The Hutt River, Te Awa Kairangi, the only river that enters Wellington Harbour, flows from the Tararua mountains down through the elongated triangle of the Hutt Valley. For much of its route through the valley, it more or less follows the Wellington Faultline, before swinging east to enter the harbour at Petone. This was where I set out to follow it on a Sunday afternoon in late Spring, heading inland back towards its source.
Before setting off, I stop to fill my water bottle at the drinking fountain on Buick Street in Petone. Although I’d often seen people queuing here to fill plastic water containers, I hadn’t realised that the drinking fountain water comes from a huge artesian aquifer below the Hutt Valley and the harbour. About mid-way up the valley near Taita Gorge, a significant amount of the Hutt River suddenly disappears underground into a series of subterranean artesian basins that extend from one side of the Hutt Valley to the other before eventually flowing back into the harbour. The waters of the Hutt (somewhat polluted by the time they reach Taita Gorge) are naturally purified after being filtered through the gravels and sands of the aquifer.
Water bottle filled, I walk down Buick Street and turn along the Petone Esplanade. The harbour is a muddy turquoise, sailing boats dotted around on its choppy waters. A few people are scattered along the beach but it feels quiet, maybe because any noise is drowned out by the traffic on the Esplanade.
I leave the Esplanade and follow a path along the foreshore through the Hikoikoi Reserve, the site of a Māori pa. In 1839, the pa’s chief, Te Puwhakaawe, was the only dissenting voice in the negotiations over land with the New Zealand Company, asking his fellow chiefs: ‘What will you say … when many, many White men come here and drive you all away into the mountains? How will you feel when you go to the White man’s house or ship to beg for shelter and hospitality, and he tells you, with his eyes turned up to heaven, and the name of his God in his mouth, to be gone, for your land is paid for?’.
I pass a playground where people are picnicking, throwing crusts of bread to the gulls. Next to the park is a miniature railway where grown men in hi-vis are tinkering with the sit-on trains. There are a few kids hanging around, but it seems to be the adults who are having all the fun.
The path continues along a stop bank planted with flax and native bush, past sports fields and an industrial estate – silent and empty on a Sunday afternoon. I notice a little hobbit-sized hut on the beach and go to investigate. It has been battered by the weather, but looks sturdily constructed with planks nailed together and thatched. It could be a reminder of the first European settlers who arrived here shortly after the New Zealand Company’s purchase of land, setting up camp down the other end of the beach near Te Puni pa, living temporarily in tents and upturned boats, and in thatched huts that local Māori helped them build. The settlers were waiting for Captain Mein Smith, the New Zealand Company’s surveyor, to finish floundering around in the swampy ground and dense bush of the interior trying to mark out the Company’s planned settlement in the Hutt Valley.
Near the mouth of the river, I pass a couple of gates, beyond which are huge piles of sand and heavy machinery. According to the sign by the gates, this is the Hutt River Mouth Sand Extraction Plant, clearing sand to keep the river from flooding and providing a handy source of building materials.
And then I’m at the wide mouth of the river as it flows steadily and relentlessly out into the harbour. There have been heavy rains this week and the river is high. On the opposite bank, the Waiwhetu Stream flows into the Hutt, past gas containers. I can see a couple of people fishing on a spit of land out near the sand extraction plant, but apart from that there is no one around.
I turn inland, past an odd wooden platform with a plaque marking the planting of karaka trees in the reserve and round the back of some boatsheds. Beyond the boatsheds are mudflats where a couple of spoonbills are busily dredging through the silt, among seagulls and paradise shelducks. A kingfisher watches, motionless, from a log.
At the Estuary Bridge I take some steps up to the road and walk across. The bridge is lined with people fishing, their rods wedged against the concrete parapet of the bridge while they stand around waiting for bites, lines held taut against the current, white floats bobbing. The footpath is stained with fish blood. A plaque on the bridge celebrates its heritage as the first major pre-stressed concrete bridge in New Zealand, built in 1954.
Driving along this road, I’ve often noticed a little cemetery near here and I want to take a closer look. I cross a road, and then another bridge over the Waiwhetu stream, as it flows through banks of concrete on its way to join the Hutt River. Heavy industries in this area made the Waiwhetu stream one of the most polluted waterways in New Zealand. There have been attempts to clean it up in recent years, but it is still contaminated. The cemetery is next to the stream, wedged between industrial buildings. It occupies the site of the Waiwhetu pa, which Charles Heaphy described in 1839 as being ‘most picturesque…with large war-canoes drawn up on the beach, while at the hill-foot were tall stages from which hung great quantities of fish in the process of sun-drying’. The pa survived into the 1920s, the last Māori-owned settlement in Lower Hutt, marooned by the industry that had grown up around it. The cemetery is well-kept, the graves bright with plastic flowers.
I head back across the bridges, past the fishing rods, making way for a woman on a wide tricycle with two dogs in a basket on the back. I rejoin the Hutt River Trail, following it along a stopbank through the middle of the Shandon golf course. As I get further away from the road, the receding traffic noise is replaced by tuis singing in the huge pine trees, and a warbling magpie, looking up at me insolently from the green. The golf course is busy with Sunday afternoon golfers, who seem to be nearly all male. From here, the river is barely visible behind another stopbank.
The river has changed its course since 1840, so it would probably have been further west from here that some of the first settlers decided to build their huts by the banks of the Hutt River rather than on the foreshore. The land was fertile but they soon discovered that the river frequently overflowed its banks. After a flood on 2nd March washed away their possessions, many moved back to the foreshore. The site of the New Zealand Company’s settlement had been a subject of dispute since Captain Mein Smith had decided against the Company’s initial plan to build it further round the harbour at Thorndon, arguing that the Hutt Valley provided more flat land. Following the March flood, the settlers continued to argue for another month. Mein Smith advocated for controlling the river to avoid flooding, but at the beginning of April, it was decided to move the settlement to Thorndon as originally planned and most of the settlers moved out of the Hutt Valley.
At the end of the golf course, I continue along the stopbank into Sladden Park where a plaque commemorates Hubert Sladden, engineer to the Hutt River Board ‘whose vision and engineering skill over a period of fifty years made this valley a safer place for its happy people’. The Hutt River continued to flood frequently during the 19th century, washing away livestock, crops, roads, and bridges. In the biggest floods, lives were lost. The flooding got worse, as the river became jammed up with trees and debris from clearing the valley, and with gravel and silt from erosion. Very little was done about it for a surprisingly long time. Some land owners would set up their own flood defences, which often caused damage to neighbouring properties. Eventually the Hutt River Board was set up, but initially took little action. A flood of 1893 that caused considerable damage prompted the people of Petone to negotiate with the people of Lower Hutt to build stopbanks. The negotiations broke down and Petone went ahead anyway. Unfortunately, while the stopbank protected Petone, the residents of neighbouring Alicetown felt it exacerbated the flooding there. Alicetown residents took to trying to break down the stopbank with picks and shovels when the river was starting to flood and the people of Petone organised a patrol with sentry boxes on the stopbanks to stop them. Two very large floods in 1898, including one that flooded the entire valley from side to side, prompted action and a reconstituted Hutt River Board finally got its act together. At the beginning of the 20th century, the board started to built flood defences.
As I walk through Sladden Park, I can hear a high-pitched sawing noise coming from where a cluster of cars are parked near the river. As I get closer, I can see that the noise is coming from remote-controlled boats circling around in the river. I stop to eat a sandwich at the far end of the park. On the other side of the stop bank are the boarded up and graffitied buildings of a former school.
The trail ducks under a rickety-looking wooden railway bridge with a pipe running alongside it. As I’m about to go under the bridge, a train rattles overhead surprisingly loudly and I can’t bring myself to go underneath until it has passed. There’s a pedestrian walkway along the bridge and so I walk along it a little way looking down at the river. Drowned willows are trapped against the concrete piers of the bridge. I turn and go back to the river bank, following the stopbank around a long curve towards Lower Hutt CBD. On my right, I’m looking across the rooftops of Alicetown.
I’m starting to feel a bit odd. Maybe it’s because I’ve not been back long from a six week trip to the crowded cities of Europe and Asia, but the banks of the Hutt are making me feel lonely. So far, I’ve mostly been walking through recreational space, but apart from the golf course and the people fishing on the bridge, there’s hardly been anyone around. I feel I’m in a kind of dead zone, a desultory limbo between houses and the river. I also seem to have picked up my own personal cloud, which is gently spitting rain at me, while all around the sky is much brighter.
The Ewen Bridge cheers me up a little, because it is so massive and so concrete. Just beside it is an odd sort of dais with seats on it, maybe for people to sit and contemplate its beauty.
The Ewen Bridge is the seventh in a long line of bridges that have crossed the Hutt River at around this point. The first bridge, built in 1844, was for pedestrians only and made of white pine, which quickly rotted. The second survived the 1848 earthquake with some damage, was partly destroyed by the 1855 earthquake and then finished off for good by a flood shortly afterwards. The third bridge was lifted off its foundations and swept away in its entirety in 1868, floating away down the river in a jam of logs. After that, the happy people of the Hutt gave up on bridges for a few years. The building of the fourth bridge was hampered by floods that damaged the partly-constructed bridge and washed away materials and equipment. This bridge lasted for longer than its predecessors, but could take only five cows at any one time, causing regular cattle-jams. The present bridge was built in 1995, which surprises me because it looks so much like the concrete structures that were built in Wellington in the 1970s.
Before I cross the bridge though, I pass underneath it and scramble up over the stopbank in search of another cemetery at the corner of Bridge Street and Marsden Street. A wesleyan chapel was built here in 1845 and was used as a refuge for early settlers in 1846, a time of tension between the settlers and Māori in the Hutt Valley. The chapel was moved in 1850, and the cemetery was partly covered over by Bridge Street at the beginning of the 20th century, but part of the cemetery is still there, a few gravestones under pohutukawa trees, along with a memorial for the people whose graves were moved.
Another place of refuge in 1846 was Fort Richmond, which was also near here. This was built to a similar design to those used on the North American frontier. The river now covers the site of the fort, but a similar one (although built later in 1860) still exists in Upper Hutt.
I return to the Ewen Bridge and cross over to Lower Hutt’s CBD. On the other side of the river are more plaques: another memorial to an engineer, G Laing-Meason, the first engineer employed by the Hutt River Board, and plaques marking two previous bridges, as well as more strange recreational structures.
Lower Hutt has turned its back firmly on its river, not surprisingly perhaps given the river has flooded its streets so often. In 1858, Lower Hutt’s predecessor, the settlement of Aglionby lost its hotel, the Aglionby Arms: half of the hotel was swept away, while the remainder was stranded in the middle of the river which had changed its course as a result of the flood. The 1858 floodwaters sound terrifying, described in the local paper as ‘rushing along like an immense wave, crashing and roaring, carrying everything before it: huge trees, portions of buildings, timber, furniture and debris of every description’. This was in fact the second incarnation of the Aglionby Arms, the first having been washed away in 1845; a third Aglionby arms was built later, but was finally abandoned after flood damage in 1871.
Lower Hutt is also a city that has lost its centre: the High Street is now a backwater, while traffic is directed round a confusing maze of roundabouts, large-scale retail developments on all sides. There is not much sense of history here, and the council is planning to make sure things stay that way by demolishing its attractively modernist town hall and horticultural hall, but you can read more about that here. Meanwhile, the stopbank takes me past the unattractive rears of unattractive buildings. I detour through a carpark and into a mall for a bathroom break. Even in here it is oddly quiet, and I’m starting to worry that I might have become deaf since I set out.
To be continued…
Butterworth S (1988) Petone: a history
Easther J (1991) The Hutt River – a modern history
Hutt City Council (2007) Petone Vision Statement
Kay G (1987) Bygone days in Lower Hutt
Kay G (1989) More bygone days in Lower Hutt
Millar D (1972) Once upon a village: a history of Lower Hutt, 1819-1965
Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand (Chris Maclean), Wellington places – Hutt Valley – south
Treadwell C A L (1959) The Hutt River: its history and its conquest
Ward, L E (1928) Early Wellington
The village of Britannia along the Western Bank of the Hutt River in 1840, redrawn from a sketch by E. Betts-Hopper, Hutt City Libraries online heritage collection
Brees, Samuel Charles, 1810?-1865. [Brees, Samuel Charles] 1810-1865 :Fort Richmond & the Hutt Bridge.  Engraved by Henry Melville; drawn by S C Brees . [Brees, Samuel Charles] 1810-1865 :Pictorial Illustrations of New Zealand. Plate 11. Kari-Kari on the River Manawatu, 32 ; Fort Richmond & the Hutt Bridge, 33 ; View looking up Hawkestone Street Wellington 34. Engraved by Henry Melville drawn by S C Brees. . Ref: A-109-030. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22766174