This is my second post about my journey following the Hutt River, Te Awa Kairangi, from where it enters Wellington Harbour, inland towards its source. In my last post I described my route from Petone to Lower Hutt CBD, as far as the shopping mall by Melling Bridge.
After Melling Bridge I follow a very long stretch walking between the river and a busy road. To my right, on the other side of the road, are muddy-looking playing fields and then a golf course. On my left, the river is out of sight behind willow trees. Every now and then there is a gap in the willows. I make a brief detour down one of these, sliding on mud tracked with duckprints, to look at the river. In between the willows grow buttercups, brambles, arum lilies, the vibrant green shades of moist ground. I stand on the pale riverstones that edge the river. It flows fast and silent. On the opposite side, beyond SH2, bush-covered hills rise steeply, dotted with houses.
The willow trees have been planted along the river to stabilise the banks and prevent the river from straying from its course. Before European settlement, the river naturally meandered over the Hutt valley, changing its course over time as a result of earthquakes, forest growth and flooding. The earthquake of 1855 raised the river bed, making the river less navigable and changing its course, as well as draining the swamps that the river meandered through. While Māori cultivated land near the river, their settlements were up in the hills, out of the way of the floods. But European settlers were hungry for the flat land by the river, initially for cultivation and later for settlement. In my last post, I described the floods in the 19th century that washed away crops, livestock, houses and even people, exacerbated by settlers clearing the dense forest that grew in the valley and surrounding hills.
The Hutt River Board started work on controlling the river at the beginning of the 20th century. Initially the Board built stopbanks and timber groynes along the river, and planted willows to prevent the stop banks being eroded. Later, flood defence works included extracting gravel to deepen the channel of the river and straightening out its kinks and meanders. The Hutt River Board documented its history in 1959, in the tellingly titled ‘The Hutt River: its history and its conquest’. But even now, the river strikes back. Earlier this week in fact, the road I’m walking along was closed after the river overflowed its banks, and cars were hastily removed from the riverside carparks in Lower Hutt.
Nowadays, the Greater Wellington Regional Council takes responsibility for the river, and has adopted a more conciliatory tone towards it. The river was given back one of its Māori names in 2011 – Te Awa Kairangi, the name given to it by the Ngai Tara who were the earliest settlers in the valley, meaning ‘esteemed’ or ‘precious’ river. When European settlers arrived, the river was called Heretaunga by the local Māori, but the settlers quickly renamed it after Sir William Hutt, a director of the New Zealand Company, who as far as I know, never even ventured to New Zealand.
Continuing along the trail, I pass a few 4WDs parked by the willows, but don’t see many people, just a few dog walkers and cyclists. I’m in a dip now, between willows and stopbanks, crossing the occasional muddy culverted stream emptying into the river.
Somewhere in this area was the farm of an early settler named William Golder. Originally from Scotland, Golder arrived on the Bengal Merchant in 1840 with other Scottish settlers. When he wasn’t farming, Golder wrote poetry. In 1867 he published a very long poem called ‘The New Zealand Survey’, accompanied by detailed notes, inspired by a view of the Hutt Valley from the ‘Mungaroa’ swamp. The poem features the Hutt river, which he calls the ‘Erratonga’ (I’m not sure whether this was a common spelling of ‘Heretaunga’ at the time), describing its sudden floods:
‘Now a great turgid torrent, raging high-pitched
Beyond all bounds, it rushes foaming on
With deaf’ning noise.’
For all his romantic and rather overblown descriptions of the natural beauty of the Hutt Valley, ‘The New Zealand Survey’ looks forward to the time when ‘civilization’s power….Must rise and conquer nature’s wildness’ and New Zealand becomes ‘the second Great Britain of the world’.
One of William Golder’s sons built the Golder Cottage further up the Hutt Valley in Wallaceville. The house, carefully preserved by a team of enthusiastic volunteers, is open on Saturday afternoons and well worth a visit.
An electricity sub-station stands on the site of the Maraenuku Pa, buzzing angrily underneath a suddenly dark sky. The pa was illegally burned down by British troops in February 1846 on the instructions of Governor Grey. The land in this part of the valley was disputed. The New Zealand Company considered that it had purchased the land from the Te Ati Awa tribe, while the Ngati Tama and Ngati Toa tribes considered that the land was never Te Ati Awa’s to sell. The burning of the Maraenuku Pa led to initially non-violent retaliation from Ngati Tama and Ngati Toa, who raided the property of the settlers in the area. A few weeks later however, a settler and his young son were killed while working on the contested land. A garrison of 50 men was established on Boulcott’s Farm nearby. On 16 May 1846, the garrison was surprised by a 200 strong war party. Six of the troops were killed, and two mortally wounded, while the war party suffered no fatal casualties. Further casualties were averted by the actions of Bugler Allen who was attacked as he attempted to raise the alarm. Bugler Allen’s heroic deed was embroidered into a rather ludicrously macabre tale that involved him swapping his bugle from body part to body part as they were successively chopped off by the attackers.
There is a memorial to the fallen on the other side of Boulcott Park golf course, but I can’t see anything to mark the pa, or its significance. In fact, I haven’t seen a single information board the whole length of the walkway so far. The only history celebrated along the river seems to be the history of engineering.
After Fairway Bridge, the trail feels more open. A flock of goldfinches swoops over a patch of yellow lupins. The river looks shallower here, with little rapids around banks of riverstones. I’m passed in a cloud of dust by a 4WD with a dog running along behind it. The 4WD is going at quite a speed. I presume the driver is exercising the dog, rather than trying to get away from it.
At Taita, I go up onto the stopbank, where I can look down on a very long road of state houses. I always notice this long line of rooftops, just visible over the stopbank when driving up SH2. It feels nice to be close to houses again, even though not many people are around.
Until the 1930s, most of the area between Melling Bridge and Taita, was used for market gardening. At least 50% of the vegetables sold in Wellington were grown in the fertile alluvial soils of the Hutt Valley. Initially, many of the market gardeners were Māori, and then Chinese gardeners moved into the area, meeting with the usual racist scaremongering about ‘celestials’ controlling the supply of vegetables. From the 1930s, the area started to be taken over by housing. Taita, along with nearby Naenae, was chosen for the large-scale development of state housing under the Fraser Labour government that came to power in 1935.
Below me, down by the river, a trail bike goes past. A few minutes later, I see the same bike heading towards me down the stopbank path, front wheel in the air, engine buzzing aggressively. There isn’t room for both of us on the narrow path. I keep walking steadily along the path towards the bike, determined not to waver, and at the last minute, it dodges around me onto the grass. I’m nearly at the end of Taita now and my legs are aching from walking on concrete. I decide to call it a day, skirting the boarded up houses of Pomare to head for the station.
Easther J (1991) The Hutt River – a modern history 1840 – 1900, Greater Wellington Regional Council
Golder W (1867) The New Zealand Survey, NZETC
Green D (2010) Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: a visitor’s guide
Millar D P (1972) Once upon a village: a history of Lower Hutt 1819-1965
NZGB (2010) Te Awa Kairangi/Hutt River Proposal Report
Treadwell C A L (1959) The Hutt River: its history and its conquest
‘No Thorough Fare. Hutt River in Flood, Melling.’ A2630 Protected 2/5/1913. Aldersley. Upper Hutt City Library Heritage Collections
Old shingle plant on Hutt river above Ewen Bridge, Lower Hutt. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/2616-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23257079
Market gardens at Taita, Evening Post 1 March 1939, Papers Past
View south over the new suburb of Taita under construction beside the Hutt River, Lower Hutt City, Wellington Region. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-07218-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/30663154