We’ve now been back in Wellington for a couple of months, and have finally found somewhere to live in Johnsonville. I’m enjoying being back, and I’ve already been for a few scouts up Mt Kaukau for some fresh air. It’s been a busy time getting everything sorted, but I’ve been trying to fit in some outdoor expeditions in-between times (a combination of just wandering around the nearby hills and more significant tramping), to the extent that I’m slightly behind in writing things up.
Today, I went for a north-ish walk. We now live fairly near the official Te Araroa route, as it comes up Rifle Range Road and across Mt Kaukau, so I thought I might follow it back towards Porirua and discover how long it’d take. For me, this meant walking through a short stint of streets to reach the end of Old Coach Road, at which point I’d just follow the main route via Spicer Forest, up to Colonial Knob, and down to somewhere like Elsdon behind Porirua.
Date: 5th October, 2013
Location: Spicer Forest and Colonial Knob (Wellington).
Route: Old Coach Road in J’ville, along Rifle Range Road and Ohariu Valley Road to Spicer Forest. Up to Colonial Knob, down to Elsdon, and back to J’ville via the front roads.
[Download GPX ] [LINZ Topographic Map in new window ]
I began at about 10am. Visibility wasn’t terribly good, with clouds channelling over the ridges above about 200 metres, but this first part of the route which weaves around farm-land is fairly easy to follow. I passed a couple of people riding their horses up from Rifle Range, but that was it.
Long story short, the 7 to 8 kilometres from the tip of Rifle Range Road is basically a road walk, and I doubt it’s one of the more impressive parts of Te Araroa, except for the occasional Paradise Ducks honking on the farms nearby, which make it more interesting. It’s not terribly inspiring and I can’t think of much reason to suggest walking it unless you happen to be one of those people who has a need to continuously walk the entire length of New Zealand along an arbitrarily defined route. Te Araroa is an ongoing project which I appreciate for many reasons, but in this specific part of it I hope that some day there will be a possibility for access to be negotiated over some of the non-road parts of the surrounding farm-land.
At midday, I finally reached the main entrance to the marked track through Spicer Forest. I’ve been here once before, when Te Araroa was just getting started in the area. At that time, getting through Spicer Forest was a slip-slidey adventure. It resembled more of a marked route through a steep and slippery pine forest than any consistent formed track. There’s clearly been a lot of work on it since then, but it unfortunately didn’t count for much because at the entrance I was greeted with a Wellington City Council sign stating that their Spicer Forest track was closed, due to the storm damage from a few months ago which hasn’t yet been cleared.
I appreciate that there’s a lot of storm damage around the place, and the WCC has also put these signs up in many locations elsewhere. I do find it infuriating in this case, however, that the sign only appears at the entrance. If, for example, that WCC had been nice enough to place a notification at the other end of my 8 km road walk along the Te Araroa route, I might have re-considered my options at a point in time when I actually had them. As it was, the only thing I could do (according to the Wellington City Council) was turn around and walk 8 kilometres back along the road the way I’d come. Thanks, WCC! Yes, I know I could have looked here  before I left home.
Needless to say, I walked straight past the sign. If I’ve come this far, I’m at least going to have a look, albeit with caution. There hadn’t been any strong storms for a while, it wasn’t raining, it wasn’t windy, and I didn’t have any plans placing significant force on any still-standing trees. In the past few weeks I’ve come across numerous identical signs, particularly around the town belt, all dating back to that particular July storm. Usually they entail some trees fallen over the most useful tracks, and some necessary scrambling over and under branches.
A few metres into the entrance gate, however, I almost considered turning around. A first bright fluorescent yellow marker was very obvious, leading into the trees. A second bright fluorescent yellow marker was also obvious, nailed to a 40 cm wide trunk that had completely snapped and fallen about 3 deci-metres above the marker. The tree itself lay elongated behind the marker, in a giant mess of tree-fall storm damage—the fallen tree had a lot of friends.
Climbing over the first splodge of wasted pine trees into a small clearing, I couldn’t really tell where I was meant to go, and with that track being relatively new, my topo map wasn’t terribly helpful on such a small scale. At this point I was seriously wondering if I could go on, but after a couple of minutes staring at trashed and up-rooted forest all around, and trying to determine any route to a useful location let alone an optimal route, I spotted some orange tape half way along one of the fallen trunks, indicating a route. There’s still some significant clambering involved, and (in this case) walking along horizontal tree trunks that are elevated a small distance off the ground, but it turns out that a very helpful person has taped a feasible route through all the tree-fall damage.
This mess, next to the entrance gate at the base of Spicer Forest on Ohariu Valley Road, was the worst of it. All along the valley floor, up-rooted trees continued to require clambering and sliding and ducking underneath, but it was never as bad as the first section and in cases of doubt the helpful orange tape prevailed. The relatively new track through Spicer Forest does a lot of switching back and forth, and throughout the forest it’s affected by tree-fall right now, but never fatally. One of the switches is buried under trees, but helpful Mr or Ms fix-it has been through there with tape, too, and marked a more direct route up the hill.
So I wouldn’t venture into Spicer Forest right now if you’re expecting a nice, peaceful walk, and I’d steer clear in weather that might prompt more delicately balanced trees to topple, but if you feel like exploring, don’t be too concerned by the WCC’s warning signs.
It is quite a nice forest, even if it happens to be a typical exotic pinus radiata forest that’s full of trees willing to fall over at the slightest incentive. Presently, the only official legal route through the forest is the Te Araroa route which I was following, but the combined Wellington and Porirua City Councils have plans to convert it to a Recreation Reserve  once Meridian has finished constructing its nearby Mill Creek wind farm .
The forest also didn’t smell exactly normal for a pine forest, for a reason which I couldn’t immediately identify. It wasn’t until I was about half-way through that it twigged that there’s a landfill just down the hill. Good old land-fill smells. I guess it must have been one of those days where the temperature and the wind are just right.
By the time I exited the forest, onto farm-land below Colonial Knob, there might have been about 20 to 30 metres of visibility. Once again, the WCC had placed their “Spicer Forest Closed” sign on the edge of the forest. I’m sure that all the people who walked all the way down from the top to reach this sign really appreciate being informed of the closure just before they’re ready to enter.
The cows didn’t seem to mind.
Back on farm-land, and still climbing, the wind’s presence was becoming more apparent. Some very short visibility wasn’t helping, but a faint ground-trail led straight ahead into a perpendicular poled route—even if the cloud made it difficult to see between any two of the poles. Ambient temperature wasn’t especially cold, but wind was getting up and wind-chill was quite bad, especially along the ridgey bit near the top, so I found my trusty beanie to be a helpful aid.
I’d though that so much messing around in Spicer Forest had really slowed me down, and perhaps it had, but checking the time showed that it wasn’t even 1pm, less than an hour after leaving the forest entrance, when I was nearly at the top of the hill. A later check reveals that I’d only spent a total of 30 minutes climbing through Spicer Forest, despite the relative mess, before reaching farm-land. This was most encouraging, considering that the signage suggested 1.5 hours down the hill to the Spicer Forest gate. In retrospect that seems very slow, but maybe it’s realistic if the bulk of the people who’d care about actually going that way (unless they have a car at the end) are people lugging around massive packs having already walked most of the length of the North Island.
With the low visibility and consistently cold, strong wind, the area didn’t seem an environment conducive to meeting other people, but I finally encountered one other nut-case, beyond the moo-cows, who’d made his way up the hill and was now on the way down. I asked him what the tracks were like down the other side. After pulling the wires out of his ears he seemed surprised by the question, but indicated no issue with them. I later realised that he’d probably had no intent of going down into Spicer Forest (which would have dumped him at one end of 8 km of boring road). Instead, he was likely following a circuit which starts and finishes at Broken Hill Road, up and around Colonial Knob.
I passed the mast station at the summit of Colonial Knob (.468) at 12.53pm, from where it’s mostly a case of following the road, and not far beyond was a big sign all about Spicer Forest… pointing out how it’s closed to the public due to the construction of another of Meridian’s wind farm, except for the dedicated Te Araroa route that’s built through the middle. Apparently it’s necessary to walk for another 20 minutes down the hill, to the border of the forest, before encountering a sign which states that that track is also closed (due to the pre-described storm damage). (Yes, once again, I know I could have looked here  before I left home.)
From here I met increasing numbers of people walking up the hill. The only decision to make is about whether to come out at Camp Elsdon, Raiha Street, or Broken Hill Road. (I chose Camp Elsdon because it looked furthest away.)
Having left the wide-open maintenance roads, a broad and well-maintained track through native forest drops reasonably steeply towards Camp Elsdon. There’s at least one look-out point, but I wasn’t fond of the view, and I walked out onto the road at about 1.40pm, with time to meander over to somewhere for lunch.
That was about half my day of walking around. After lunch I decided there was so much time left to waste that I may as well walk back to Johnsonville, which I did via the front roads. It doesn’t really rate for interest, but it’s in the attached GPX file if anyone wants times, or anything like that. I’d show a photo, but it’s nowhere near as interesting as this transcript of me humming Eye Of The Tiger during this phase of the walk. It helped me survive the temptation to drop dead from boredom.