Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Escarpment Walkway - a new challenge on Te Araroa

Local walkers are out in their hundreds walking the new escarpment track between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay, which is great news for Paekakariki cafes and the shops in Pukerua Bay. The new track allows Te Araroa walkers (people walking the length of New Zealand) to avoid a long pavement walk alongside busy traffic on Centennial Highway. Instead they climb many, many steps up to about 220m and walk above the traffic and railway line. The views from the track on a good day, are stunning, with the South Island off to the distance and Kapiti Island much closer. Bits of Te Araroa are popular day walks and this will surely become one that many (but not all - see below under vertigo!) Wellington walkers will enjoy.

From Paekakariki the track climbs up to the lookout with Kapiti Island behind in the distance
Looking back to Kapiti
at the lookout there are views beyond Pukerua Bay to the South Island,
View south from the lookout
and as you move closer, of the cosy village of Pukerua Bay.
Pukerua Bay

I walked the first half of the track from Paekakariki a year or so ago, but as the second half was not yet open we had to return the way we'd come. Then on April 9 this year the second half opened, allowing people to walk right through. So much publicity went into the opening event that over 1000 people turned up to walk the track on opening day.
The scar of the new track in the hillside and road below
It's a feat of engineering, with narrow tracks and carefully placed steps, a few swing bridges and some great look out points. Along the way there is much evidence of the success of the Ngā Ururoa group who are working hard at tree planting, tree care and pest control. The vision is that one day the escarpment will be returned to a delightful coastal forest. For now the walker can enjoy some outstanding remnants, lovely kohekohe and other bush form pockets in the gullies, the song of tui, grey warblers and fantails can be heard. At the Paekakariki end it is worth doing the additional Kohekohe loop track through a remnant forest.

But all this natural beauty doesn't remove the fact that for now much of the walk is through grass, with gorse and other weeds needing control, especially in the newer part of the track. It requires some imagination to see this as a 'stairway to heaven' as the media have dubbed this. Te Araroa news use the term 'devil's staircase' which seems more apt!

There are lots of warnings to read on the Te Araroa site too. The do's and don'ts of where to park, what to take, who should not walk this section etc

A signpost near Pukerua Bay - 9 kms still to go
Some media articles incorrectly state there are 500 steps - what bit of the walk were they doing?! It is much more like 1500 steps to be traversed.

Do you suffer from vertigo or just feel uncomfortable with heights? Then this walk is probably NOT for you. I'm in the 'uncomfortable with heights' (or rather 'with vertical drops') category and it took considerable mental concentration for me to complete the whole of the new walkway between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay. I wasn't alone, several people along the track where surprised to find this aspect of the walk harder than they'd expected, one - a builder - told me he thought he'd be fine as he was used to working on scaffolds.

Here are a few tricks if you embark on this walk thinking you'll be okay and then find yourself feeling challenged by the drop off down to the railway tracks and road below. These worked for me:
  • Keep your eyes on the track but at the furthermost side from the drop. 
  • If possible follow someone else (who isn't struggling with this problem), keep you eyes focussed on their heels.
  • Stop occasionally in places where you can sit well back from the drop and look out to the horizon.
  • Approach this as a mindfulness exercise, focus on the detail that can you see on the bank next to you.
  • Count the steps!
Ironically the two swing bridges are among the best bits - because they have sides - who cares if they swing a bit.
Looking into a gully from a swing bridge
If you don't have problems with heights this is a great new walk - it takes about 3-4 hours to complete one way, depending on how many stops you have along the way, enjoying the views and the patches of bush. 

It's easily accessible from either Pukerua Bay or Paekakariki railway stations - take the train one way and walk the other way

Some useful links:
Te Araroa advice for walkers -
About Ngā Ururoa conservation project -