It was all mood and mist the day we walked along Bullock Creek Road in the Paparoa National Park, on the West Coast Trail.
It was an eerie sort of landscape that spoke of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures that might leap out from behind the foliage. Towering limestone bluffs rose out of the mist on either side of the road and river, and creatures – probably just a weka or two – rustled about in the dense bush.
It was wet, silent and beautiful – a lost world almost, filled with damp moss, earthy aromas and lanky tree ferns. It was a place of caves and deep, hidden potholes, and we were walking to the pretty track that led to the deeply incised gorge where the headwaters of Cave Creek emerge from an underground cave system. For those familiar with the 1995 Cave Creek disaster, when 14 people lost their lives after a viewing platform above the 40-metre chasm collapsed, it was both sobering and haunting.
Swirling mists and light drizzle only added to the atmosphere.
There were five of us – an Aucklander, an Australian, two from Christchurch and our guide – and we were midway on the West Coast Trail
Devised by Christchurch’s Tuatara Tours, this four day walking adventure - the West Coast Trail
covers some of the most beautiful, the most dramatic and the most popular walking trails from Castle Hill to Punakaiki.
Despite never having been a dedicated tramper – hardly a tramper at all, in fact – it was difficult not to be won over by the rugged, diverse landscapes we picked our way through. We covered everything from tussock land, alpine bush and rocky river valleys to native rainforest and sub-tropical bush. My new hiking boots,fresh out of the tissue paper, performed perfectly; not a blister in sight.
It was my lack of tramping experience that had convinced me this would be the perfect four-day outing. The fact our luggage would be carried and that we would have comfortable accommodation with all meals provided were important considerations. The fact we only had to carry a small day-pack and that we had a knowledgeable and experienced guide in Bryan O’Connell, who works as a psychiatric nurse in winter, clinched the deal. I felt I would be in safe hands, whatever the outcome, and given that my fear of heights would inevitably kick in at some point, I felt Guide Bryan was better equipped than most to handle my hysteria.
Day one of the West Coast Trail
dawned fine and blue-skied, and our first steps took us towards the massive limestone outcrops of Castle Hill in the Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area. Wedged between the mountains of the Torlesse Range to the east and the Craigieburn Range to the west, the massive Castle Hill tors have attracted rock climbers from around the world. Any rock climber worth his or her salt is familiar with this climbing mecca, which features 250 different climbs and more than 1000 bouldering opportunities. We were neither rock climbers nor boulderers, but, keen to start as we meant to carry on, we found a shady spot among the rocks, unfurled our picnic sandwiches and were happy to watch those who were.
Last-minute changes to our walking schedule – brought about by early lambing on nearby Flock Hill Station – meant our walk to the setting for the major battle between Asian forces and the powerful army of the White Witch in the blockbuster movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was cancelled. Instead, we set off for the nearby Lyndon Saddle and Helicopter Hill in the Craigieburn Forest Park. It seemed a challenge far more worthy of my expensive new boots than a location for a film I was unlikely to see.
We started at the sheltered picnic area just off the main highway. Little orange tents and clotheslines slung between the beech trees on the grassy terraces above Cave Stream hinted at the popularity of the saddle and the trails branching from it. As we wound our way up the forest track with afternoon sun filtering through the lichen-covered beech trees, I thought of goblins and elves to distract myself from “the little steep bit” Bryan had warned me about. I don’t remember much about that steep bit. Terror set in when I turned a corner in the track and came face-to-face with a stretch of subsiding track. We had come too far for me to consider turning back, so, gritting my teeth and digging my fingernails into our guide’s hand, I shuffled across a track so thin it should have been called a wire. I’m pleased I did, for it transported me into a feathery world of candy-floss lichen and carpeted moss – moss I was pleased to collapse into when the others made the final ascent along a steep ridge and open scree to Helicopter Hill. They thought I would be sorry to miss the staggering view across the Castle Hill Basin. I wasn’t; I was more than happy to let them tell me about it.
Day two of the West Coast Trail
took us up the Bealey Track to the foot of Mt Rolleston at Arthurs Pass. Rain had set in, but, despite that, we followed a zigzag of boardwalks through dripping beech forest until we reached the river. From there, it was a scramble across slippery boulders and tree roots to the end of the track. Try as I might, I never quite mustered the enthusiasm I needed to go the last nine (steep) yards. I sat myself on a rock and, ignoring the rain, I took photos of the miniature alpine flowers that sprouted up between the rocks.
It wasn’t until later that afternoon when we hit the West Coast that I decided I’m more of a coastal forest person. Give me lush ferns, flourishing coastal broadleaf plants, towering nikau palms and flat tracks over tiny tight little flowers, slippery rocks and ridiculously high places any day. It’s here that the West Coast Trail
From the Punakaiki rocks loop track at Dolomite Point, with its mist enshrouded flax ‘forests’, gushing blowholes and wild, breathtaking coastline, to the moodiness of Bullock and Cave Creeks, the lushness of the Truman Track and, my favourite, the quiet unspoiled beauty of the Pororari River Track, it’s green in as many shades as you could ever wish to see. It’s the wild West Coast at its best.
Factor in cheeky birdlife – kea, weka and tame bush robins – an ongoing commentary on local history, good meals, hot showers and comfortable beds along the way, and these were four days well worth repeating – except for “the little steep bits”, of course. Those I can do without.
NZ Native Bellbird.
No - They are not feathers!
NZ Native Kea.