Walking my horizon

Before I moved to Wellington, I lived in Nottingham in the UK. From my house at the top of a hill, I had a view to the north over distant rolling hills. Not long before I left to come here, I worked out where the horizon was using binoculars and Ordnance Survey topographical maps, and then walked it over a couple of days. It turned out to be a much more interesting walk than I had expected, following in the footsteps of medieval monks, DH Lawrence, Lord Byron and murderers on the run. I wrote about it (of course) and you can read it here.

At the end of that piece I commented that I would need to work out my relationship with my new surroundings, which is what I’ve been doing in this blog I suppose. My new horizon in Karori is much closer and more clearly defined, bounded by the hills that surround the Karori valley and I set out to walk it recently, on a still clear day not long after the winter solstice.


NZTopo database, Crown Copyright Reserved

I start off, much later in the day than I had intended, on Messines Road which runs along the ridge that separates Karori from the rest of Wellington. The highest point of the ridge is occupied by the houses of the wealthier residents of Karori, and so I find myself looking out over the harbour, the view of the Karori valley hidden down long driveways. I pass the newly-reinforced Karori reservoir and the newly-painted Russian embassy next door. There is no one around anywhere and the only sound is the song of the tui darting in and out of the bushes.

IMG_0853I carry on down to Marsden village and the Spanish Mission style St.Mary’s church which sits on top of the ridge beside the main road through Karori. The church was designed by Frederick de Jersey Clere and is easily one of the most distinctive buildings in Karori, but sadly the tower is an earthquake risk and is going to be removed, with no prospect as yet of it being replaced. I’ve never been in the church and today might have been the day, but it is locked, so I make do with a quick wander round the small graveyard. I recognise a names from Karori Streets, like Cornford and Shotter, and there’s a memorial to members of the family of H S Chapman (who I wrote about here), including his wife and three children who died in a shipwreck as they were returning from a visit to England in 1866.

IMG_0854I carry on towards Johnston’s Hill, through streets that are even quieter than Messines Road. Even the birds have fallen silent. At the top of the hill, I stop for a late lunch and contemplate Karori down below, its houses laid out in neat grids across the valley floor until the streets meet the hills and start snaking untidily upwards. I can see my house from here, and if I had binoculars, maybe I could train them in on my front window and see myself tapping away at my laptop on the dining table, perhaps glancing up to look out the window back at my walking self.


I like the Karori valley. I find narrow valleys oppressive and Karori feels pleasingly open. I also like the sense of a valley high among hills. I imagine Māori explorers, and later European surveyors struggling uphill from the harbour and then suddenly seeing the valley laid out in front of them, the Karori bush apparently more open than the bush they would have struggled through to get here.

The Karori valley runs in a different direction from most of the other Wellington valleys, sticking out at a westerly angle from the rest of the urban settlement around the harbour. The hills and valleys of Wellington run in a series of roughly parallel NE-SW ridges, the land corrugated by movement along faultlines and I’d often wondered why the Karori valley was different. I read up on the geology of Wellington but I didn’t really get any closer to understanding why this is, except that there seems to be an ancient faultline that runs along the long Johnsonville-Khandallah-Ngaio valley and then turns abruptly west through Karori. I did find an essay by a Maxwell Gage written in 1940 that seemed to offer an explanation:
‘The general obliquity to structure of the Makara-Karori lineament as a whole, however is ascribable to the controlling influence of an ancient valley of an earlier cycle of erosion, within the limits of which it lies.’
I’m not entirely sure what this means, and maybe it is an out-of-date theory, but I like the notion of Karori being controlled by an ancient valley. He also offers an alternative explanation which is even harder to understand:
‘that the common tendency in sub-senile phases toward widespread lateral planation and consequent destruction of earlier adjustment to structure was in this case promoted during the Kaukau period by the upsetting of gradients through a diastrophic movement.’

But I am rather taken with the language of geology which I feel makes up for not fully understanding it. I particularly like ‘orogeny’ (a period of mountain building) and ‘aeolian deposit’ (sedimentary materials like sand and dust, carried by the wind and trapped by vegetation to form consolidated layered deposits).

folded hills

One I thing I did find out was that the greywacke rocks on which Wellington sits, are the same rocks that form the Southern Alps, and that the rounded tops of the hills on the Wellington peninsula are the remains of an ancestral land mass half the size of modern Australia which was uplifted from the sea during the jurassic period. The land mass was eroded to an almost flat plain, called a ‘peneplain’. The sea then encroached over the land mass and over time the peneplain remnants were pushed up by tectonic movements to form Wellington’s folded hills.

Despite the clear skies, there is a haze in the distance, and the snow covered peaks of the South Island Kaikouras hover in blueness. Far below, somewhere in Wilton, I can hear the intermittent cheering of children, but I can’t see any sign of activity. Occasionally a dog seems to join in. There’s the whine of a saw somewhere, a chainsaw maybe or a builder’s saw – a sound so familiar I barely notice it. There is always the sound of sawing in the suburbs it seems, accompanied with a bit of hammering.

I finish my lunch and set off again, downhill towards the Skyline Walkway. It’s quiet again now, apart from the gentle pulsing chirp of insects and a small digger below creating a path around a newly built house. I pass a small group of adorably fluffy sheep. Lurking nearby but keeping a wary distance though is a huge sheep with a massive, matted fleece that looks as if it has not seen shears for a very long time. A Karori ‘shrek’ perhaps.


The skyline walkway winds along the top of the ridge, threaded through, sometimes confusingly, with desire paths patterned with bike tire treads. I am walking through darwin’s barberry and gorse in bloom, orange and yellow flowers vibrant in the low sun. On the non-Karori side, the hill falls steeply away down to a strip of dark pine and beyond that the lush winter green of the Ohariu valley. The sea is indistinct in the haze, a luminescent glare where it catches the sunlight.

The path takes me through a stand of pines at the top of Karori park and then out onto the road at Makara saddle. I cross the road and take the zig-zag mountain bike track up the steep flanks of Makara Peak. A small plane, its drone yawning around the empty sky, is making slow progress above me.

IMG_0902Near the top of Makara Peak, I look up and think I see someone standing near the radio mast wearing a yellow T-shirt. But then I look again and realise it’s the signpost that has lots of yellow pointers to various places in the world where you might want to have adventures. As I get nearer the top, I see that as well as the yellow signpost, there is in fact a man wearing a yellow t-shirt. The man in the yellow t-shirt is talking loudly to a man in an orange t-shirt about ‘living the dream’ in what seems to be a non-ironic way. I’m glad when they get on their bikes and cycle off so I can have the view to myself while I finish off my flask of coffee.

I’m looking directly up the Karori valley now towards the Messines Road ridge where I set off. Beyond the ridge is the harbour, still as glass. From here, with no sight of the CBD, it looks as if there could be a sheer drop from the ridge down into the harbour.

IMG_0901Makara Peak is only 412m high, and yet from certain places, like the ridge where St Mary’s church is, it can seem huge, a mountain range towering over the valley. It’s all about perspective I suppose, and my perspectives have been shifting as I have worked my way around my horizon. Sometimes it has been difficult to work out exactly where my horizon is. And of course when you arrive at your horizon, there are always more horizons, like the hills above Makara Valley on the other side of Makara Peak, where the wind turbines are turning slowly in the almost non-existent breeze. Down in Makara valley, the sun glints off the neat rows of graves in the cemetery, but most of the houses are already in shade.

It feels late and it’s getting cold even in the sun as I start to descend down the 4WD track that winds around the hill through a mix of gorse, and regenerating native bush and tree ferns. In the shade the long grass on the verges is wet, the brown leaves of brambles hanging sadly.

I cut onto St Albans Road and down Allington Road – where the sun has already set for the modest houses at this end of Karori. Finally, there are people around, children playing football in a driveway, and in a crowded school playground. Above me is Wrights Hill, the final peak, still in sunshine. I had been planning to take a mountain bike track up to the top, but on my way round, I’ve realised that the ridgeline on the way up the hill is tesselated by a long line of ugly macmansions and so I’m going to make my way up there. I head uphill, the still air already hazy with woodsmoke, powering past early evening dog walkers in my rush to get to the top before dark. I’m in a race to get beyond the swiftly lengthening shadow of Makara Peak, to where the ridgeline houses are still in the sun.


I make it finally, turning into the sunlit Landsdowne Road and the macmansions. This is pillar heaven, nearly every house sporting a pair. Some are even double height. One of the houses with double height pillars has mirror glazing, while its next door neighbour has a huge chandelier hanging in the window above the front door. There are views in either direction, but none of these houses with their extra-wide frontages, garages and fences are sharing and I can see nothing. But as ostentatious as some of these houses are, and even with amazing views, I can’t think that many people would want to live up here, exposed to wind from both directions and frequently shrouded in fog. I think the council no longer allows building on ridgelines, which has to be a very good thing, although too late for much of Wright’s Hill.

As well as the language, I love the vast time periods of geology. I’ve seen it presented as a clock to help mere humans get their heads around it. If geological time were a 12 hour day, humans would only have been around for a couple of minutes, and in New Zealand, probably a matter of seconds. And yet the hills here have been hacked into for buildings and roads, exposing their layers of ancient sediments cracked through from the shifting of the earth over millenia, with no respect for their ancientness. But then, for how many more geological seconds will these houses be here?


I’m hoping there is a path somewhere at the end of the road, and so there is. It takes me onto the annoyingly circuitous Salvation MTB track, which finally deposits me at the lower car park on Wright’s Hill, just when I was starting to wonder if I was going in the wrong direction. The sun has sunk below a perfectly straight layer of cloud just above the horizon. There is a single car in the car park, its occupants watching the sunset and listening to music with the windows open.

I take the road up to the top to save time, but then in a moment of brain fade, I take a track off to the side which wasn’t the track I thought it was and I end up in a long circumnavigation of the top of Wright’s Hill which is suddenly busy with dog walkers. When I finally emerge from the bush, the sky is pink above the Orongorongo Hills. There is a hum of commuting traffic in the air and I can see a long line of vehicle tail-lights along the harbour. Because of the vegetation, you can’t see much of Karori from the top of Wright’s Hill, so I make do with the harbour view instead as I eat a bag of crisps.

As I enter the bush on the way down the hill, I’m plunged into sudden darkness and I’m glad I brought my head torch. My horizons are suddenly drastically reduced to my small circle of light on the path in front of me as I make my way downhill towards home.


Gage M (1940) The Makara and Karori Valleys and Their Bearing Upon the Physiographic History of Wellington
Karori Historical Society (2011) Karori and its people
Stevens G R (1974) Rugged Landscape: the geology of Central New Zealand
Stevens G R (1991) On shaky ground: a geological guide to the Wellington Metropolitan region