New Zealand’s newest Great Walk will fully open on Sunday three months after a weather-related track damage caused a false start.
The Paparoa Track, a two to three-day, 55km tramp or mountain bike ride on the West Coast, has been only partially open since its December 1 opening due a slip brought down by heavy rain.
Department of Conservation Greymouth operations manager Shane Hall said fixing the track had been “problematic” due to further adverse weather and unstable ground conditions.
The repaired middle section was spectacular, with a “goblin forest” of wind-shaped silver beech, stunning vistas along the sandstone escarpment, fascinating geology, and a waterfall on the descent to the Pororari River, he said.
“It’s the heart of the track and we are pleased to see it fully open to visitors.”
The Pike 29 Memorial Track, which will branch off the Paparoa Track between Moonlight Tops Hut and Pororari Hut and lead to the former mine site, will open once the Pike River Recovery Agency completes its work to re-enter the mine, and DOC completes a planned memorial and interpretation centre.
Paparoa Track project director Tom Hopkins said while WestReef contractors were working on the slip on December 6, the ground gave way and the digger slipped 30m down the bank. WestReef is owned by the Buller District Council.
“The team member working on the digger was fortunately able to get out of the digger safely before it slipped. This highlighted the difficulty of working in the wet conditions, and the decision was made to stop work until drier conditions prevailed,” he said.
Geotechnical and engineering advice was sought to find a more suitable way to build track on the slip. The 1.7 tonne digger was retrieved on December 12.
DOC and WestReef jointly commissioned a full and independent investigation into the incident. WorkSafe chose not to investigate.
“The investigation found that WestReef’s health and safety systems were compliant and appropriate, but that the risks associated with fixing the slip were under-estimated and that the risk assessment prior to carrying out the work needed to be more thorough,” Hopkins said.
WestReef declined to comment.
Meanwhile, a legal wrangle is continuing about whether DOC should allow helicopters and sporting events on the new track and in the Paparoa National Park.
The West Coast’s overarching Conservation Management Strategy (CMS) – a planning document for managing conservation land written in 2010 – expressly forbids helicopters and mountain bikes in the park. DOC began a publicly-notified process to change the strategy, but then decided to halt the process to ensure it was legally “robust” after environmental groups threatened a judicial review.
Forest & Bird (F&B) and Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) said DOC should have changed the Paparoa National Park Management plan before it changed the CMS and were also concerned about the effect helicopter noise and large-scale sporting events would have on the park.
DOC planning permissions and land director Marie Long previously said recreational use of mountain bikes would be allowed on the track without the amendments, but helicopters and concessions for sporting events would not.
DOC’s Western South Island director Mark Davies said the legal process was ongoing and he could not comment.
However, minutes from a recent New Zealand Conservation Authority (NZCA) meeting reveals conflicting legal opinions on the issue.
The NZCA is a national statutory body that provides strategic policy advice to DOC and the Minister of Conservation.
The minutes say the authority’s lawyers have advised that there was no conflict between the CMS and the Paparoa National Park Management Plan. However, DOC lawyers had agreed with FMC and F&B lawyers.
“[Authority lawyers] have advised that the court could rule either way and propose a round table with all parties to attempt to settle outside of court,” it said.
Steve Bushby, spokesman for a planned mountain run event on the new Paparoa Track, said he was disappointed not to be involved in the legal process.
He had asked DOC for information, but had heard nothing back. He said commercial operators were in limbo and a decision could be years away.
He said 98 per cent of the 1700 submissions came from people supporting sporting and educational events.