Greatly Inclined to Ride
Remutaka Cycle Trail
Our Trail Story
Keen to reach a summit without raising a sweat, riding an incline at speed or breezing along a tricky coastal trail? If this is your style, then riding out of the Capital and onto the Remutaka Cycle Trail could be your next biking adventure!
I begin my cycle mission on the foreshore at Petone – the official trail start of the Remutaka Cycle Trail. With my GPS units set to record every second of my experience so I can continue building the Great Rides App, I’m away. The sky is blue and there is a little chop on the harbour from the breeze that helps me ride north, upstream along the bank of the Hutt River. The GPS units plot the river edge’s gentle sweeping curves along the reserves on the urban fringes. My tyres lap up the well-formed path, wheeling past Petone and both Hutt cities.
Upon reaching the scattered forest pockets, I leave the city behind. After passing under the Wairarapa rail line, I climb a short hill where the trail is on the former railway alignment. I have reached the line that, prior to the mid-1950’s, trains used to travel over the Remutaka Range. Today the electric trains speed along a new line that bores 8.8 kilometres under the range, while my ride goes over the mountain on the old railway line. It’s a popular ride that I am eager try.
To my surprise I am launched into darkness only a few metres along the rail trail. The 253 metre Mangaroa Tunnel is the first of many on the ride. I flick on my torch to navigate through to reach the Tunnel Gully recreational area at the other end and my first of many rest stops. Sitting under giant eucalypt trees in the reserve I enjoy the last of autumn’s warmth. Having refuelled my engine and checked the data being captured I ride on towards the range and into the side catchment of the Pakuratahi. Here the trail follows the forest-lined river; the trail is wide and gentle and there is a sense of mystery beyond. Crossing a restored truss bridge (the oldest of it’s kind in NZ) I pass over the river and through another tunnel. This portal was built in 1876 and with rails yet to be laid and no vehicular access to the site, the contractor innovated to make 13,000 concrete blocks on-site. The arched walls of the tunnel made of pressed sand and cement are considered to be our country’s first concrete block structure!
While appreciative of the work from long ago, my senses alert me to a train coming my way! Is this a ghost train on a trackless tunnel? As I stop at the tunnel entrance, the rumbling mechanical noise increases in intensity – I can almost feel the vibrations of the advancing bulk. What’s going on?!
Then, the sound of the haunting ceases …
I am alone again with my wild thoughts in the wilderness.
The train sound passed through the valley despite no visible tracks for miles. How could this be? A little rattled, I continue to ride and discover after my trip that I was standing near a vertical ventilation shaft to the current railway tunnel more than 100 metres below my tyres – this was where my phantom train was. It gave me such a fright!
I continued onwards reaching the graceful arc and handcrafted stonework of Ladel Bend, a campsite below the trail, and while inviting it is not my stopover. I continue upward as the gradient increases towards Summit.
As a cartographer I love how Summit is both a geographic feature and a place.
At just under 350 metres above the Cook Strait it is the highest point of the trail and was once a small settlement of railway workers. Little remains of the community today with the most obvious feature being the circular depression where the former train turntable sat. There are a few rusty railway relics scattered about too.
Beside the abandoned village a fresh slip blocks the Summit tunnel. An excavator works to remove the debris. I wait. The construction of the tunnel 140 years ago using handtools was both slow and perilous. Skilled miners burrowed a chain length (20 metres) forwards each month. Working conditions were tough. Boring involved poor ventilation, extreme cold and frequent slips – a few months after completion the roof fell in killing one person and severely injuring another. History, however dark, seems to welcome me around every corner.
At Summit I am joined by two sets of tandem riders who are also awaiting the go-ahead by the excavator operator. We stand in the sun chatting about our experiences so far, before being let loose on the longest tunnel on the trail. If torch light was useful for other tunnels, then in this half kilometre of darkness it was compulsory. Reaching the exit brings sunlight, a waterfall that cascades beside the terminus, and the start of the speedy descent of the Remutaka Incline. Gravity takes over;
I no longer puff like those steam engines of yesteryear on the incline as I free-wheel downhill.
Before long I reach a dogleg in the trail, it is the ravine of Siberia Gully, where the trail gradient steepens and the trail surface becomes a stony creek bed to cross. Here I dismount before reconnecting with the trail and look back at the incised chasm. The gully is named after the chilling winds that roared at up to 200 km/hour through this gut during railway construction. They still can. The gully was overcome for rail transport by a circular embankment 30 metres above the creek. The bank dammed the creek water which was channelled down a shaft that is the only structure remaining today. In 1880 two train carriages were blown off their tracks at this site killing four children and injuring 13 adults. The Department of Conservation intends to construct a bridge here – I sure hope it is sturdy and engineered to survive such ferrous winds!
I continue down through the bowels of another tunnel and beautifully crafted curved cuttings swooping around the bends. At the bottom of the valley I reach Cross Creek and peer down at my brakes. They’re cooking. The heat from the pads of my grand descent is nothing like the heat generated from the Fell locomotive’s brakes, especially with carriages in tow. The Fell steam locomotives used the innovative addition of a centre rail to both drive from and brake the locomotives on the 1:15 grade incline. The steep grades were gruelling for the rolling stock demanding frequent maintenance … a new set of brakes was typically needed for each return from Summit.
Cross Creek once had a school, library, community hall and several cottages that are all long gone. All that remains is the train turntable and the working engine pits of a once busy workshop settlement. Not prepared to settle for camping, I head down the flowy trail to the road, then off the official trail to reach Featherston for the night. Riders who like engineering marvels may choose to visit the local museum for displays on the Remutaka Incline. There’s the option of hopping on the train with bikes at the local station to go through the big tunnel back to Maymorn, Hutt Valley or Wellington railway stations.
As dawn breaks I travel southward along the road beside Lake Wairarapa towards the southern coastline. This next section of trail gets interesting once you reach Ocean Beach - the most challenging and exposed section of the trail. A few days before a significant storm had passed through so I was wary about the stream crossings I would encounter beyond Corner Creek. As I rode along the beach I was enamoured with the cute baches tucked into the hillside, presumably handed down between generations of holiday makers.
As many of you would know the word ‘bach’ is a kiwiism. A brief search on the word reveals that it may be a shortening of the term 'bachelor pad' or perhaps, less likely, the Welsh word 'bach' meaning ‘small’ although pronounced differently – more like the German composer's name. Where I am from in the deep South we use the word 'crib' for such a dwelling. The term 'crib' is thought to have come from an old English Germanic word 'krippe' meaning 'manger', which later developed into different meanings as the English language developed. For some time the word described a wicker basket used by thieves in the 17-18th century to steal goods. Used as 'to crib' or pilfer a good the meaning lingers today in our language as 'crib cheat sheets'.
In the United States, 100 years ago, cribs were small rooms in brothels with sufficient space for a bed. However, in our country, the word has a more savoury meaning as a small holiday home, usually built by families a couple of generations ago and often over a number of weekends. If you have ever spent time in a crib or bach you’ll know they are often packed full of games like cards, and Monopoly, jigsaws, and old magazines - you know; the stuff for wet days. There were collections of mismatched carpet, furniture and fittings - it was a simple, cheap structure in a bygone time. Modern stricter building regulations may endanger these dwellings – I hope these simple dwellings like those at Corner Creek continue to live on.
Waiting near the baches are tracked machines and rusting tractors, ready to help their owners launch small watercraft from the stony beach. From the look of the washed out beach road I could see that a dozer would be a handy tool just for reaching these getaways by vehicle. From here the trail was just that … a trail. The road may have once negotiated the rocky headlands but it now peaters out leaving just enough space for my tyres.
I had heard stories of how wild the weather can be on this exposed southern coast, and I consider myself fortunate to be riding without wind. However, today the trail is not without its hurdles and I cross a flooded creek which may have been a trickier fording a few days ago. Not far away, I meet up with a laden bike packer at the next smaller ford, she had done well to lift her bike over the current on her solo journey eastward.
I ride on and pass a flat concrete slab etched with hoof and horse shoe prints. This is the Drover memorial and I glance down at the bronze plaque, its weathered verdigris letters informing me that the shoreline was the beginnings of NZ’s pastoral industry a century and a half ago. Sheep and cattle were driven around these rocky shores onto the fertile plains of the Wairarapa. At times the pioneers had to carry sheep through the surf and around headlands to reach the safety of the next bay. These animal drives became easier after the earthquake of 1855 when the land rose several metres thereby providing a safer passage.
As I ride near Turakirae Point I can see the effects of successive earthquakes that have raised the beaches of the rocky shoreline in the past. Once I reach the point, I take a detour along a challenging wobbly round-stoned track to a fur seal colony – the seal viewing is a real highlight, although they can be a difficult to spot being so well camouflaged on the boulders. I ride back to the main trail and can see its end is near. Civilisation reappears around the next bend as I pass a surfer carrying his board to ready drop in at the point and ride the regular swells that roll into the bay.
Having arrived at the trailhead somewhat weary, my face beams with the wide smile of riding satisfaction. I have almost come full circle on the ride from Petone over the past two days of riding bliss. The Remutaka Cycle Trail offers sections of riding for a range of abilities; it’s a trail that starts in the urban heart and ends on the wild coast, the whole way filled to the brim with history. Few NZ Great Rides offer such variety, changing landscapes and fascinating heritage – it’s a ride I will be inclined visit again.