Sunday, 27 October 2013

Rimutaka Rail Trail

We’ve been waiting for a suitable day to tackle the Rimutaka Rail Trail (half of it at least!), and such a day came along last Wednesday (23 October). It was fine, and – wonder of wonders! – calm. Wellington has been plagued by horrendous spring gales lately, and we are grateful for any calm days in between big blows.

The Rimutaka Rail Trail is an 18km long track on the former railway line between the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa. Originally built in 1878, it started at Kaitoke, north of Upper Hutt, and a very gentle incline took trains up to the Summit, 11 kms away. A Fell Mountain Railway took over from there, as the hill on the other side was too steep for regular trains to cope with. It ended at Cross Creek, 12kms south-west of Featherston. In 1955, the railway was replaced by the Rimutaka Tunnel. Today, the former railway track is a popular walking and biking trail, maintained by DOC (Department of Conservation) and the Wellington Regional Council.

Back in August we’d had a tentative look at the first kilometre of the trail. John was trying to convince me that it really wasn’t very steep. He was right. It didn’t look too bad at all, and we agreed that we should do it some time. But I stipulated that we’d only ride the “easy” Kaitoke side to the Summit and back. I was not going to do the much steeper Wairarapa side of the track.

On the way up to the start of the trail, we sidetracked for a bit to the Te Marua Twin Lakes look-out. These lakes are the reservoirs for Wellington’s water supply. It was good to see them both full to the brim, as one of them was empty for repairs during last summer’s drought, which was very inconvenient. We were also interested to see that both lakes had a sealed track right around them – perfect for cycling, it would seem – and we thought we might try these later on. However, that was not to be, as when we got there, we found signs denying access to “unauthorised persons”.

Te Marua Twin Lakes

The access road to the beginning of the Rimutaka Rail Trail is quite horrible. It is very uneven, patched and broken up tarseal, and full of potholes. I was glad I didn’t have to bike that. We were surprised at the large number of cars in the carpark, considering it was a weekday. They turned out to belong to a large group of (retirement-age) walkers, whom we met along the way.

The trail itself is protected by a locked gate, with just a narrow gap for walkers and cyclists to go through – a bit tricky to manoeuvre through with a bike, even little folding bikes like ours.

The narrow gap is a bit tight for a bike (photo by John)

For the first two-thirds of the trail, the incline is almost imperceptible. In fact, it is very deceptive. The track looks like it is going downhill, but it feels like it is going uphill. Very odd.

The trail’s landscape keeps changing as it meanders through cuttings in the hill, with high banks on each side of the track; and along the open edges of the hill, with nice views to green farmlands; and through areas of forest.

The trail goes through cuttings in the hill … (photo by John)

… sometimes offers views of farmlands …

… or goes through areas of tall forest (photo by John)

It is very quiet, just the twitterings of birds, and all the while, the sound of rushing water reminds us that the Pakuratahi River is somewhere below us. We are treated to occasional glimpses of the river.

The Pakuratahi River runs through this valley (photo by John)

All along the trail there are “interpretation panels” telling the story of the building of the Rimutaka Railway Line. It really is quite an amazing feat of early engineering. And to think it was all done with picks and shovels! No bulldozers or earth moving machinery back in those days.

Interpretation panels tell the story of the Railway Line

There are four tunnels on the whole trail, but on the half that we did, there was only one – the Pakuratahi Tunnel. The information panel tells us that “Bricks to line the tunnel could not be transported to the site, as the rails had not yet been laid. The resourceful contractor instead made blocks on the site from ‘pressed sand and cement’. Workers pressed 13,500 concrete blocks, which now line the arch of the 73-metre tunnel. Built on a 100-metre radius curve, the tunnel is believed to be the first concrete-clock structure in New Zealand”. I wondered how the sand and cement got there.  Carried on pack horses perhaps?

The Pakuratahi Tunnel: the concrete blocks for the arch were pressed on site (photo by John)

The tunnel is built on a 100-metre radius curve (photo by John)

We had brought torches to use in the tunnels – we didn’t know that there was only one on this side of the hill – but we didn’t really need them. We stopped a little way into the tunnel to let our eyes adjust to the dark, then carried on. Sounds are amplified in the tunnel, and we could hear someone approaching, apparently talking to a dog.

But when we came out of the tunnel, we had a big surprise. It was a pig hunter, with no less than seven dogs! He was weighed down by a huge wild boar that he was carrying on his back as if it were a backpack.

Trevor, the pig hunter, with five of his seven dogs (photo by John)

We were agog! We’d only ever seen something like that on TV. He was very friendly and didn’t mind our taking photos of him. He told us his name was Trevor, and talked a bit about his dogs. I noticed that some of them were wearing collars with little antennae on them, and he said that this way, he could locate the dogs on his GPS when they had rushed ahead and got their quarry.

Check out the tusks on that boar!

Soon after that exciting encounter, we came to a bridge. The information panel told us it was “a ‘Howe’ truss, featuring diagonal timbers and vertical ironrods”. It was the most popular style of bridge in NZ until the 1930s. This bridge was built in 1876, but after a fire in 1910 it was largely rebuilt, and restored in 2001.

The first bridge over the Pakuratahi River (photo by John)

A ‘Howe’ truss, featuring diagonal timbers and vertical ironrods

The second bridge we came to was called “Ladle Bend Creek Bridge”. It is 18 metres long, and built on a 100-metre radius curve. On the information panel, there is a quote from Ron Mitchell, who was a child living at the Summit between 1933 and 1940. He said, “My father occasionally took my sister and me for a ride on a three-wheel railway jigger. As we all sat on one side of the jigger, it had a tendency to upturn when passing around the many curves … I was always frightened of going over Ladle Bend Creek Bridge as it was rather high and had no sides”.

Today the Ladle Bend Creek Bridge does have sturdy side rails (photo by John)

From about here, the track started to become steeper. It was still not too bad, but I did have to take my gear down to 1, and it did slow me down. But the pay-off was getting to the Summit.

We made it to the Summit (photo by John)

The Summit is now a lovely wide open space, but when the railway was built, it had to be hacked out of the hill. In the heyday of the railway, there were sidings, loops, an engine shed, a signal box, a turntable (installed in 1943), an ashpit and a 15,000 gallon water tank. There were also several houses where railway workers and their families lived.

The remains of the turntable site (photo by John)

However, there never was a station building, as passengers were not expected to get off. The sole purpose of this area was for locomotives to be changed from conventional to Fell locomotives.

The Summit shelter is not a station building. It was built in 1987, when the track was opened for walkers and cyclists, and it houses displays about the history of the Summit and the trains. More information about this fascinating place can be found here and here.

Near the site of the turntable, the remains of some locomotives are on display. They are very photogenic rusting hulks, really rather beautiful in their decay.

The rusting remains of old locomotives

The beautiful textures of decay

It was so peaceful up there, in the sunshine and absolute silence, as we had the place to ourselves. I thought we should have brought a picnic and spent more time there. But we had our usual snack of apple and chocolate, and after a comfort stop (yes, there are clean, well-maintained flush toilets there!), we headed on our way back.

A perfect place for a picnic

Ooh, this was lovely – it was going downhill, and little effort was required to get us back to the Ladle Bend Creek Bridge. There we met Thane, the Park Ranger, who was installing New Zealand Cycle Trail plaques. He told us that this was the last plaque he had to put up, and it was a “last minute” job, as the Rimutaka Cycle Trail was being officially added to the New Zealand Cycle Trail this very day. In fact, he said, the Prime Minister was due to cut the ribbon for the official opening in Petone, at 4pm today.

Thane, the Park Ranger, showing the last of the NZ Cycle Trail plaques to be put up

As we talking to the ranger, we were overtaken by two women on horseback. Another way to enjoy the trail! While crossing the bridge John pointed out a large kererū (wood pigeon) landing in a tree not very far away. Then he had to stop to pump up one of his tyres, which had developed a slow leak. The kererū was not at all bothered by all this human activity. In fact, he swooped down into some shrubs near us to take a closer look. He even gave John enough time to take a photo of him.

Look at the kererū!

The kererū was quite happy to pose for John’s camera (photo by John)

Just about a kilometre from the end of the trail, John’s tyre went quite flat, and we had to stop for him to find and patch the hole. I always admire the way he can sit on his knees for ages. He would do well in Japan, I reckon. I can’t kneel for any length of time, let alone sit back on my heels like that. The good old Swiss Army knife – with every possible attachment, including some tweezers – came in handy to winkle the sharp bit of something out of the outer tyre that had caused the damage to the inner tube.

John can sit on his knees like this for ages! Note the Swiss Army knife too …

All in all, with the interesting encounters we had, and the need to fix the puncture, it had taken us nearly three hours to ride to the summit and back (22kms). It was now 2:30pm, and we wanted lunch, so we headed to the Kaitoke Country Gardens Café, a few kilometers up the road.

I must admit that it wasn’t the best coffee, nor the best quiche, I’ve ever had, but the service was friendly, and we enjoyed sitting on the terrace overlooking a formal garden. The extensive gardens beyond apparently cover 14 acres.

The terrace looks out over a formal garden

After we’d had lunch we took a walk down the hill into the gardens, where masses of rhododendrons are in full bloom. There was also a large pond fringed by swathes of yellow irises.

This is the best time of year for rhododendrons

On our way home, we diverted to the Te Marua Twin Lakes, with the intention of cycling around their perimeters. But as I mentioned at the top of this blog, that did not work out, as it was restricted territory.

So, home we tootled, thinking we’d had a pretty good day. But it wasn’t finished yet, because it was nearly four o'clock when we got close to Petone. And the Prime Minister was about to open the Rimutaka Trail at 4pm, wasn’t he? Well, we thought, let’s go and check it out. Not that we are fans of politicians and their photo opportunities, but this was definitely something different for us.

We knew it was happening in Petone, but we didn’t know where. We drove along the Esplanade, and sure enough, near the Settlers Museum, there was a marquee. “That’s where it will be”, we reckoned. We turned around (at an appropriate place, of course) and parked. We thought we’d just have a nosey, and go away again. But people were milling about in the marquee – some wearing suits, others wearing cycling gear – and nobody objected to us being there, so we stuck around when people were invited to take a seat.

A lectern was set up with the Rimutaka Rail Trail logo, and soon the gathering was being addressed by a Māori Kaumātua, then by various representatives of local and regional councils who’d had an interest in creating the trail. The best speaker was a very enthusiastic young woman, Ash Burgess, who runs Bike Wellington, a mountain biking tours business, and who extolled the virtues of Wellington as “the coolest little mountain bike capital in the world!”.

Finally the Prime Minister, John Key, was invited to speak and cut the ribbon to unveil the sign that was to be installed on the Petone foreshore.

The unveiled sign

As people filed out of the marquee, everyone was handed a very attractive water bottle printed with the cycle trail logo, and containing not water, but a couple of Whittaker’s chocolate mini slabs (yay, my favourite!). A pamphlet with a map and information about the trail was wrapped around the bottle.

With my scrapbook in mind, I thought I would love to score a piece of the ribbon which had been handed to John Key after the cutting. I was plucking up my courage to go and ask him for it (only in New Zealand can some nobody sidle up to the PM like this without getting stopped by bodyguards!), when I spotted the ribbon discarded on a chair, so I untied the short end from the bow, and took it. I was sooo chuffed!

Then we followed the crowd outside where the photo opportunity was in full swing. In my euphoria about the scored ribbon (small minds get a thrill out of small things!), I found it hysterical that here were all these photographers with their impressive cameras and big lenses, and here was little old me in amongst them, taking pictures of the PM and the bigwigs, with my little hot pink point-and-shoot camera … It still makes me laugh as I write this up.

The photo opportunity: John Key and David Bassett, Deputy Mayor of Lower Hutt

Of course somebody convinced John Key to take a bit of a ride on a borrowed bike for the photographers. The bike happened to belong to Wellington’s cycling mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, who had cycled to the event. We were walking past as she took it back from him, and I noticed it was an electric bike. I asked her about it, and she said, "yes, it makes it easier to battle against the ferocious Wellington winds". Genius! Or would a purist say it was "cheating"?

The PM riding the Mayor's bike

Later I saw the online report of the event featuring a photo of the PM on a bike, and quite a few grumbly people had commented on the fact that he didn’t wear a helmet. But to be fair, he only rode about 20 metres, on the foot/cycle path. Hardly a dangerous act, but I guess some people just delight in griping.

We drove home in high spirits, with me still chuckling over the cheek of us “crashing” the party (but not really, because it seemed to be open to anyone who wanted to be there). We’d had a great day, a real “only in NZ” sort of a day – what with meeting a pig hunter, chatting to the Park Ranger, learning about some of NZ’s pioneering history, and getting up close, and almost personal, with the PM!

Our “booty” of water bottles, pamphlets and THE ribbon! (photo by John)

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