Test-riding Paparoa Track - New Zealand's tenth Great Walk

New Zealand is getting a brand new Great Walk, the first to be built in 30 years.

Come December, Kiwis and overseas visitors will be able to walk or mountain bike the West Coast's Paparoa Track, between Blackball and Punakaiki.

When West Coast Tourism invited me on an exclusive preview ride, I couldn't say yes fast enough.

So, how good is the track? Heading up from the Blackball side, the events kick off with a thrilling downhill, before a technical climb up an existing section of track - once an old miner's trail. Above the treeline, the new track begins and the Department Of Conservation's painstaking work starts to shine.

Built to a whole load of technical specifications (like a max gradient of 6.5 degrees!), all designed to maximise enjoyment, the Paparoa Track promises walkers and mountain bikers of all abilities a manageable, but equally memorable, slice of Kiwi backcountry paradise.

There's gorgeous birdlife, mountain views, stunning Tasman Sea scenery and that's just on the tops.

Paparoa Track - New Zealand's tenth Great Walk.
Photo credit: Newshub.

After a brief chopper ride over the unfinished portion of track, DOC Senior Community Ranger and Supervisor Ben Hodgson and I got to ride the finale: almost 20km, mostly downhill.

As we zip below the treeline, bound for the Pororari Gorge, he describes the effort that's gone into building the track, even stopping at one section, where a humongous slip once took out hundreds of metres of finished trail. The construction crew had to start again.

"You know, [there've been] a lot of lessons learnt, some incredible trails being built and [I'm] really proud of everything that we've achieved, especially the construction teams, they've done so well," he tells me.

Communities at both ends of the $10.8 million track stand to see significant tourism boosts. Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn says Blackball has suffered in the past, but the track is just what the village needs.

"There's a lot of things here that are happening here all the time, but the track is going to top it off. The track is the icing on the cake they've been waiting for a long, long time. It's turning around and there's huge enthusiasm right round this village," says Kokshoorn.

While at the finish line, Punakaiki is busy preparing to accommodate the extra people traffic.

Punakaiki Beach Camp Manager, Jed Findlay tells me: "We've got the Punakaiki masterplan now complete and a lot of changes to the Punakaiki area in terms of facilitating these bikers: cycleways, just better access around the town. There is a lot of excitement about the opening of the track."

And, if Tourism New Zealand's numbers are right, the growth could be huge.

Paparoa Track - New Zealand's tenth Great Walk
Photo credit: Newshub.

"We know that 1.2 to 1.5 million of our international visitors a year visit one of our conservation estates or parks, which is a relatively high proportion, so roughly a third," says Tourism NZ CEO, Stephen England-Hall.

It's also got the world talking, making number 17 in the New York Times' 52 Places To Go In 2019 list.

"We obviously want those publications to be talking about aspects of New Zealand and what New Zealand has to offer and the fact Paparoa has made it into that list is phenomenal, given its relative newness," says England-Hall.

It all means that, come summer, these two towns might find themselves pretty busy.

"We're looking at 5,000 to 7,000 users for the first year, [but] based on the success of the Old Ghost Road we might get those figures blown out the water," Hodgson says.

The Buller District's Old Ghost Road has seen around 11,000 visitors per year for the past two years and that's an advanced trail, meaning Paparoa might turn out far more popular than anybody is predicting.

Paparoa Track - New Zealand's tenth Great Walk
Photo credit: Newshub.

"They are big numbers and the locals are starting to panic to get organised. The accommodation here, there's already 100 beds of accommodation here in Blackball all ready for it, Air BnB and the hotel's here," says Tony Kokshoorn.

All those visitors are in for a real treat.

Stunning views above the river, riding towards the setting sun and the nikau-laden coast of Punakaiki is the perfect end to this adventure and New Zealand's tenth Great Walk.

Bookings for the Paparoa Track's brand new huts are open now and the grand opening is on 1st December.


Paparoa Track - New Zealand's tenth Great Walk.
Photo credit: Newshub.