Show me the ways to go home (3): The route of the willing, and the not-so-willing

My third walk home to Karori starts with a ride in the cable car to Kelburn.  Not having had any overseas visitors recently, it’s been a while since I’ve taken the cable car.  It’s the school holidays and the cable car is full of mothers and young children.  It creaks up through the tunnels, nudging backwards and forwards at the stations before the doors open.  A small child, possibly underwhelmed by the slow progress, announces loudly ‘Mummy, I wish to fly.’

Wellington cable car

Wellington cable car

This was another walk exploring different ways to my home in Karori.  On previous walks, I explored an early route used by Māori, early settlers and surveyors, and the main road route up Glenmore Street and through the Karori tunnel.  Shortly after the Karori tunnel was completed, work started on a cable car to Kelburn, opening up Kelburn for development, and providing the opportunity for a new access route to Karori.While the Karori tunnel was developed by the relatively new Karori Borough Council, the cable car was built by a private company – the Kelburne and Karori Tramway Company – although it was later taken over by the council.  Most of the investors in the company were shareholders in the Upland Estates Company which was to develop Kelburn for housing.   The Wellington Cable Car company on its website refutes the ‘misconception’ that the cable car was built by prisoners, although the bricks lining the tunnels would have been made by prisoners at the Terrace Gaol. The cable car opened in 1902.

Valparaiso ascensor

Valparaiso ascensor

It seems surprising that more cable cars weren’t built in Wellington after that.  The city of Valparaiso in Chile, which could be a twin city to Wellington (a port on a major faultline surrounded by steep hills crowded with houses), has numerous cable cars, or ascensores. I’m not sure how many are still running though.  I visited Valparaiso a couple of times in the late 1990s and some of them seemed in a slightly alarming state of disrepair.

KelburnFrom the cable car, I walk along Upland Road which snakes along the side of the hill past the elegant villas of Kelburn.  This is probably the longest stretch on the flat of any of my routes to Karori.  Appropriately, I stop for a flat white in a cafe, before continuing along towards the viaduct.  This part of Upland Road is lined with pohutukawa trees, many of a significant size.  My guess is that they were the work of the Wellington Beautifying Society which, among other things, enthusiastically planted trees along roadsides.  Two prominent members of the society, Charles and Maud Haines lived nearby on Mariri Road. Wellington was certainly in need of being beautified.  Early photos of the hill suburbs resemble the aftermath of a battle – exposed houses on dusty, bare hillsides covered in tree stumps.  Even though Kelburn  housed the upper middle classes escaping from the overcrowded and unsanitary city below, in its early days it looked bleak and wind-swept.

Bleak hillsides of early kelburn

Bleak hillsides of early kelburn

Kelburn viaducts

Kelburn viaducts old and new

To reach the Karori tunnel, Upland Road has to cross the valley over Glenmore Street.  The current concrete viaduct replaced a very rickety-looking wooden structure and was built as part of a programme of major transport improvements in the city during the 1920s and early 1930s, under the mayor of the time, George Troup. This was the depression era and many of these infrastructure works were carried out by the unemployed.

kelburnI’m not sure if the unemployed built the viaduct, but they might well have built the massive concrete block retaining wall on the left as you approach the viaduct complete with archways and steps leading up to the houses above.  The wall is a patchwork of paint squares covering up graffiti.  The anti-graffiti paint even seems to have been applied to the house numbers painted by the steps.  It seems odd that more permanent house numbers were not included in the grand construction of the wall. Another odd thing about this wall are two large concrete brackets.  I’ve often wondered what used to hang from them.  Were there ‘welcome to Kelburn’ signs hanging there at one time? Or perhaps they held street lights.

Upland road, kelburn
Mysterious concrete brackets

Crossing the viaduct, I look down on Glenmore Street below, which loops around and up to join Upland Road at the end of the viaduct as both routes converge on the Karori tunnel and the route of my previous walk.

The viaduct must have been one of Troup’s last works for the city.  He stepped down from the council in 1931.  While he had done much to transform the city and to create work for the huge numbers of unemployed, he left the council’s finances in a chaotic state, leading to an inquiry and to outrage on the part of the Wellington Ratepayers’ Association.

It occurs to me that the outraged ratepayers were among the many contributors to this infrastructure-intensive route, some willing and some less so, from the brick-making prisoners at the Terrace Gaol and the out of work labourers, to the speculators, and the civic-minded volunteers beautifying their city.

Kelburn viaduct
Kelburn viaduct

Route through Kelburn


  • Adrian Humphris and Geoff Mew (2009) Ring around the city: Wellington’s new suburbia 1900-1930
  • Karori Historical Society (2011) Karori and its people
  • Redmer Yska (2006) Wellington: biography of a city

Photo references

  • Valparaiso ascensor – from wikipedia 
  • Bleak early Kelburn – from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19040915-8-2
  • Kelburn viaducts old and new: Kelburn Viaduct. Aked, M S :Twenty-six F G Barker photographs of the construction of the Kelburn Viaduct, Wellington, and one photograph of W E Aked. Ref: PAColl-3228-03. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


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