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The Blackball black hole – locked down in the West Coast bush

My tramping boots live in my car so that I never miss an opportunity to explore, so when I was sent to the West Coast town of Blackball for a story with Sunday, it was a no-brainer to tack on a trip down the road to New Zealand’s newest great walk. 

The Paparoa Track is a 55km walking and mountain biking haven that treats adventurers to lush rainforests, alpine tops and spectacular views (which I didn’t actually see but we’ll get to that).

The beginning of the track is just a stone’s throw from Blackball, a speck of a town that made a huge mark in New Zealand’s political and social history. Coal miners there fought for better working conditions and won, paving the way for more rights across the country. Some even credit the town with being the birthplace of the Labour Party.

Unlike many coal mining towns that faded into oblivion when the mine shut, Blackball reinvented itself again and again. Today, it’s home to around 300 passionate and eccentric Blackballites; a mixture of vibrant personalities perched atop a great plateau.

I flew down a few days before our scheduled shoot to walk the Paparoa Track. It’s an important element to our story because the small town’s experienced an influx of visitors since the track opened in 2020. 

There’s no reception for most of the walk, so I made a plan with producer Kim Peacock and the camera operator to meet at the end and film my impression of the track. 

Now, they say the West Coast bush looks best in the rain. If that’s the case, I may have got the most authentic experience of the Paparoa Ranges – three days of relentless downpours at the end of winter. No wonder I didn’t see another tramper on the track. 

Black beech trees on the Paparoa Track.

I wasn’t lonely though, because I was surrounded by forest giants and friendly native birds. I woke to kiwi calling every morning. It was heaven – a feeling no doubt enhanced by the layers of thick cloud that obscured the views along the top of the escarpment. I didn’t mind. 

A “view” of the Escarpment.

On the morning of day four, the kiwi called and I slipped out of my sleeping bag cocoon to peer out the window. Finally, blue sky!

I debated whether it was worth running back up for a second shot at the views I’d been promised before meeting my team at 1pm. I soon realised I was subconsciously lacing up my shoes as I was “deciding”.

Blue sky from the Paparoa Track.

I couldn’t get all the way to the top if I was to be on time for my first interaction with humans in four days, so I turned around. If I’d known the situation outside, I would have kept going, and maybe even stayed in the bush for a couple more days. 

Racing through the last couple of kilometres, I thought to myself how strange it was to not even see a day walker on such a stunning day. 

Less than 10 minutes from the track exit, I switched my phone off flight mode to see if there was reception. 4G! I sent mum a selfie to let her know I was alive. 

A photo sent to mum when I’d completed the track.

My phone then began to shriek and shake in my hand with notifications. The first few were texts that didn’t make much sense without context.

“You’re in for a shock!”

“Where are you? Are you OK?”

“How are you getting home?!”

The only two explanations my weary head could come up with were a natural disaster or World War 3.

“We’re in Lockdown?!”

A level-headed text message from producer Kim helped me make sense of things. While I was away, the Delta variant of Covid-19 was discovered in the community and the country went into a Level 4 lockdown. My colleagues were not going to be able to meet me. There was a flight leaving from Hokitika that afternoon that I needed to get on, or face spending an unknown number of weeks locked down in the West Coast. 

I got home on the kindness of West Coast strangers. Blackballite Sam Weston, who I’d organised to interview, scrapped his afternoon plans to pick me up from the end of the track in Punakaiki, take me to Greymouth to pick up my bags and then on to Hokitika Airport. 

Picked up by in Punakaiki by Blackballite Sam Weston.

My traditional post-hike burger was not looking likely. As we drove, Sam pulled out a little paper bag with something for me to snack on: two big bulbs of garlic. Sam and his mate, garlic grower Wayne, had been making and selling Blackball Black Garlic, ageing the bulbs over five weeks in an oven they converted from a fridge they salvaged from the dump. 

READ MORE: 1 NEWS’ Jenny Suo finds out about lockdown after four-day tramp without internet

So there I was in a car, dirty and smelly from four days in the wilderness, eating cloves of garlic. Sam assured me the ageing process eliminated the garlic breath. Good news for fellow travellers. 

The cafe was shut at the airport and I had to plead with a member of staff to fill up my water bottle. My afternoon tea was crushed up chips I found in the bottom of my tramping bag. I couldn’t even get an Air New Zealand cookie.

Finally arriving at Auckland Airport after a seven-hour commute.

It turned out I was being optimistic, thinking we’d be able to return to Blackball to film the following month. It was six months before we could make it back down, finally spending a week finishing the mission we’d started the year before. 

But the wait was worth it. Blackball is filled with the most fascinating and motivated people. The small town has 16 committees and an event on every weekend. It’ll take you less than 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other, but you’ll pass a gourmet salami shop, a radio station, two craft shops, three pubs and some very unique front yard decor. That time does balloon though, if you’re stopped by a friendly local or two for a chat

Filming Jam Night at the Blackball Inn with camera operator, Andrew Dalton.

My rescuer, Sam, says the wackier and weirder, the better in Blackball. And turns out, that’s become very appealing. Baches are popping up and property is now snapped up so quickly on the market, locals trade them at the pub to stop outsiders from nabbing them. 

The opening of the Paparoa Track spells a new chapter for the town, with tourists descending for a chance to explore its surrounding lush bush. 

Sunset in Blackball.

A community on the edge of the country is finding itself taking centre stage, and it’s a mighty good show. 

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Read More: The Blackball black hole – locked down in the West Coast bush

2022-04-25 00:10:57

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