Manawatu Gorge  A brush with death or a brush with bureaucracy?

The closure of the Manawatu Gorge road is a pain for drivers…but Anthony Behrens reckons it’s a great walk through one of the region’s most dramatic places…it’s a shame about all the barriers

Footsteps of my ancestor

A slightly murky family legend has it that in the late 1800’s my great grandfather, Peder Pedersen – a baker from Oslo – walked from Norsewood, through the Manawatu Gorge and on out to Foxton, because he might have been able to get work with a relative who owned a farm there. He didn’t get a job, so walked back.

There’s no traditional heroism in this little tale. No trench warfare. No shipwreck. No mountaineering. Just a tale of a man doing what he had to, to get by.

Until I started walking long distances – hiking – this trip seemed unimaginably difficult to me, but now that I’ve got a few thousand kilometres under my feet, I can see that his journey would have been enjoyable. Yes, he probably got tired and sore. He may have been worried about his future and his tough life in Norsewood. He probably spoke little English, so many of the people he met would have seemed strange. But the journey would have been interesting, full of beauty and the chance to do some decent thinking.

A highlight of his trip would have been passing through the Manawatu Gorge on a track that would have been full of noisy birds and grand views. He may even have met some of the last Huia, fluttering on the edge of extinction. The river below would have been clean and a good thing to drink from.

The Manawatu Gorge looking eastward.

The narrow passage

The Gorge, as locals call it, is also known as Te Apiti, which translates quite nicely as “The Narrow Passage”. It sits at the geological boundary that is the meeting place of the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges.

Unusually for New Zealand this boundary features what’s known as a water gap – a place where the river that runs through it is probably older that the mountains it passes through. This fact is possibly a clue as to why it’s not a very good place to build a State Highway. The rocks have always been unstable and prone to water “damage”. The river has always dominated the land.

As a kid of the 60s and 70s, the road trip through the Manawatu Gorge was…without getting too dramatic…bloody scary. The narrow road was often littered with debris and the fence that separated it from the often raging river below was just that – a fence – a wooden thing that was painted white and seemed to be made with 4-by-1 inch railings that were often broken and dangling out over a chasm.

The last few decades have seen major widening of the road and a massive increase in the number and weight of vehicles using it. Before its recent closure, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) estimates that 7600 vehicles passed through The Gorge daily and that 1100 of these were trucks. A combination of recent major slips as well as increased and better monitoring has made it clear that viable road through The Gorge is a lost cause. The road has been closed to traffic since April 2017.

Above the road that winds its way through Te Apiti, there is a beautiful walking track. Originally cut by a local tramping club in the days when clubs did that sort of thing, it’s now one of the country’s most popular walks. DoC’s track counter is broken at the moment, but like NZTA, they have some estimates – about 60,000 trips are taken over at least part of its 8kms annually. To put this into perspective, the Tongariro Crossing has an estimated 130,000 users a year.

Like the State Highway below, the Manawatu Gorge Track is prone to closures and big slips, but it’s very well serviced. It has plenty of carparks and toilets at either end as well as one in the middle. The bush it passes through is beautiful subtropical rainforest that is really starting to come back to life now that there is a good pest management system in place. The undergrowth is lush and there is an explosion of young Nikau palms making their way to the light above. Riflemen, tomtits, cuckoos, kereru, bellbirds and tui are constant company. Night walking there involves dodging weta on the track as they go about their business of avoiding ruru. Compared to most of the Manawatu and Tararua area it’s an ecological and tourism hotspot.

My partner Fiona and I, as well as hundreds of other Palmerstonians, regularly “do” the gorge walk for fitness and a coffee at one of the nicest, but often slowest, eateries in the country – the Ballance Cafe on the Woodville end of the walk.

That was our plan the other week. A couple of hours in the bush. A coffee and cake at the cafe. A walk back to the Ashhurst carpark.

Until we got nosy.

Road closed. The new-look Manawatu Gorge.

Fence? What fence?

The sign on the gate at the Ashhurst end of the gorge states Road Closed. Simple. We climbed under it and walked on as there was nothing to tell us that we couldn’t walk on. A couple of hundred metres along the road is another more flimsy wire fence that is obviously designed to stop walkers. As we approached the fence we expected a government authorised sign telling us that we were likely to die if we were to continue along the now-deserted highway. There was a board with glue on it, but no warnings. There was also a trampled path that went between the fence and the cliff.

Being goody-goodies, we felt a little guilty as we slipped around the wire and started walking along the quiet road.

The day was clear and blue. The wind fresh. As we headed in, the beautiful green Manawatu River pretended to be clean below and we were met with birdsong. Bellbirds called each other across the valley. Kereru swooped over us. Those birds you always see on tramping tracks and beaches that are either skylarks or pipits (pīhoihoi) walked and fluttered tauntingly in front of us, picking at insects as they went. Empty and uncrushed snail shells littered the tarseal.

Danger! Slip!

We walked past and over boulders, rocks and a few slips. The largest one isn’t really a big slip, but it has buggered the cantilevered road that juts out above the river below. We’d been told by a mountain biker that there was a worn trail over it, but I’d call it a vague route, not a trail. I’d be cautious walking over it in heavy rain as I would be walking over slips in Te Ruahine or any other mountainous area.

As we went further in, the wind got stronger. We toyed with the idea of climbing down to the water and going for a swim, but the white tops on the surface made it look a bit unpleasant.

At one stage an RNZAF helicopter flew in. Its loud and sudden thrum was unnerving and sounded like the start of a massive rock slide. Once we saw it was the Government, our fear changed mode.

We had been caught! “They” were coming to get us! Oh no!

It ignored us.

The view below.

Still feeling ever-so-slightly guilty and vulnerable, we walked on along the river side of the road. We were mindful of falling rocks, but occasionally approached the cliffs for a drink of the water that poured from drilled holes or off small waterfalls.

Back to nature. The slow process begins.

Plants are already making their way up through cracks in the road and one of New Zealand’s most obnoxious invaders, Old Man’s Beard, is crawling across the previously impassable highway towards the “native” side. We’d never really noticed the Rata, flaming red, on the side of the road and high above it as we had driven through The Gorge countless times before. Walking opens the eyes to the world in a way driving never can.

About 5k’s in, we were met by a couple of kayakers making their way down the river against strong winds. We later found out that they were ignoring very large danger signs that warned water users of possible death from above (massive slips). We excitedly waved, but were greeted with indifference.

“Walkers. Pfff.”

Watch out for bogans! Before proper gates were installed, the munted Manawatu Gorge was a cool place to party

And then it was over.

Seven kilometres isn’t long on a flat, quiet road and we’d walked it in about half the time it takes to walk the track above. Our adventure seemed all too short, but it was hot and we were ready for a swim. The Ferry Reserve at the entrance to Te Apiti is undergoing what could at first sight be described as a serious Freedom Camping makeover. The bush, previously open to grazing sheep, has been fenced off and replanted. Toilets have been installed and there is a new shelter. But dig a little deeper (ie read the copious signs) and it’s clear that there’s something else going on.

A new beginning. One of eight whare sits waiting to be opened at the head of Te Apiti.

Tu Te Manawa is a project that aims to reconnect local iwi with the river. Better biodiversity management and a much more inclusive historical “re-alignment” of the river and its people is well underway. When we arrived, one in a series of eight new and ornately decorated whare sat draped in cloth waiting to be “unveiled”. The eight whare will sit at culturally important sites along the river to help us all reconnect with the awa.

The river was cool, and clean in a Manawatu River sort of way. The Horizons Council website gave the Ferry Reserve an Amber warning for Blue Green Algae the day we and several others swam there. We cooled off but didn’t put our heads under. We connected with the awa, in the most intimate way possible without drinking it. At the time of writing I am still feeling fine.

Two other walkers make their way back to Ashhurst on a perfect day.

The phone call and the lawyers

The NZTA guy on the other end of the phone didn’t sound happy. I’d just told him that I’d ignored the fences and signs that blocked our way into the gorge and that I planned to write a story about our wonderful trip.

The following is based on my memory of the conversation…these weren’t the actual words uttered, but should hopefully paint a vaguely accurate picture of the conversation.

“What did you do that for? Why would anyone go out of their way to climb around those fences? They are there for your safety!” He said once he gathered himself.

News that there was no sign telling me not to was greeted with disbelief.

“There was a sign there two days ago when I was last there!” he exclaimed.

“There’s not one there now,” I replied.

“There was a sign there two days ago when I was last there!”

“It seems that someone has pulled it off and thrown it over the edge,” I responded in a rather pathetic attempt at an excuse. “There is just a blank board that’s covered in glue.”

Skirting the fence at the Ballance end of the gorge.

“But it must have been clear that you shouldn’t go in! The fence is a pretty obvious sign in itself!”

I imagined that he was probably swearing inside. On the outside he handled it all very professionally.

Our phone call finished well. I apologised and promised to email him some formal questions which I did. He promised to pass them onto his legal team for a response.

And here it is…

“The Gorge is currently closed pursuant to section 61(4)(i) of the Government Roading Act 1989. This means that no person is permitted on the road and to go on the closed portion of SH3 in the Gorge road is an offence.”

Here is Section 61(4)(i) of the Government Roading Act:

61: Powers and duties of Agency in relation to State highways

4: The Agency shall have power to do all things necessary to construct and maintain in good repair any State highway, and in particular, but without limiting any power conferred on the Agency elsewhere in this Act, to do the following things:

(i) to close to traffic any State highway, or any part of it, for such period as the Agency considers necessary to execute repairs or to remove any obstruction.

Hmmm. No person is permitted on the road and to go on the closed portion of SH3 in the Gorge road is an offence under that section of the act? Really?

The Queen’s Highways and the laws that protect them

Having a queen has its downsides, but it also has a few benefits. New Zealanders don’t have the same liberal access to their land as the Brits, but we did manage to keep some rights of access after New Zealand got carved up to grow sheep, beef and dairy. One of those rights is the right to pass over public roads, also known as the Queen’s or King’s Highways. This means that unless a road is closed by statute it is always considered a road and therefore a place where people can walk.

“When a road has once been made or has become a public road, the right of the public to use it as a public road continues forever unless it has been legally stopped by process of law, for “once a highway, always a highway”.

ROADING LAW AS IT APPLIES TO UNFORMED ROADS – B.E. Hayes

I’m not sure that the act that the NZTA directed me to is notice of an actual closure. Nor does it seem to apply to walkers. The sign that we read at the Ballance end of the Gorge from roading contractor Higgins was no more instructive. Private contractors are good at fixing roads, but I’m not sure that they have the right to ban people from public land. True, under the Health and Safety Act, which wasn’t quoted on the sign, they can bar people from workplaces, but the Manawatu Gorge is no longer a workplace. It’s considered too dangerous and has been abandoned. There are no trucks, bulldozers or diggers to endanger people.

I am picking that NZTA are well within their rights to limit vehicular access to any road at almost any time if this snippet from their website is accurate:

While the common law courts developed detailed rules about the rights of people on foot, riding animals or driving animal-drawn vehicles to use roads, they never had to deal with motor vehicles. In a 1981 case (Brader v Ministry of Transport [1981] 1 NZLR 73 at 78, 84), the New Zealand Court of Appeal rejected a claim that the law gave individuals an absolute right to use motor vehicles, stating that the ‘liberty to drive’ is not a natural right and that even the provisions in the legislation imposed restrictions and obligations, rather than granting rights. The court commented further in 1994 (R v Jefferies [1994] 1 NZLR 290, at 296) that there is no traditional approach of the common law to motor vehicles.

It seems to my feeble and untrained legal mind, that driving on a road is a privilege not a god-given right and that walking on a road, if not a god-given right, is the next best thing, a Queen given one.

“In New Zealand as in England, “…a public highway is a public right of way… Though the highway is sometimes described as the Queen’s Highway, this refers to the right of all subjects to pass over it and not to any rights of ownership in the Crown”

ROADING LAW AS IT APPLIES TO UNFORMED ROADS – B.E. Hayes

I’m no libertarian. I believe that good and strong government is vital for a healthy country and its citizens. But I also believe that there are certain rights that we have as citizens that shouldn’t be taken away from us by well-meaning yet risk-averse government departments. Public access to public roads that form part of the Queen’s Highway network is one of those important rights.

Ironically most of these rights of access have been taken off us by design, not law. Walkers (and cyclists) are allowed to use any New Zealand highway (not including motorways) yet thousands of kilometres of our roading network are simply too dangerous to walk or cycle on. Most of New Zealand’s country roads have no space to walk at all. Many country roads are hemmed in with ditches, fences and embankments that make walking for the faint-hearted and less-than-nimble impossible – yet public law that is hundreds of years old seems to guarantee a right of passage.

Now let’s say that the government in its wisdom has legally closed The Gorge road to all users by declaring that the road is no longer a road. In this case I would have to ask “what is it then?”

I suggest that we keep it simple. It really is just Te Apiti.

Te Apiti looking north.

Where to from here?

Should you walk it?

I may be mad enough to walk the SUPER DANGEROUS Manawatu Gorge road, but I’m not stupid enough to tell you that you should!

Is it safer to walk the Manawatu Gorge on the State Highway Formally Known as “3” now, than it was before the closure?

Warning! Dodgy maths!
Of course it is! It’s 7599 times safer to walk it now that 1100 trucks and 6500 cars have stopped travelling it daily. I have taken the total of 7600 possible daily impacts down to 7599 to take into account the risk of a slip killing a walker.

Notwithstanding the risk of death, is it a great walk with a small “g”?

I’d give it 11 out of 10. It’s an amazing chance to see Te Apiti making a comeback.

Made it out alive!

Why did we walk it?

Road and track closures like the Manawatu Gorge road, and the Pinnacles Track in the Coromandel, seem to be more about the imagined legal safety of the government organisations that are responsible for their administration than the safety of walkers. There seem to be worries that foreign tourists are particularly vulnerable to death by misadventure –  a bad news story and threat to our tourist trade.

As a New Zealander, I believe that we have a right to walk on public land and that a sliding and random scale of perceived public risk without any logical, consistent and quantifiable measurement of that risk is ridiculous. For example are any of these closed tracks and roads more dangerous than crossing the Sawtooth Range in the Ruahine? Climbing Aoraki? Ascending Taranaki? Walking Te Araroa from Whanganui to Turakina on State Highway 3?

An act of nature has meant that the mighty Manawatu Gorge, Te Apiti, is safer to walk than it has been for decades. For the first time in over one hundred years a Pederson has walked the road. We should all have the right to experience one of the most beautiful features that Manawatu has.

Are we idiots for doing it?

Of course we are. What do you expect – we’re trampers.

Wilderlife