Friday, 30 January 2009

Little River Rail Trail II

This Saturday just passed, I took my second outing on the Little River Rail Trail. Since my first visit in June 2006, the original route west of Motukarara has been extended another 3 km into the terminal township, and another section from Prebbleton to Lincoln, consisting of a sealed pathway paralleling the actual rail route, has also opened in full. My focus today is on Motukarara – Little River, and starts with my arrival at M by car and getting ready to set off on the 24 km ride to LR. Motukarara now boasts the original station building, albeit on a site 900 metres south of its original location, and a length of track with a couple of wagons on it. Today in the hot summer sun, the trail surface is dry and poses little resistance; the first time, winter rains made it sticky and slippery. Still, I’m not able to get up as much speed as on a sealed road.

Setting out from Motukarara, every few minutes I stop to photograph some point of interest, such as a curve, or a bridge, or some other geographic feature of the line. This makes for slow riding; in the first hour I only cover 9 km.  With the GPS along, I don’t bother recording anything else; later at home, the computer will match the GPS timestamps to photos automatically and so create a pictorial trail of the journey (which you can view here). It is a very hot day and I am well covered in clothing and sunscreen. Another nice little touch alongside the line is the milepegs, full miles, halves and quarters, here and there. This line was never metricated, after all. Just after the first bend out of Mot, we encounter the first of numerous bridges. Most of these are on the original alignment, using the original abutments or in some cases new concrete ones. We have now turned almost due south and are continuing for the moment as a slightly raised embankment in rolling open country with the main road some distance away but gradually converging, and at the 11 mile peg we are briefly alongside. Nearby at Seabridge Road, we have the first public access to the trail since leaving Motukarara. Soon we turn south-east, meeting the highway again on a bend, and cross a stream with old piles in the waterway.

We are now on the shores of Lake Ellesmere, where the stone-faced embankment has been a distinctive feature of the landscape for more than 100 years. Up till now, all the bridges have been narrow one-way affairs, but a few km further on, we encounter the only such structure that is the full width of the embankment. Perhaps this is the case because it is largely a deck on top of the original superstructure/substructure, which appears to have been left mostly intact when the line closed. Soon the dry lakebed resembles mudflats; the tide is out, so to speak. Further on, at another meeting place with the highway, we reach Kaituna, our first station since Motukarara and almost 8 km from it. The trail deviates around the station site which is on road reserve and still includes remains of a loading bank. Just past the 13 mile peg we come to the unusual Kaituna inlet bridge, which is a humped structure to raise the trail above the waterway, probably to allow navigation. Very soon the view is dominated by a raised mound of rock on the horizon. We have reached the Kaituna quarry, where the stone pitching that protects the embankment in these parts was broken down from big rocks with explosive blasting. Clearly there was a siding here as the curved embankment and remains of sleepers show. The quarry also yields the remains of a number of old rail wagons, which evidently were pushed into the siding in some long distant past era and burned when their useful life had come to an end. Two small brick huts were formerly used to store explosives; the more accessible of the pair turns out to have a large cloud of wasps surrounding it, so I beat a hasty retreat back to the trail.
The lake continues as a dominant feature of the local landscape until we pass another meeting place of the highway, then the longest bridge on this entire trail, and eventually turn north-east at the Birdlings Flat township turnoff. Here also is the eponymous station with its old loading bank still present. We are now heading in the direction of Lake Forsyth, but still have to pass over several concrete culverts, the first such structures we have encountered so far. Passing the 17 mile peg we are soon alongside the lake, which will be our companion all the way to Catons Bay, a public roadside rest area and the original 2006 terminus of the rail trail. The embankment winds its way in and out alongside the lake, more or less following the shoreline, and in parts closely sandwiched by water on one side and asphalted highway on the other. The first trees of sufficient size to provide meaningful shade are a welcome feature of this part of the trail. After stopping to photograph a few flocks of black swans, I am soon at Catons Bay. Here we have travelled some two-thirds of the length of the lake and soon pass its head another kilometre on. In this last part of the trail there are a few rises and dips, and several deviations when we are getting too close to the road. The main challenge faced in completing this section has been the old level crossing near the Little River Hotel; in a 100 km/h section of highway, it makes things quite dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Eventually after a lot of discussion, a “temporary” deviation has been constructed to continue the trail on the south side of the highway, rejoining the original route after 750 metres.

Today I choose to cross the highway, very carefully, and then follow the original embankment until it gets too far from the road, then go back across and onto the trail, which follows a stream bank around to Wairewa Pa Road and an easier/safer crossing of the highway in a 70 km/h zone. From here I ride along the highway a short distance and then turn off down Barclays Road to ride alongside the original formation past the recycling depot and down to the Little River Station. The original buildings were retained by Banks Peninsula Council after the line closed, and are still standing today. The locals and the Rail Trail Trust have laid some bits of track and mounted restored items of rolling stock on them. Here my ride comes to an end, after 24 km and nearly three hours. I think that the “temporary” extension is most useful and should become permanent. After I meet up with my ride, we are soon on our way back to Christchurch. Some way past Motukarara, the embankment trails off into the distance while the road route pulls rapidly away. This section promises to be another interesting ride and I trust that the project to reopen it to the public is making good headway.