Monday, June 6, 2016

Stairway to Heaven (continued)

Looking south to Tapuenuku from the high point of the escarpment track
What's the most popular section of Te Araroa, the pathway from Cape Reinga to the Bluff?  The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, springs to mind, but a new section, the Paekakariki Escarpment, may be set to rival this.

Back in 2014, I walked the "Stairway to Heaven" south from Paekakariki along the escarpment that rears up above the railway line and the Centennial Highway. It was incomplete, but in April 2016 the trail was completed through to Pukerua Bay.

Surface pressure map, Queens Birthday Sunday
With a Queens Birthday high on the weather map, Marg and I set out to complete the trail. We got the train (which turned out to be a bus replacement) to Pukerua Bay. Marg doesn't quite yet qualify for a Gold Card but invested a Day Rover. The bus pretending to be a train took us on an interesting tour of Tawa backstreets before climbing to Pukerua Bay, cunningly giving us a 100m altitude gain for a "mainly downhill" northerly trip through to Paekakariki. Any doubts about where to go from Pukerua Bay station were dispelled by simply following the crowds of day walkers. Along Sea Vista drive on the southern side of the station, to the redundant Muri station platform, and alongside the train tracks carefully isolated by fences and warnings of the danger and fines exacted on transgressors. Soon we were on the track proper, climbing up and down gorse clad slopes.

Marg started counting steps but gave up in the hundreds, then started counting people, reckoning over a thousand for the day.

Two indented gullies are crossed on sturdy suspension bridges, circular cable structures stabilising them against gales sweeping in from Kapiti. While the track is of good standard, it's narrow and some people were clearly a bit uncomfortable on the steep slope, although scrub would likely stop any fall. The long staircases alternated with sidling across the face. I was pleased that I'd taken two poles to ease the strain on my newly irradiated hip, which gave me the excuse to slow down, alternating pole placement with foot movement. Solid pre-rusted iron girders were thrust into the ground as kilometer markers, ten in all.

At the high mid point, around 5km from each end, and 200m above the sea, we stopped for lunch at a semi circle of seats looking out to sea. Tapuenuku loomed above Pukerua Bay to the south, and the bulky smudge of Ruapehu was visible to the north. We descended on more staircases, at one stage a kārearea contouring the hillside swooped over the track metres above my head. As we crossed patches of  kohekohe forest we heard tui, and and the wingflap of the occasional kereru. The last kilometre or so was close by the railway line, then we ducked under the SH1 bridge and on to Ames St to Paekakariki, five hours from Pukerua, somewhat more than the official 3-4 hours.

A debate about whether to rush for the 2:45 "train" or wait for the 3:15 was short circuited when the bus masquerading as the train stopped in the main street to load up with escarpment walkers. So many in fact that the driver announced he didn't have the ability to collect fares so we were getting a free trip. Thanks, GWRC!

Close to major urban centre, easily accessible by public transport, with spectacular views, the Escarpment trail is likely to earn its nickname "Stairway to Heaven" and become one of the most popular sections of Te Araroa.