Over on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island there is a town that few know even exists. Made up of small clapboard houses, wide and fairly empty streets and a little community of around 300 people, its name is Blackball. I stood outside a small building deep within this tiny hamlet and looked up to a weather-beaten sign that declared this to be ‘Formerly The Blackball Hilton’. Across the road the curtains twitched. I felt like I was the only person to have visited in about 40 years – which is possibly true.
Blackball was once a thriving mining community famed for its strikes and union action in the early 1900s. But all that changed in 1964 with the closure of its last mine. Over the years that followed, resident numbers decreased and Blackball became one of the South Island’s forgotten townships. Until 2019. Because this settlement has now become the starting point for a brand new official Great Walk – the tenth in New Zealand’s list of recommended and designated hikes.
“It really came about because of the local families,” explained Department of Conservation ranger Ben Hodgson, who I met in nearby Greymouth, a 20-minute drive from Blackball. He explained how, following the mining disaster in 2010 at the nearby Pike River Mine, which saw the loss of 29 men, the community was keen to create something positive to remember them by.
“The idea was to build an interpretation centre and walk to the site, but it kind of grew into a three-day tramp that not only nodded to the area’s mining past but was also a positive way to recall those we’ve lost, and hopefully bring tourism to the area, too.”
Back in Blackball, I wandered into the yellow-and-red-painted wooden hotel with my walking companion and kiwi native, Hanna.
“What kind of coffee do you have?” she asked the older, grufflooking man behind the bar. He looked at her as though she had asked the question in French. “Latte? Flat white…?” she persisted.
“Black or white?” he replied, perplexed. She nodded her understanding, ordered and we took a seat.
The hotel’s name, I learned from its owner, Cynthia, had been changed to include the word ‘formerly’ in the 1990s, following a lawsuit from the corporate chain of the same name. It resembled less a pub and more a living room-cum-working men’s club, complete with wry posters about miners, shovels stuck to the wall, sepia photographs of dusty-faced men and mismatched cushions scattered around (very comfy) chairs.
“The town doesn’t really know what’s coming,” explained Cynthia as she showed me around the hundred-year-old hotel, its floorboards creaking under my boots. “But I keep telling them that this walk is a big deal; it will help revive the community. I’m adding campervan parking; we’ll be putting on a shuttle to pick walkers up from the end of the linear trail and bring them back to the start. It could really be the making of Blackball – if we do it right.”
Pleased to be starting a Great Walk from a truly characterful hotel (rather than a faceless, monotonous chain), sharing drinks with locals and without a coach party in sight, Hanna and I set off on a high, making for the track that begins a few kilometres north of the town at Smoke-ho car park.
Day one shares the route of the pre-existing Croesus Track, which was originally created in 1881, during the mining boom, as a pack road for horses and bullocks. It was built to allow access and, crucially, transportation into the Paparoa range – the site of several gold and quartz mines. Within just a few minutes of walking, we were immersed in a verdant forest of beech trees and podocarp conifers. The track was clear but rough underfoot, our boots crunching on the little stones that lined it. The soundtrack was that of running water as we crossed the eponymous creek several times on wobbly suspension bridges that limited footfall to one hiker at a time.