Tales from the Paparoa
Tough work and tougher conditions on the West Coast
Words and Images Tom Woodward
Building the Pike 29 Memorial Track was a unique project. Deep in the mountains on the West Coast of the South Island, and with helicopter-only access, we spent almost three years dragging machinery through the mud and blasting through rock faces to create New Zealand’s 10th Great Walk and first Great Ride.
It was a mammoth task to build a track in this environment. The inaccessibility, coupled with the ferocious West Coast storms, created unique challenges that required new and unconventional approaches.
Snow, hail and sideways rain were the norm. During one storm, a slip came down on the construction site and crushed our digger. Another crew building the Paparoa Track on the other side of the mountain had their machinery washed away down a raging river.
The Paparoa mountains are a pristine environment. The relentless storms bring six metres of rain every year, and that’s created a lush ecosystem of giant trees smothered with mosses and epiphytes. Almost every remaining species of native bird can be found in the Paparoa National Park, along with native bats and the Westland petrel, which is endemic to the Paparoas.
The concept for the Pike 29 Memorial Track originated from the aftermath of the tragic 2010 Pike River Mine disaster where 29 men lost their lives. It’s intended to be a living memorial to the guys and their families, and to bring people into the area to remember them and learn about what happened.
Our crew consisted of three guys. I was the supervisor, Felix Keys from Timaru was our arborist and Milty Coultas from Christchurch was our digger operator and mountain bike track design specialist.
Milty cut his teeth building the Christchurch Adventure Park and spent most of his time off back home shredding the tracks, while I’m a local at Skyline in Queenstown during the summer months.
The track is designed to be dual use for both bikers and walkers. Milty and I are passionate mountain bikers, so we had long discussions with DOC about how best to interpret the specifications and make it work for walkers while keeping the bends and corners cambered and optimal for riding. Eventually we reached a happy median, which we think was ideal for both. However, since riders built the Pike 29 track it has a far more mountain bike feel than the Paparoa Track, which was built by walking track crews. Once the Pike 29 track is officially opened we expect it will see a lot of the mountain bike traffic to the National Park.
The Pike 29 track was built for riding and weaves and flows in and around the landscape. All the bends have been built to maintain momentum while giving the greatest possible vision ahead. To this end we must thank layout consultant Hamish Seaton’s years of scrambling through the bush in the rain at all hours scouring for the best line through the topography, as well as Milty Coultas’s constant expert fussing over the exact line that a rider would take around bends, and the gradient of camber the track required to maintain a rider’s momentum and excitement.
We worked week on, week off, alternating with another crew of three, and would meet at the small rural town of Ikamatua to catch a helicopter flight to our little bivvy site deep in the bush.
To get to site we rode motorbikes along the trail to the muddy construction head. Initially we had expensive e-bikes, but they only stood up to the brutal West Coast conditions for a few weeks before mud, water and grit destroyed the internals and left them inoperable. In the end only the trusty Honda farm bikes were up to the task of shuttling men and gear to and from site for years.
One morning myself and a labourer from another crew woke to the bivvy violently shaking as another brutal storm descended on us, strafing the mountain top with 140km per hour winds and hail. We decided it was too dangerous to go to site and it would be better to stay put and sit it out.
As the morning wore on the winds increased and we started hearing distant lightning strikes, with each clap of thunder stronger and closer than the last. Before we knew it, we were engulfed with lightning flashes lighting up the clouds all around us. Trees were blowing over, branches were coming down, and we were in a bivvy with a metal scaffold frame holding up the roof.
As we discussed the pros and cons of our situation a lightning bolt struck the helipad metres away with a deafening clap of thunder that left our ears ringing. All of the fuses in the bivvy blew and we were left without power.
I don’t have a good answer as to why the lightning hit the helipad and didn’t fry us underneath the scaffold, but I guess that luck was on our side that day.
That storm wasn’t a one-off. Every two weeks, another storm would roll in of such magnitude that if it were to hit Nelson or a town on the east coast, people would still talk about it 10 years later.
Another morning, after a night of howling winds and pummelling hail, we made our way to site to find a 50-metre tall beech tree had been snapped like a matchstick. The tree had come down across the track, narrowly missing our tracked barrow and digger. These events are the norm for the Paparoas and the West Coast. We cleared the tree and kept going.
Carrying out such high-risk work while keeping my crew safe in the gruelling conditions was a monumental challenge, and I’m proud to say that the worst injury any of my crew suffered during the entire project was one twisted ankle.
At the end of each work week the helicopter would pluck us out of mountains. We would emerge from the bush stinking like seals, with clothes in tatters and skin pot-marked by sandfly bites looking forward to a week off in civilisation.
The official opening of the Pike 29 Memorial Track is currently on hold due to the ongoing operation to recover the bodies. Once it’s complete and the track opens, we hope you can make a trip over to the West Coast to ride and enjoy our hard work.