing cold, clean drinking water. Pockets of cold air cooled our sweaty bodies.
Breaking out of the bush, we were surrounded by dracophyllums. Straight from Dr Zeus, their long curly orange leaves carpeted the ground while toi toi, hebes and olearias overhung the track. Several years ago a fire ripped through the area leaving a forest of dead trees with bleached trunks and contorted bare branches. All quite surreal. Shortly afterwards we arrived at the palatial Ces Clark Hut - a wonderful twenty-four bunker with running water and gasp-worthy views. The vista extends beyond the Grey Valley to Moana and traces the breaking surf south to the snow capped Alps in the distance. We matched the view with a feast of avocado and banana sandwiches on fruit loaf.
The benched track continues through the tussock country above the hut. It's washed out in places and challenging on full stomachs. On towards Mt Ryan, the now poled route splits with the choice of descending to Barrytown-by-the-Sea or continuing northwest along the Paparoa tops for five unrideable kilometres to the top of the Moonlight. Carrying your bike for a few hours is clearly a daft pastime, yet spectacular views can compensate for the discomfort. Behind us the Southern Alps stretched all the way to Mt Cook. Ahead, the Paparoas rose from the Tasman. At the top of the Moonlight we refuelled in anticipation of freshly cleared track.
We were not disappointed - dropping through a user-friendly section of beech trees before hitting the steep stuff. Flax and knotty-old ratas line the switchback descent to the start of the benched track proper. Mostly we carried, although some bits were ridden with limited success. The bitter-sweet reality of this masochism is that the singletrack is so much better when you finally reach it. The benched track is fabulous - descending to the Moonlight Creek and the remains of its eponymous stamping battery.
Further down the valley, the Moonlight drops steeply through a tight gorge. Side streams had previously washed out short sections of the track. We crossed at a swing bridge, and descended the rocky terraces to the extensively worked lower section. Huge piles of neatly stackedriver stones line the track as tribute to the hard labour expended in search of gold. Further down, three-meter high versions really impress us. Inca ruins perhaps, or the folly of visiting aliens. Travelling past an old cemetery, across water races and alongside hut sites we hit Uppertown. The track ducks and dives like a roller coaster through mature beech forest before the final climb to Andersons Flat. Food is inhaled asenergy levels hit a low ebb. A shingle road takes us back to the Atarau Road. Then twelve kilometres of tarmac lands us back to our coal miner's cottage in Blackball. The sun drops behind the Paparoas and somewhere beyond sinks into the Tasman. Food and a hot shower suddenly become the priority.
Topo Map: K31 Ahaura.
There are so many options around the Croesus. Instead of connecting with the Moonlight you can veer west off the tops and follow the 'proper' route down to Barrytown. It involves a few hours of push/carry and the initial part of the descent is only marginally rideable on a dry day with a big breakfast of courage... until you hit the benched track half way down, which is very, very tasty. It's 42 km on the road back to Blackball. A pleasant enough ride but a car shuttle always feels better at the time.
Croesus-Moonlight traverse: total distance 52 kms; around 10 hours.
Croesus-Barrytown traverse: total distance 28 kms; around 7 hours.
It's difficult to over-state just how nasty the weather can be in the Paparoas. Cloud and fog suck in around the tops at will, making route finding impossible.
Snow is possible at anytime of the year. Take plenty of food, clothing, navigational aids and the wisdom to know when to turn back.
The Croesus is closed to bikes over Christmas and Easter.
Food and lodging? The Blackball Hilton of course. Rooms are cheap, hot water plentiful and you can sip on a Monteiths while a bar meal is rustled up for you. There's a kitchen too if you prefer to do your own thing.
Blackball's other icon is the Blackball Salami Company. No sandwich is complete without a slice or two.