When it was announced last year that the Transmission Gully motorway was going ahead, I came up with the idea of walking along the route of the new road before the diggers moved in, to experience the landscape of the gully on foot before it was irrevocably altered.
The Transmission Gully motorway forms part of the rather bombastically-named ‘Wellington Northern Corridor Road of National Significance’*. When it is built, it will run for 27km between the suburb of Tawa on the outskirts of Wellington, to rejoin the existing SH1 road just north of the coastal settlement of Paekakariki.
When I contacted NZTA at the beginning of the year, they gave me a brief window of permission to walk part of the route, from Paekakariki to Battle Hill Forest Park, before geotechnical assessment work began, and were very helpful in giving me route directions and advice. I’m generally a solitary walker, but they suggested I should walk the route with someone else because of a lack of cellphone coverage, and so I brought my partner along on his first long walk after a knee operation a couple of months before.
We begin our walk with a slow train journey up the coast to Paekakariki, followed by a welcome coffee and a less welcome short walk up the side of SH1. We turn off the road past an ancient-looking wooden farm building. Beyond the farm building, a small black cat is heroically dragging a dead rabbit at least as big as itself. The few houses nearby all look empty, security company signs in the windows.
We sign in for the walk in a shipping container as NZTA has requested, and then set off up a twisting farm track, crossing and recrossing the shallow Te Puka stream, through groves of regenerating bush. Shiny-leaved kohekohe are heavy with fruit. The shade feels welcome after the heat of the sun on the highway.
I’ve been told to look out for a brick fuel tank structure dating from WWII, but completely forget until we must be long past it. The fuel tank was presumably used by US marines stationed in this area. The marines supposedly offered to build the Transmission Gully Road for nothing (as opposed to the current estimated cost of around $1bn), but their offer was turned down. However, it turns out that this story may just be an urban myth. Whether true or not, building an inland road through Transmission Gully as an alternative to the coastal road has been talked about since at least 1919.
As we climb steadily up towards the Wainui Saddle, the bush gives way to open grass-covered hills rising steeply on either side, dotted with groves of bush. Up above us on our left is a large pine plantation, and behind us, a glimpse of the coast. The fly-through videos on the NZTA website give an idea of the steepness of the valley sides. I presume the banks on either side of the road will need to be reinforced especially if the road is to meet one of its stated objectives – that of providing a safe route out of Wellington in the event of a major earthquake.
The road proposal has attracted a fair bit of controversy, particularly over the costs and benefits, and also about the practicality of the route – the Eye of the Fish blog has been doing an excellent job of stimulating discussion about this and also about the proposals for various ‘link roads’ through peaceful valleys that have suddenly popped up. The ‘new roads equals economic growth’ argument makes me feel very tired, but on the other hand, Wellington only has two rather fragile roads connecting it with the rest of the North Island. If the Transmission Gully road means that in the event of a major earthquake, New World lorries carrying supplies of toilet paper and peanut butter to the citizens of Wellington can still get through, that has to be a good thing, surely. But what do I know? There has been quite a bit of comment in particular about the climb up to the Wainui Saddle, and it certainly feels steep on foot.
Transmission Gully is named because of the transmission towers marching up over the saddle and down the other side, but it seems an appropriate name for a road in a way, with its sense of transferring things from one place to another. But, maybe transmission implies something faster than road traffic – more akin to the speed of broadcast signals, or power through the lines. A bullet train maybe. Transmission Gully makes me think of the David Bowie song ‘TVC 15’ on ‘Station to Station’, where he sings ‘transition, transmission, transition, transmission’. It’s about transmission in the sense of a TV rather than a journey, but the idea of transition fits well with the notion of a road – and a landscape too, that is in transition or will be soon. But Station to Station…I’m still thinking a bullet train would be better. Tawa to Paekakariki in 6 minutes, as opposed to the 31 minutes the journey currently takes.
As we near the top of the saddle, the pine plantations give way to dense native bush studded with tree ferns and the odd podocarp rising above the canopy. At this point, the road will cut through the very edge of the Akatawara Forest. The planned route of the road has been amended to preserve this area of bush and has also been changed to reduce its impacts on the streams we are following, although several kilometres of streams will need to be realigned all the same. The road will require no less than 112 stream crossings along its length.
We have startled a small herd of cattle on a side track on the other side of the stream. Several cows with calves, accompanied by a bull, run onto the main track and trot ahead of us, the stragglers at the back occasionally stopping to look back at us before moving smartly on. We follow them at a distance, trying to avoid the newly spattered cowshit on the track. At the saddle, the cows reach a gate blocking their way and veer off along another track.
We stop for lunch on the other side of the gate, enjoying the feeling of being up high. It occurs to me that it’s not often that we walk for any distance in open farmland like this, which is odd really given that most of the walking I used to do in the UK was through farmland of one kind or another. Here, most of our non-urban walks are through bush. We’ve both been struck by how the walk so far has reminded us of walking in theYorkshire or Derbyshire Dales, back in the UK.
We continue on downhill, following the line of transmission towers. Any buzzing from the lines is drowned out by the chirping of the cicadas. We’re following the Horokiwi stream now, studded with clumps of bright green watercress. I pick some and eat it – perfectly peppery and crisp. The valley descends much more gently on this side, gradually opening out. There are clumps of toitoi on the hill slopes above us and there are birds everywhere. Pukekos stalk along the margins of the pine plantations, every now and then taking flight, which surprises me because I didn’t know they could fly. Little flocks of brown birds peck on the track, flying off before we get close enough to identify them, while swallows swoop acros the valley. We keep seeing groups of spur-winged plover with their repetitive calls, shrill and mournful.
I didn’t expect to see so many birds, and the walk so far has been much more attractive than I expected. I’d read a summary of the environmental assessment for the road which describes the landscape, rather dismissively, as ‘highly modified by human activity’ and I was expecting scrubby gorse-covered hillsides and dusty fields, pocked with hoof-prints. I do think that in New Zealand, ‘modified’ as opposed to pristine, landscapes tend not to be valued, unlike in Europe where most landscapes have been modified by centuries, if not millenia of human activity. I think again of the very highly-valued Yorkshire Dales, cleared of trees as far back as the Bronze Age.
It’s odd too to think that the next time we see this valley, it will probably be behind the wheel of a car, although it will be several years before the road is complete. There are apparently plans for a cycle and walking route along the streams but I’m not sure I’d want to walk close by such a busy road. Hopefully though, the route will at least provide a safer cycle route in and out of Wellington than currently exists.
We climb a deer fence and walk through long golden meadow grass, watched from a distance by a large herd of deer, who take off, leaping away from us. Up above us, on the crest of a hill, is a digger, the first sign of human life since we turned off SH1. In the next paddock we see the first signs of works for the new road, posts marking out a new gravelled track. We stop for a snack and are joined by the driver of the digger, who has jumped into his ute and driven down the hill to check we aren’t poaching his deer. Once he is satisfied that we are not, we have a long chat. He agrees that the valley is beautiful, but is philosophical about the road. It’s progress, he says, the road is needed and the valley is an obvious place to put it.
We climb another deer fence, and then realise we are in Battle Hill Forest Park, sooner than we expected, but maybe not too soon, because as the valley opens out we notice that the sky to the south is dark with the rain that wasn’t forecast until evening. Transmission Gully continues out through the other side of the park, but I only have permission to walk it as far as here and so we turn away from the gully and out to the Paekakariki Hill Road where the rain suddenly arrives.
Thanks to NZTA for giving me permssion to walk the route.
*For an extended riff on this concept, and some great writing about following SH1 out of Wellington, check out Alf Rune’s ‘notional significance’