[Note, 23rd April 2016: If you’ve stumbled on this page whilst looking for an account of the newly-opened track, I’ve more recently posted a more complete trip report of the entire thing.]
Another of the things I found myself doing during the recent visit, besides this Easter tramping trip, was to check out the new Paekakariki Escarpment Track, one of the contributing sections of the Te Araroa Trail. When completed, this route will provide a dedicated walking corridor between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay, alongside the coast north of Wellington. It’ll make the most of both iconic coastal scenery and iconic coastal exposure to the elements, and it’s completely accessible at both ends by Wellington’s metropolitan commuter train network.
I’d not even considered visiting this track until I noticed in the DomPost that the access was about to be partially opened, although its pending construction has been in the news since at least mid-2011. My only available day was Saturday 23rd March, so I bought myself a Day Rover ticket, hopped on a train to Paekakariki, and went off to hunt for it. As an aside, the Kapiti and Johnsonville metro lines in Wellington are both very interesting tourist lines when you’re not a daily commuter.
As is typical for me when I do things on a whim, I messed this up. It was a few days before the Te Araroa Trust had posted this on their website, which would have been useful information to have had in advance. In my haste I’d assumed I knew where I was going without making the effort to check. I mean, I’ve been to Paekakariki heaps of times, and I imagined that the obvious starting point for such a track would be near the intersection of SH1 and the Old Paekakariki Road. There was nothing obvious there, however, and I spent an hour walking around Paekakariki searching for a vantage point on the hill across the road, thinking it must somehow begin from further north. Failing to find it, I then spent 40 minutes walking up the Paekakariki Hill Road before I finally decided I was going the wrong way.
For those who have never tried to walk along the Paekakariki Hill Road, it’s a horrible road to follow on foot. One side of the road is crunched up against a very steep hillside. The other side of the road often has little space between the edge of the road and a steep drop. To top it off, the road is frequented by middle-aged people who like to test their expensive boy-racer lookalike cars. Some years ago, I walked the entire length of this road to Pauatahanui, and was perpetually paranoid that a driver would come screaming too tightly around a blind corner. I don’t know how cyclists manage to remain sane on these types of roads. It has some good sights of the coast-line and Kapiti Island, though.
By now, I’d wasted a substantial amount of time walking around Paekakariki, 40 minutes walking up the entry part of the road, and probably another half hour walking down. As I walked down, I looked at the SH1 bridge over the railway line below me, and noticed what appeared to be a walking track. Duh. My disorganised start to the day had meant that it was now about 2.45pm in the afternoon, and I finally stood at the end of that SH1 bridge south of Paekakariki, which has steps down to an underpass, and the beginning of a very nicely and recently graded walking track.
As an aside, I notice that the current Te Araroa instructions for reaching this end of the track indicates “the 700m walk alongside SH1 [from Paekakariki Railway Station] is not recommended“. I don’t fully understand the reasoning of this recommendation, because that stretch of road, while being a highway, isn’t especially dangerous for walking. It has a perfectly good footpath, which I used and which can be seen on Google Streetview.
The complete walking track wasn’t open by this point, of course. From the northern direction, where I was, it begins as a very casual, flat and easy walk above the railway line, but far enough from vehicles that they don’t dominate the experience. Along here it doesn’t climb very high, but doing so is not necessary for clear scenery in a northerly direction off the coast towards Kapiti Island, and Paraparaumu Beach.
It occurred that easy-graded mountain bikers would probably love the track, but they shouldn’t ride here because it’s only legal as a walking track right now. Furthermore, that flat, gentle gradient doesn’t last. After a point, the track very suddenly and steeply starts switching back and forth up the hill-side. At the place where I checked (the highest point I reached), it had only climbed 160 metres above sea level, but the steep-ness of the hillside, the suddenness of the ascent, the distinct lack of vegetation to act as catching features in case of a fall, and the lack of many other landscapes for comparison off the coast, gives it a feeling of being quite high and exposed. If I could choose which locations on which I’d prefer to trip and fall, this would not make the top ten. It was still not fully complete, however, and maybe its final state will be more accommodating.
At about 3.40pm, I decided that my wasted time earlier in the day meant I’d really need to turn around. With few people in the vicinity and little reliable information about how complete things were towards Pukerua Bay, I didn’t want to risk being caught on this track after dark, especially as I didn’t have enough info about the completeness of the route to Pukerua Bay at the time, and I had something of an obligation to be back in Wellington for dinner. The visit was good for a short nosey to see what was happening in the area, anyway.
The Paekakariki Escarpment Track had especially caught my attention because the last couple of times I’d wanted to walk between those two places, it was a requirement to walk alongside State Highway 1, complete with noisy traffic and ugly vehicle barriers. That was hard to take, because it’s an awesome coast-line, yet it’s also always been frustrating to me that this is one of those spaces where it’s simply not been possible to walk between two obviously nearby places without having the experience completely dominated by noisy and dirty traffic. That walk along State Highway 1 has never been as much as it could have been without the invasion of motorised traffic, given everything else in that region. To be fair, it’s not as bad as some other situations, if only because there’s at least a shared cycleway and footpath along that road.
I’d always thought that the land above the road and railway line was private farm-land and never been completely sure of the access rights, but having seen this track I looked it up on the Walking Access Mapping System. It turns out that the land in question is actually zoned as land for Railway use by the Wellington Regional Council. Apparently the Nga Ururoa volunteer conservation group has been looking after the area for some time. Perhaps this made it easier to build a walking track, although the lengthier story describes complications with surrounding land access issues.
In October I wrote on how I think the precedent of continuity is one of the greatest things about the Te Araroa project, definitely much moreso than the ability to walk 3054 kilometres from Cape Reinga to The Bluff. Obviously being able to walk a really long way, over several months, appeals to a handful of people, but much more important is that lots of people, and notably local residents of local areas, can have the ability to (using some Wellington-region examples) walk from Paekakariki to Waikanae, or from Porirua to Wadestown, or from Pukerua Bay to the Fisherman’s Table Restaurant. Te Araroa creates a back-bone of priority walking access between useful places, including places where the possibility of walking has been eroded in the face of vehicles and other infrastructure over the past century.
This track is a prime example of the positive influence of the Te Araroa project, the Te Araroa Trust, and the related regional trusts such as the Te Araroa Wellington Trust. The access might always have been opened through an alternative combination of events and efforts, but even after many decades, that hadn’t actually happened. Te Araroa created the excuse and the motivation, and provided an incentive to attract funding and a structure for applying that funding between the Kapiti Coast District Council and the Porirua City Council. Now it will be possible for people to walk comfortably north and south out of and into Wellington, without having to take second priority to motorists. In the long term, I hope it’s only a starting backbone for what could be many such priority walking connections between different parts of the country.