Walk 20 - Inland Pack Track

The West Coast of New Zealand is a pretty wild place; big surf, strong rips, steep jutting headlands and rocky outcrops. When the goldminers of the 19th century passed by the region near Punakaiki they had particular trouble crossing one section of coast. As a result the Inland Pack Track was forged to by-pass the dangerous spots on the coast. This 27 km track, heading inland from Punakaiki and returning to the coast at the Fox River mouth, has now become a popular tramping track. We were looking forward to doing it, as it passes through a landscape that we had not previously encountered in New Zealand; the deep limestone gorges of Paparoa National Park.

In fact part of the track involves wandering down a river in a narrow gorge, which can flood quickly in heavy rains, such as those that arrived at Paparoa on the same day we did. Consequently, even though the weather was fine, we spent a few days waiting for the rivers to subside to safe levels. This gave us time to check out the regions other natural phenomenon, the Pancake Rocks, a curious landscape of layered limestone, weathered into strange shapes by the wild west coast seas.

Pancake Rocks

Limestone layers forming the "pancakes"

The rugged Punakaiki coastline

West Coast petrels returning home from
a days fishing

Day 1: Punakaiki to the Ballroom Overhang

It was a hazy day as we crossed underneath the highway bridge and set out up the Pororari River Gorge. We followed this route as it is more scenic than the official start of the Inland Pack Track. The track closely followed the river bank through a lush vegetation; the nikau palms and scrambling leafy kiekie vines giving it a quasi-tropical feel. Tall rimu and rata reached above the canopy and the sheer limestone cliffs of the gorge reached even higher above the green-clad lower slopes. It was hard to believe that this clear, shallow stream was the same one as the raging brown torrent of a few days earlier.


Giant rata with kiekie vine

Pororari River Gorge

Nikau palm forest

Big rimu in the gorge

Fording the Pororari River


Beech forest on the syncline
Soon we arrived at the junction with the Inland Pack Track proper and turned left to reach the ford across the Pororari - sandals replaced boots for the first time and we waded the swiftly flowing knee-deep river to enter a world of beech-rimu forest on the strangely uneven surface of the limestone syncline; on either side of the track were sinkholes and deep potholes, while occasionally we passed over grikes (deep narrow cracks in the limestone) that crossed the track. This section of the track seemed relatively long, given our current level of saturation with beech forest, but eventually opened up to an area of flat farmland, through which ran Bullock Creek, our second fording of the day.

Crossing the farm flats

Fording Bullock Creek

Fossil Creek

Back in the forest

Wading down the Fossil Creek "Track"

From Bullock Creek, the track re-entered the beech-rimu forest gradually climbing up to the north, before heading east across several small streams to emerge at Fossil Creek, where the real adventure of this tramp starts.

At Fossil Creek the formed track ended. We took off our boots which would not be needed for the rest of the day, donned sandals and commenced our journey down the shallow creek, under a thick forest canopy, with banks lined with thick vegetation, including the infamous New Zealand nettle bush (NB keep way from this one - the tingles in my arm took 48 hours to subside). Guided by the occasional orange triangle, we waded long shallow sections, crossed stoney reaches and took to the bush occasionally to avoid deeper holes, before emerging at a broad open stoney river course.

Stoney bed of upper Dilemma Creek

Beyond, the limestone walls narrowed and steepened; we had reached the junction with Dilemma Creek. Crossing the first of 18 fords, we commenced a wonderful amble down this magnificent gorge, criss-crossing the fast-flowing icy waters of the creek to follow first one bank than the other, along a highway of water-rounded stones and boulders. At each turn, a new and different facet of this spectacular limestone landscape was revealed.

Densely vegetated gorge walls

Nello entering the gorge at Dilemma Creek .....

.... and starting the long amble down its stoney bed
The ever changing vistas descending Dilemma Creek Gorge

Crossing the Fox River (entry to
Dilemma Gorge in the rear)

After a few kilometres, the flat wall of a second gorge blocked our field of view; we had reached the junction of Dilemma Creek with the Fox River. Heading downstream for a few hundred metres, we found the best place to ford the Fox, though we had to lean thigh-deep into the fast-flowing stream as it tugged at us, probably the most difficult crossing of the trip. Once on the other side, we headed upstream again and, passing the deep pools of the Fox-Dilemma junction, began another series of shallow fordings as we headed up the Fox River gorge.

Heading up the Fox to the Ballroom

Camped under the overhang of The Ballroom

Soon a dark shape loomed on our left, just above the river level; the Ballroom Overhang is about 100m long and the tall limestone cliffs protrude out ca 30m in places to offer a dry, multi-levelled camping spot for passing trampers. You could sleep outside here except for the sandflies, so we set up our tent in a spot providing great views down the narrow gorge. Five other trampers eventually joined us, making for a much more peaceful night than in some of the more crowded huts we had stayed in recently, lulled to sleep by the soft rumble of water over stone, as the sound of the nearby river echoed from the roof and walls of The Ballroom.

Day 2: The Ballroom to Fox River Mouth

We awoke to a misty morning, wisps of cloud hanging midway down the limestone walls of the gorge. There was no great hurry to leave, as we were only due at Fox River mouth at 4pm (to catch a passing bus back to Punakaiki). By 10am when we set off again, the mist had lifted and the sun broke through, highlighting the brilliant whiteness of the limestone cliffs against the greeness of the vegetation above and below them and glistening off the river, as we retraced our steps back to the first Fox ford.


Morning mist from The Ballroom


Heading back down the Fox

Fox River Gorge

Limestone cliffs along the Fox River

Looking up towards the Fox Caves

Back on the left bank of the Fox, we followed the river along a short stretch of track before one final long ford in a beautiful section of the valley. At this point we could put our boots back on, drop our packs and wander back up the right side of the river to visit the Fox Caves. The track up to the caves climbed steadily higher along the lower slopes, before a short sharp scramble upwards saw us at the mouth of the cave, high above the river.

At the top of the large opening lay a small slot in the rocks, an unobtrusive entrance to the magic that lay beyond.

Entrance to the upper Fox Cave

Donning our camping headlamps, we followed a narrow passage for 200m underground, passing a series of wonderful cave formations; stalactites, shawls, straws, incipient stalagmites. We were amazed that such a place would be open to free public access, but it was great to visit a cave where there were no coloured backlights and no contrived names, just a series of formations that could appreciated for their own intrinsic beauty.

Some of the formations in the 200m long
Upper Fox Cave

One last Fox riverscape

Leaving the cool, dark beauty of the cave, we retraced our steps, picked up our packs and completed the final two kilometres of the walk through the coastal forest to the Fox River mouth. We had arrived 2 hours early for our bus pick-up and the Fox River mouth is not the most exciting place to spend 2 hours; bull-dozer and trucks shovelling gravel from the riverbed, sandflies, no shelter, highway - better pass the time at the delightful ford a few kilometres inland. Luckily we were able to get a lift back to Punakaiki with a couple of friendly day-walkers, whose path we had crossed earlier near the caves.

The Inland Pack Track was different to all the other walks we had done so far and was well worth the effort. However, if you want to avoid beech forest while experiencing the highlights, why not just walk in from the Fox River mouth, visiting the cave on the way, stay at The Ballroom overnight and have a pleasant afternoon or following morning exploring Dilemma Creek, unencumbered by a heavy pack.