One never knows what the day holds. A ride on the Rimutaka Cycle Trail seemed like a benign enough way to spend a day, but we were in for a rather large surprise.
After spending the last three months in Auckland, we have packed up and are heading to the South Island for a few weeks. On route, we stopped for three days to visit the New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, which sits at the southern tip of the North Island, before taking the ferry to the South. After spending a rainy day yesterday touring museums, doing a bit of shopping and visiting Wellington’s iconic Beehive parliament building, we decided to do some cycling today.
The Rimutaka Cycle Trail, one of the top rides in New Zealand, starts at the outskirts of Wellington, making it a popular and accessible trail. The whole trail is 115 kilometers, offering 2 or 3 days of riding. We started 40 kilometers from Wellington near the town of Maymorn and ending at Cross Creek, a total of 35 kilometers out and back on the trail. It was to be a fairly relaxing Sunday afternoon ride.
Like our ride a few weeks back on the Hauraki Rail Trail, this ride runs along an abandoned rail line. (If you missed the Hauraki Rail Trail ride, check it out here.) The Rimutaka Railway, built in the 1870’s was part of the government’s plan to build a national railway system to link rural areas to the port of Wellington. Bordering the Pakuratahi River, it was once the primary rail line from Wellington into the Wairarapa Region, a sheep farming and wine region just beyond Wellington. The original plan was to build a tunnel through the Rimutaka Range but this proved too costly. As a temporary measure, the Rimutaka Railway was built to cross over the top of the range, with a few shorter tunnels where needed. In the end, the rail line operated for 77 years before the long-imagined Rimutaka Tunnel which is 8.8 kilometers long, was opened in 1955, making this track obsolete. The new tunnel, at one section, runs 116 meters beneath the cycle trail. If a train passes by, it is possible to feel the earth move. In a country prone to earthquakes, signage warns the rider of this, lest they imagine that it is an earthquake.
The first section of the rail line (and the cycle trail) is uphill to the summit, across a flat section and then downhill on a steep descent into Cross Creek. The descent called the Rimutaka Incline was an engineering challenge. A specially designed system called the Fell System after its inventor, John Barraclough Fell, used horizontally mounted wheels to grip a central rail rather than a conventional two track rail line. It was one of only three Fell systems in the world. (The Fell Locomotive Museum in nearby Featherston provides a history of the rail system, if you’re a big fan of trains.)
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited the region on their 1953-54 Royal Tour, stopping at the Kaitoke Station, not far from where our ride for today started.
As we have seen on other rail trail rides, there is a chance to cycle through some rail tunnels. Unlike the Hauraki Rail Trail, the tunnels here are not lit, making for an uncomfortable journey at times. We had the light of our cellphones to illuminate the tunnels for us, which proved to be grossly inadequate. Luckily, on the way home, we happened to pass through the longest tunnel when better-prepared riders were passing through as well and we were able to share the light from their “torches,” as they are called in New Zealand.
The ride is well posted with plaques every few kilometers providing a historical narrative about the region and the rail line.
I’ve noticed in New Zealand how physically active people are. I was reminded of this again today when I saw families with young children out riding the trail. From the car park to the Summit Village is 10 kilometers of uphill, gravel-road riding, yet there were families out for Sunday fun. I doubt I could have convinced my kids to do that when they were under the age of 10 but many were making the ride today. The reward was a picnic and exploring the remnants of the Summit Village at their turnaround point.
The Summit Village was a remote settlement for railway workers and their families consisting of five homes, an engine shed and a signal office.
Historic photos at the site show a well-dressed railway employee manning the signals and the layout of the Summit yards in their heyday. Abandoned in 1955 when the new Rimutaka Tunnel opened, the Summit now has deteriorated to a collection of rusted-out engines which serves as a makeshift “playground” for riders.
Just Beyond the Summit Village, as we enter Horseshoe Gully, the real fun begins. The rail bridge that in the past crossed the gully is gone. A single support remains as a sentinel overlooking the landscape.
The trail on either side of the gully isn’t passable by bike because of its steepness and loose rock. It’s necessary to dismount and walk the trail. Fortunately, there are signs warning us of this. At the bottom, there is a small stream to clamber across. Once we are up the other side of the gully, we are assaulted with gale-force winds pushing us from behind. A sign post tells us we have reached Siberia, so named by the railway workers because of the severe winds that blast through here.
I quote from the information post at Siberia.
The only fatal train accident ever to occur on the Rimutaka Incline happened at Siberia. On October 11, 1880, a gust of wind hit the train broadside, pitching three carriages over the embankment. Four children died as a result of the accident, and several other passengers were injured.
‘The vehicles hanging like a string of huge beads to the engine, which, by the grip of its Fell machinery on the middle rail, still sturdily maintained its place on the metals…”
Charles Rous-Martin, The Railway Magazine (England), 1899
I really, really wish I had been warned about this before I crossed through Horseshoe Gully to Siberia to begin the ride down the far side of the incline! The winds are like none I have experienced before. I rode slowly down the incline with my hands pressing hard on the brakes. The force of the wind at my back coupled with the force of gravity made it hard to slow my pace. The trail was narrow and rocky and I stood on my pedals, flexing my knees to absorb some of the shock from the bounce of the path. Panicking, I dismounted my bike, holding tight on the handle bars. I began walking beside my bike. Though the path is amply wide, I am flush against the mountainside and the bike was at my side, closer to the edge of the ravine. In an instant, the wind grabbed my rear wheel, lifting it fully in the air and spinning it 180 degrees around me as I fought to hold on. I screamed instinctively. Dennis, who was riding ahead, heard my scream above the roar of the wind and turned around to find me astride my bike but facing in the opposite direction, pointing up hill.
Shaken, we considered whether we should continue on to the end of the trail, likely another two kilometers downhill, when what I assumed was a family of a dad and three late-teenage kids rode by, as if encased in a cocoon of calm air, utterly unfazed by the forceful winds. Ah, the intrepid Kiwi! Worried about continuing in the high wind, I convinced Dennis that we should head back. We made a careful but hasty retreat back into the relative calm of the gully and then back up the other homeward side.
Once we were there, I realized that it would be hard to convey how ferocious the wind really was. The solution? This tiny video taken on the sheltered side of the gully! Needs some serious editing and some better camera work, but I think you’ll get the idea.
Kim: It’s really windy.
Kim: I said this is very, very windy. It actually blew my bike over.
Pause in the dialogue.
Kim: Stop now.
Heading back to the car park, it was mostly down hill. Once we are there, the excitement of the Horseshoe Gully and our brush with the winds of Siberia have receded in my mind.
Rimutaka is believed to be derived from the Māori word for “to sit down” or a place to rest. Today, the Rimutaka was anything but. I usually like to end my blog posts with the line “Another great day, courtesy of my bike.” Today, a more fitting ending is “Another memorable day, courtesy of my bike” because I am not convinced it was a great day but it certainly will be a memorable one.