I’ve been documenting my journey up the Hutt River, Te Awa Kairangi, from where it enters Wellington Harbour back towards its source. I walked the first part of the route (described in two previous posts – Petone to Lower Hutt, and Melling to Taita) on a Sunday in late spring. When I return to the Hutt Valley a few weeks later on a Saturday afternoon, summer has suddenly arrived. The blue sky is dotted with fluffy white cumulus, and the colours are vibrant in the strong sunlight, as I retrace my steps from Pomare station back to the river bank.
I rejoin the Hutt River Trail, walking along a hollow of grassy land between stopbanks, a road on one side and the river on the other. Once again my view of the river is blocked by a strip of willow trees planted for flood protection. The leaves of birch trees planted at intervals along the way are shivering in the wind, but not much of the breeze is reaching me, and the sun feels hot. I go through a gap in the willow trees to check out the river. It looks very different from a few weeks ago when it was running high and fast. The slippery mud along the river bank has turned to grey dust and the river flows briskly over rounded riverstones, its waters sparkling in the sunlight.
Above me at the side of the road, is a sign advertising the attractions of Stokes Valley. Someone, perhaps a disappointed visitor, has punched a hole through it. The path takes me up to the level of the road and I cross a little stream flowing out of Stokes Valley and into the river, where a channel has been carved out for it between neatly mown grassy banks. A swallow curves gracefully above the stream.
The path dips back below the road again, along a steep bank by the river. I pass a couple of odd structures: a green cylinder with witch’s hat-shaped roof that looks like very long long-drop and a little platform with a pulley across the river to the Manor Park golf course on the other side. On closer inspection, the long-drop turns out to be a monitoring station for environmental data.
I’m walking along the Taita Gorge at this point and it is somewhere around here, that a large amount of the Hutt river water disappears underground into a huge artesian aquifer system under the Hutt Valley. Right at the start of my journey up the Hutt River, I filled my water bottle at the drinking fountain on Buick Street in Petone, which draws water from this aquifer. I’ve been looking out for signs of where the water disappears, but I’m not really sure what I’m looking for. In one place, the river looks a bit bubbly, and I decide that might be it. Or maybe it’s just a rapid.
On the other side of the river is the Haywards electrical substation, with its grey clustered pylons like a dead forest among the bush-covered hills. The substation is the arrival point for electricity coming from the South Island hydro-lakes, travelling from the power station at Benmore and under the Cook Strait, before being converted here from Direct Current to Alternating Current for the North Island grid.
A little further up the river at Silverstream is more interesing infrastructure – a quirky pink wasterwater gauging station that looks like it could have been designed by Ian Athfield. Not only that, but just across the road, looking like a massive military installation, is New Zealand’s largest precast concrete wastewater detention tank (according, at least, to ‘Concrete’ magazine). The tank helps reduce the amount of sewage that reaches the river. There is still a sign on the river bank though, warning people not to swim here after heavy rain.
I stop at the picnic area below the two bridges at Silverstream. Near here was a pub called the Barley Mow Inn, where nine people were washed away by the huge flood of 1858. The flood victims were apparently buried in the graveyard of Wellington’s oldest church, Christ Church in nearby Taita, although I couldn’t find their graves when I went to have a look around.
When I think of Silverstream, I get a line from The Wedding Present’s version of ‘Rocket’ stuck in my head – ‘because, because, because the silver stream is what a movie queen lives for’. Except it’s ‘silver screen’ in the song. But anyway, it’s a good earworm for a long walk.
I’m now officially in Upper Hutt and the scenery suddenly looks very sylvan and pastoral with lush meadows and trees on my right and the Tararua foothills ahead of me. A skylark is singing high above. As I walk along past the Royal Wellington Golf Club, the river slaloms obediently through curving gravel banks. On the opposite side of the river, across the busy SH2 road, are steep bush-covered hills, snaking lines of tree ferns marking out the routes of gullies down the hills.
I’m getting very hot and dusty, and at Trentham I take a welcome detour into the cool shade of Barton’s Bush, an island of native bush stranded by the neatly mown grass of Trentham Memorial Park. The bush here, preserved by an early settler named John Barton, is a remnant of the alluvial forest that once covered the Hutt Valley. I take a path lined with chicken wire which winds under the canopy of tawa trees past tall podocarps. The bush feels surprisingly dense. Only the sounds of children’s voices nearby playing hide and seek, gives me any idea that the open park is just a few metres away. At one point, I come out at the edge of a game of cricket.
Just outside Barton’s Bush is a lonely kahikatea, surrounded by flax. Ancient forests of these huge kahikatea, or white pines, once covered large areas of lowland New Zealand such as the Hutt Valley, before being cleared in the space of a few decades by European settlers. I’m reading the late Geoff Park’s amazing book, Nga Uruora, at the moment, in which he wrote extensively about these forests.
I return to the river, walking along a stopbank through the park, past gum trees on neat lawns. I pass under Moonshine Bridge where there is disappointinly little evidence of illegal liquor production, and walk through more picnic areas, and groves of totara trees. SH2 crosses the river at Moonshine Bridge and I’m once again walking along a narrow strip of land between river and road, watched over by an ugly line of macmansions perched on the hilltops on the other side of the river. According to my map, the river here was used as a stand-in for the River Anduin for the filming of Lord of the Rings.
A group of girls are unloading inner tubes from a trailer, for floating down the river. Further on, I pass families piling down to the river clutching towels. They are heading to an enticing-looking swimming hole below a low cliff. It hadn’t crossed my mind to bring my togs and I trudge onwards along the Hutt River Trail which is now wide enough for cars and becoming increasingly dusty.
The river here winds along a narrow passage between huge islands of riverstones, bulldozed into shape. Someone has built riverstone cairns here that look like mysterious remnants of old civilisations. They remind me of the stone towers of Great Zimbabwe, which I was lucky enough to visit before Zimbabwe descended into chaos.
At Maoribank, the river takes a right-angled bend away from the road. Moving away from the traffic noise, I can hear voices. The trail has climbed slightly and as I round the bend I’m looking down on the river. There are people everywhere, perched on boulders, kids egging each other on to jump from the rocks. The river looks suddenly different, much narrower and running between bush-covered banks without manmade obstructions.
A little further on, in Te Hau Karetu Park a group of women in brightly-coloured headscarves are sitting on the grass chatting, the debris of a picnic all around them. This park is on the site of a Te Ati Awa village, consisting of whares and a meeting house. Some time after 1912, most of the Maori living there moved to Lyall Bay. I’m not sure why.
This upper part of Upper Hutt was suburbanised much later than the rest of the valley, and was still used for farming and sawmilling up until the 1950s. This was also an area where people came for weekend trout fishing and relaxation, staying in baches dotted along the river banks. Walking along the river here, away from the dust and traffic noise, past houses tucked into the bush, it still has something of the feel of a weekend retreat and in fact there is a motor camp beside the river, just after Harcourt Park.
For much of its journey through the Hutt Valley, the river follows the Wellington Fautline. At Harcourt Park are terraces created in the last ice age by the river cutting into rock. These have been displaced horizontally by major earth movements over time, although with my limited geological understanding, it’s hard to appreciate them. My attention is diverted by a hobbit-sized road network laid out in the park, complete with small-scale street signs.
Harcourt Park is in Brown Owl, which gets its name from some tea rooms that opened here in the late 1920s. These included a ballroom, swimming pool and tennis courts. A little later in its life it became a cabaret. It’s hard to imagine such a lively hub of entertainment hub here now and its site is occupied much more soberly by a baptist church and row of shops.
The river trail goes round the back of the motor camp, following a narrow path that runs through bush between a fence and the river below me down steep banks. On the other side are cliffs and bluffs below bush-covered hills. I pass another little cylindrical structure and pulley across river, similar to the ones I saw near Stokes Valley.
On the other side of the river, I can see the end of Bridge Road. There used to be a bridge over the river here but it was swept away in a flood in 1939. It was never replaced and the road became a dead end. A bit of crumbling concrete at the side of the path here is all that seems to remain of the bridge.
After a while, I come out on Akatawara Road. I had intended to continue on a little further, but the sight of a dairy and a bus-stop opposite it, suggests this might be a good time to grab a cold can of pop and head home.
Collins J A (1982) Maoribank and the Old Brown Owl
Easther J (1991) The Hutt River – a modern history 1840-1990
Meachen L J (1988) Bonbons from Birchville
Park G (1995) Nga Uruora: the groves of life
Treadwell C A L (1959) The Hutt River: its history and its conquest
Brown Owl Teahouse, 1930s from Upper Hutt City Library Heritage Collections