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Creating the Paparoa and Pike29 Memorial Tracks

07 December 2017

Words by Guy Wynn-Williams
Images by Hamish Seaton and Guy Wynn-Williams

Seven years ago 29 miners died in the Pike River Coal Mine disaster on the West Coast of New Zealand. Last year DOC announced plans to create the Paparoa and Pike29 tracks in Paparoa National Park. The tracks were proposed by the miners' families as a living memorial to those who tragically lost their lives, and as a thank you to the region and nation for the support they received in the wake of the disaster.65 km of new and existing multi-use walking-biking tracks will link Blackball, Punakaiki and Pike River. Construction started a few months ago. Due to be completed in April 2019, there will be various single and two-day options to climb and descend through lush native forest, and traverse the spectacular Paparoa tops.

Hamish Seaton has been donkey deep in mountain biking, event management and trail building since forever. He's spent countless hours helping survey and mark out the Old Ghost Road and currently oversees the maintenance of the Alps to Ocean cycle trail. Hamish is that rare blend of computer geek, engineer, mountain biker, hardened tramper, hands-on track builder and all-round good bloke. No surprises that DOC have retained him to survey and monitor the build-quality of the new Paparoa tracks.

Hamish 'two pizzas better than one' Seaton fuels up in Greymouth.

Over a cup of tea and shortbread in Dunedin earlier this winter, Hamish told me how a small team of DOC hard-nuts spent months stomping about the tops and clambering through the bush to determine the general route and test the premise that a grade 4 cycle trail could actually be built in this remote country. They then aerial mapped the area using LiDAR. The detail is extraordinary with one metre contours. Hamish uses this data to painstakingly draw and redraw the track line until the optimal route is found with the magic average gradient of 6.5 degrees. Combined with Google Earth imagery and other tech trickery he substitutes further traditional on-the-ground reconnaissance with this incredibly accurate and cost effective virtual alternative.

A 'virtual' slice of the Pike 29 Memorial Track. 

I got pretty excited about the project, and the process of designing and building these high quality sustainable tracks in the rugged West Coast environment. Hamish made a few phone calls to the bosses at DOC and, with the requisite Health and Safety inductions, I was able to join him on one of his fortnightly site visits.

The forecast for the week was appalling (although as it played out the wild weather only struck at night - we were blessed with six almost-perfect West Coast days). So it was with some trepidation that I rendezvoused with Hamish latish on a Sunday night in Arthurs Pass. It was snowing lightly. On the Pass itself it was dumping with 5-10 cm snow settling on the road.

Our destination was the old Pike River Coal block of buildings near the mine portal. It was dark, late and very wet as we turned up the Pike River Road. At the first locked gate 29 'cutout' miners clad in overalls and helmets stood guard. A poignant and eerie greeting.

Construction of the track is taking place at three locations. There’s a couple of crews at the Punakaiki end living in bush camps, and one crew on the Pike29 staying in the erstwhile mine's Training Rooms.

Each crew is comprised of two teams of 3, working alternate 'shifts' - 7 days on; 7 days off. Our first day Monday was changeover day with both teams overlapping for a few hours. There was a lot of banter, peer critique and review-preview conversations with Hamish. They are good dudes. It's hard work, often in difficult conditions, and they're full of enthusiasm, respect and passion for the project.

Sam in the digger; Ian and Ben in the mud.

Tom, Matt, Logan, Ian, Sam, Ben and Hamish chew the fat on changeover day.

Countering the pre-planning screen-gazing comfort of his office, Hamish’s field time involves considerable grovelling in the bush, mud, rain and occasionally the dreaded native stinging nettle Onga Onga. Once he’s determined the basic route, it’s downloaded to his phone. Armed with this, a GPS unit and inclinometer he marks the theoretical line with pink ribbons.

That is then massaged and tweaked to hug the contours, minimise steep pinches, accomodate swales to dump water… and avoid obstacles like rocks, tomos and trees. Rimu and beech abound. Some are very old and very huge - making for an impressive milieu to ride and walk through.

Guy finds a friend.

Hamish and I spent most of our days climbing and slip-sliding through the forest, questioning the marked lines, mentally calculating the costs of removing obstacles versus building more track to avoid them. All this finally tested and peppered with the crew’s expert opinion on dealing with the challenges of each section.

Minimal impact dominates the track building ethos. Before forming the track, ferns and moss are removed and replanted on the edge of the track as part of the remediation. Trees are only felled in exceptional circumstances, and only on DOC’s authority. The finished track instantly has an old and established vibe.

Hamish (top) and Guy (bottom) prove the pudding. The track climbs effortlessly and delivers big grins on descent.

A storm of biblical proportions was due mid week. It finally arrived Tuesday night. We got smashed. Cats and dogs were pelted down from on high. It blew, a lot. On Wednesday morning trees had fallen on the power lines and closed the road. We had a date at Punakaiki to fly in with the crew changeover at midday. The road was tidied up mid morning and we pinned it for the coast.

Storm damage takes down the power lines on the Pike River Road.

Long-lining materials onto the track above the Punakaiki River.

Choppers are fun. Not so much though when it’s blowing forty 'love-childs'. Wayne was our pilot. He’d had a rough ride down from Karamea but the conditions miraculously calmed as we lifted off and headed into Watson’s Camp at the base of the Tindale Spur. The camp is innovative and comfortable in a Swiss Family Robinson kinda way. The sleeping pods are connected with a roof and central cooking area. There’s a gen-set for power and gas califont for hot showers. Sadly, or happily, no internet. The whole arrangement can be broken down and relocated by chopper.

Watson's Camp.

Pororari bush camp.

Special edition, chainsaw crafted, smoko stools.

We walked out with Jim. He oversees the operations at this end of the track, and was a mover and shaker on the Old Ghost Road. Consequently he’s gained a lot of experience and data over the past few years to make sharp decisions.

Jim less than impressed with windfall from the previous night's storm.

Nigel joined us for the first half hour or so to suss out the construction details with Hamish and Jim for the next few hundred metres of track. Nigel drives the 1.5 tonne digger, blows stuff up when required and like most of the crew rides a bike and earned his 'wings' on the OGR.

Nigel, Jim and Hamish pinpoint a zig amidst a poorly placed Onga Onga nursery.

The track is mint, even though it often travels through wet boggy sections. Old-school corduroy foundation is used through this terrain. Felled timber is chainsawed into strips, laid in the mud then covered with dirt and gravel. The anaerobic environment prevents the timber from rotting and the track is solid under foot. The gravel top surface is ‘mined’ from the Punakaiki River, crushed and helicoptered up to the track. Expensive, but the only option when no suitable material is available near the track.

We paused on Thursday with a visit to Greymouth to meet with Mark Nelson - Hamish’s boss at DOC. It transpires his grandfather surveyed and hand built roads back in the day, providing Mark with an emotional as well as professional attachment to the Paparoa and Pike29 project. He described the full circle from classic benched pack tracks like the Croesus and Upper Styx, through the brutalist post war period when the mighty bulldozer forced direct lines, to the current sustainable approach with gentle contour hugging gradients. He told us a few stories including one about the antecedent to Hamish’s inclinometer - a whisky bottle with a line marked for horizontal and graduations for the gradient.

The Paparoa and Pike29 Memorial Tracks form the country’s 10th great walk - the first specifically constructed by DOC since the Kepler in 1987, and DOC’s first purpose-built multi-use (biking and walking) great 'walk'. They dovetail nicely with our two other legendary multi-day mountain bike adventures - the Heaphy and Old Ghost Road.

So consider this near-perfect backcountry extravaganza of a fortnight’s all-you-can-eat mtb indulgence…

  • Round up a posse, order some great weather, load up a suitable conveyance and make your way to Karamea. Fly to Brown's Hut and ride the Heaphy back to Karamea. Chill for a day. Check out the Oparara Arches. Clean your bike.
  • Relocate to Reefton for a few days (first town in NZ with municipal electricity). Ride any or all of - Kirwins Reward, Big River-Waiuta and Blacks Point.
  • Stock up and ride the Old Ghost Road. Celebrate with a night (or at least a beer) at the Rough and Tumble Lodge at the Sedonville trailhead.
  • March south to Blackball (birthplace of NZ’s first Trade Union and the Labour Party). Ride the Croesus. And after 2019, continue on the Paparoa Track (including a side trip descent to, and climb from, Pike River). Pause and reflect at the mine. Check out the Pancake Rocks and blowholes when you arrive in Punakaiki. If you’re lucky, a westerly swell will crank them into life.
  • If you’re Christchurch bound to catch a plane (or if that’s where you hang your helmet) stop at Craigieburn to fill your tank with more sweet singletrack nestled in beech forest.

It's still a few years until the new tracks are open for riding and walking. But there's plenty of reason to be upbeat about the opportunities for adventure and reflection presented by this milestone project.

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