Located a stone's throw away from the historic mining town of Reefton, Kirwans track is a classic backcountry mission that encompasses some of the best technical, native singletrack around. While unassuming in distance at only 11km each way (to and from the hut), Kirwans track can lure you into a false sense of security. Climbing 1,100m from the carpark to the hut, not only is the gradient steady, it’s made even more difficult by the technical nature of the trail. Combine this with wild West Coast weather that sees regular washouts and fallen trees, you have yourself a strenuous climb that should challenge most riders. Thankfully, the same aspects that make the ride (or push) up so difficult, create an incredible stretch of riding bliss on the way back out - narrow bench single track, littered with roots and engulfed in fallen Beech Tree leaves.
Left behind from another era in New Zealand’s history, the track began its life as a handbuilt pathway for miner and packhorse access into the area. At the heart of the trail sits the abandoned open cast Kirwans Reward Mine, a commercially successful gold mine that operated here, deep in Victoria Forest Park, from 1898-1906. Scattered along the trail you'll find evidence of the area's mining past on display from discarded machinery and materials to rerouted sections of river. Venture further into the nearby Waitahu Valley and you can see some incredible historic relics including an aerial ropeway and the Lord Brassey stamper battery that allowed miners to transport and process raw Quartz from the Kirwans Reward Mine during operation.
Even though evidence of the substantial operation that took place here over 100 years ago is fading, you can’t help but get a feeling for how challenging life in the area must have been back then. Dense native bush, on seriously difficult terrain, battered by relentless West Coast weather! Miners of the day would have endured some uncomfortable moments in the pursuit of fortune.
Jumping forward a century or so, our party consisted of a mixed group of 10 including bikers and trampers. We set out on the climb to the spacious Kirwans hut as our overnight destination. Although initially drawn to the trail by the lure of remote native riding, the track is equally accommodating for hikers. As it turned out, we jockeyed for position on the climb as the challenge provided by some bike carrying sections slowed us riders down to a crawl.
The climb itself is fairly solid. Only 11km in length from the Capleston car park to Kirwans Hut, but with a respectable 1,100m of ascent. Add to the altitude the rugged terrain, numerous sections of track damage and carrying the additional weight of overnight gear, it made for a real slog. Good spirits in the group pushed us on and soon enough we reached the hut, empty and alone in the fading afternoon light. A well serviced 12 bunk hut that has been upgraded in recent years with double glazing, a large fireplace and has coal supplies flown in on a regular basis. Perched at the tree line, Kirwans Hut is in a prime spot for commanding views over the park and neighboring Paparoa range.
As the group reformed, we were just in time to watch a stunning sunset with postcard views looking west towards Greymouth. The sun disappeared over the horizon, we settled into some delicious re-hydrated meals, a few cheeky cask wines and enjoyed the good banter that’s afforded to large hut groups. The coal fire stoked hotter and hotter, and when the time came to call it a night, we had to open the windows to disperse the heat! It’s possibly the warmest hut I’ve ever experienced and a real prize in the DOC accommodation network!
Sun broke on a perfect early winter morning, which was cool but clear. Conveniently, the hut sits a short 45 minute walk from the summit of Kirwans Hill. We spontaneously took the opportunity thrown up by the bluebird morning and hiked off in MTB cleats for panorama views in every direction. To the West the Paparoa range, home to the new, aptly named, Paparoa Trail and yet to be opened Pike29 Memorial Track. Looking North, the Lyell Range home of the epic Old Ghost Road looked inviting for a future trip. To the East and South, snowy peaks of the Mountainous Nelson Lakes National Park and Southern Alps extend out of sight.
Time came to saddle up and make our way down. We said goodbye to the trampers in the group as they set off first, and then took our time organising our gear before we eventually followed behind. Thinking back to the climb, the frequent sections of bike pushing had us worried about the level of flow we would get on the descent. However, our minds were quickly put at ease as we rapidly lost elevation. The predictable, high-grip base formed by fallen beech tree leaves, throughout the rooty, rocky, narrow grade 4 single track served up native riding perfection.
A couple of hours riding and hiking later, we were all back at the car park. We paused for a quick clean in the river before loading up the utes and headed to Reefton to sign off the trip. Reefton is a worthy stop on any trip to the area, a quaint town steeped in history. After a short stroll through town visiting galleries and the renowned Reefton Distillery, we sat down for a trip debrief over a beer - no better way to end a weekend ride.
Kirwans track is on the technical end of the spectrum for bike packing. Classed as a grade 4 decent with exposed and high consequence areas of trail. Moderate level of fitness will be required for the climb. The 22km trail also lends itself to day trips, which would make the climb a lot easier without the extra weight.
Track starts at Capleston, at the end of Boatmans Road, off the Reefton highway, 12km north of Reefton. Find more information here.
Durand is the eCommerce leader at Evo Cycles, heading up the website team for the business. He has been in the outdoor industry for the past decade and riding bikes for about the same amount of time. A keen mountain biker, trail runner and hiker, Durand moved to Nelson in late 2019 to have better access to the outdoors.
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