How it started: Paekakariki Escarpment track

Ken Fraser

“This is crazy!” We were hacking a path through 2-metre tall cape ivy in the quarry. We kept muttering this to ourselves as we took another swipe at the stems which were thick like bamboo It took about an hour to make 5 metres progress using a slasher. The idea was to make a track going all the way to Pukerua Bay, and deep down we knew it was impossible.

Nga Uruora looks after ecological restoration on the escarpment running all the way from Paekakariki Overbridge to Pukerua Bay. We have a management agreement with QE2 National Trust and we are responsible for keeping the area free of pests in the form of animals and weeds, and attempting to bring back native forest by planting trees and eventually bringing back the birds. We needed a track to get access to the steep parts of the escarpment. By the time we reached the quarry we had already hacked out about a kilometre of track by roughly clearing the vegetation and making a narrow bench on the steep scree slope. After we got past the quarry we continued hacking through boxthorns and gorse and eventually reached Paripari, the old Maori village which was inhabited in early colonial times. We cleared a lot of boxthorn bushes around the village. Many years later you can still see our old track marked by a line of grounsel weeds.

A year later the track was overgrown with weeds and needed clearing again. The track project was far too ambitous and we needed to find an easier way. We thought: “How about finding somebody to build the track for us?”

About this time I heard that Te Araroa in Wellington were looking for a route through the Tararuas to Wellington and they wanted volunteers on their committee. Also they were looking at a route using the eastern Tararua valleys. So with the escarpment track in mind and in order to deflect them from the eastern route, I went along to one of the Te Araroa committee meetings and met Dennis McLean. When I mentioned the idea of running a track along the escarpment there was a lot of scepticism. Clearly there was a lot of persuasion needing to be done.

Trialling the route as a tramping expedition seemed an obvious thing to do, so I offered to lead a Parawai Tramping Club trip. Fortunately when the day arrived it was a stunner. But it was a hard trip with all the tussocks and having to walk on the same side of our boots for 6 hours. Starting at the Overbridge we got as far as the Ecosite Forest and came face to face with a huge gully forcing us to climb down on sheep tracks through gorse and manuka forest, then a climb up the other side. It was quickly followed by another gully, nearly as steep and scratchy. That used up any energy the party had in reserve. But everybody was thrilled by the route and that increased my confidence that it would be a popular route. Later I led several trips for the Tararua Tramping Club and the reactions were just as enthusiastic.

To take committee members on an introductory trip, I needed ideal conditions so they would be able to see Tapaeunuku, Ruapehu and even Taranaki while not being blown to the ground by the wind. That first trip started from the Paekakariki Overbridge and reached the highest point which we now call the Lookout. From there we could see the bushy part of the escarpment to the south, and I pointed out a possible route sidling across without losing much height. It was tough walking through the thick tussocky grass but I think the committee was starting to get interested. They needed to see the central parts of the escarpment, the Terraces and the Ecosite Forest and the steep gullies to the south which were full of native plants. I kept an eye on the weather and we did several more exploratory trips but our luck with the weather eventually ran out. We should have spotted the forecast north-westerly with heavy rain. It caught us on the steepest parts and soon there were waterfalls coming down the gullies. Soaked to the skin and shivering we reached the Woolshed and stood at the door dripping pools of water. This might have been the end of my scheme but luckily by that time the committee were more or less hooked.

The escarpment is very slow to give up its secrets, especially the feelings of the private landowners with sheep farms. Some of the private land boundaries come down close to the railway, in one case within about 7 metres. On one occasion we organised a trip to walk the full length of the escarpment along the boundary without crossing into private land. Going through gorse bushes on steep slopes is not easy and we rather rapidly gave it up.

With the committee now keen and well committed to the project, we still had many challenges and obstacles to overcome, mainly reaching agreements with the private landowners and KiwiRail. Also there was a lot of finance needed. We needed some means of climbing underneath Paekakariki Overbridge, so a set of steps was designed by the Frame Group. We still did not have complete agreements with landowners and KiwiRail, and there were still no tracks along the escarpment and we only had vague promises of finance to finish the project. But we needed to feel some commitment. The steps were going to cost over $30000. A lot of phone calls were made and all interested parties chipped in. NgaUruora cleaned out its bank account and found $5000. That was a critical moment for the project.

As the track nears completion we can all feel thankful that we succeeded in taking the plunge.