Off the Top of My Head
Book Review: “The Last Front Line: Building the Paparoa Great Walk” by Brendan O’Dwyer
By Paul Murray
It’s a long way from Tipperary to the wilds of the Paparoa National Park on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. However, Irishman Brendan O’Dwyer found himself with an opportunity to work with a team of hardy backwoodsmen to tame a chunk of wilderness to allow the general public to experience its wonders by creating the first purpose-built Great Walk/Ride track in New Zealand.
Once the job was done, O’Dwyer decided to write a book about the trials, triumphs, tribulations and tragedy that he encountered in a place that perhaps only Maori hunters and his intrepid forbears may have experienced fossicking for gold in the rush of the 1860s.
His book, “The Last Front Line: Building the Paparoa Great Walk” was recently released at a book launch in Punakaiki on December 5, 2020, and has proved a popular Christmas stocking filler selling out quickly up and down the Coast. This is understandable as the very personal, blokey account of the almost three-year endeavour to tame the bush and allow access for trampers and mountain bikers to enjoy is a bloody good read indeed.
The Paparoa Track is a 55-kilometre purpose-built walking/mountain biking track over the Paparoa Ranges between Blackball and Punakaiki. The track was conceived as a memorial to the 29 miners who tragically lost their lives in the Pike River mine explosion on November 19, 2010. Their bodies remain deep underground to this day with all attempts at retrieving their remains have been thwarted by logistical challenges that have, thus far, been determined too dangerous to overcome. The track will be a lasting tribute to the tragic loss of life of the miners and may help to overcome the grief of the families of those lost. The Paparoa Track will connect with the Pike 29 Memorial Track, which is currently under construction and will include an information centre that chronicles the incident and provides a lasting reminder of the inherent danger of coal mining and the bravery of those who work the seams.
The $12 million project was authorised under the National government in 2016 and construction work was managed by the WestReef Environmental Projects team based in Westport.
The story begins with our protagonist as an enthusiastic greenhorn determined to earn his stripes among the hardy and hardened bushmen he joined to help get the job done. In the process, the experience developed into a rite of passage where a boy became a man and gained the confidence only adventure, experience and hardship can muster. The labour of love became a love of labour, and the tale is about the camaraderie developed among the men thrown together in a challenging environment and unusual circumstances to achieve a common goal.
O’Dwyer makes occasional reference throughout the book to the quandary he felt about damaging the bush and unsettling the balance of nature to achieve the goal of completing the track. He has numerous interactions with nature and the wildlife living within it and details his love and appreciation of the natural wonderland that became his “office” for two years. Also recounted is the fierce power of nature and exposure to the elements. He and the lads endured numerous storms, floods, gales and had to tolerate almost constant rain on their quest to construct the track and the associated facilities. However, the team soldiered on regardless and, despite many setbacks, including the loss of a couple of diggers and other equipment, a broken arm and several near-death experiences, they never gave up and turned adversity into motivation, thinking only of the endpoint.
Along the way, O’Dwyer makes mistakes, learns a lot, gets a promotion, becomes an accomplished digger operator, manages to name two sections of the track after his children Odin and Quillyn and develops a genuine love and great respect for the Paparoa Ranges. He emerges from the adventure with a sure sense of pride at having been involved in a project that will leave a legacy for future generations of New Zealanders and international visitors to enjoy the scenery in some comfort without the hardships of the pioneers.
The book is also an autobiographical account of O’Dwyer’s childhood, coming up hard in penury in the bogs of rural Ireland. It was here he inherited a work ethic that gained him acceptance into the team that triumphed over inclement weather, bureaucracy, moral dilemmas and geographical and geological barriers and considerable adversity to establish New Zealand’s 10th Great Walk/Ride; the Paparoa and Pike29 Memorial Track.
For more information about the Paparoa/Pike 29 Memorial Track: