Monday, November 15, 2010

Featherston, NZ: The Rumataka Incline

On the advice of numerous cyclists and other sage travelers, we avoided New Zealand's Highway 1 as it slices down the southern half of the  North Island.  We heard it would be like cycling down Interstate 5 of California -- lots of trucks, with the New Zealand touch of narrow bridges and minimal shoulders.  So our route went down Highway 2 instead, a route barely traveled by tourists (I counted zero camper vans for three days).  A very rural stretch dominated by dairy farms, we found ourselves in Eketahuna. We spent two nights there, unanticipated, due to misty rain.  It turns out the town is located in a microclimate that traps moisture as it comes over the mountains, and if we had just gone 10 kilometers south over a pass, we would have had sun and warmth.  One quote we heard was we could grow old waiting for the rain to stop in Eketahuna.

As we headed south, we heard over and over about the Rimutaka Grade, about a steep, curvy road with heavy winds, unsafe for cyclists.  But an Internet search of other bike tourists that had past this way confirmed the dangers, we began looking for an alternative.  One was to buy a train ticket and ride over the pass.  But the more intriguing alternative was to follow the trace of the old rail grade, the Rimutka Incline, which has since been converted to a bike and walkway path.

A mandatory stop was at the museum in Featherston where the only remaining Fell engine is housed.  The Rumutaka Incline railway was constructed in 1877, and was the link between the harbour of Wellington and the agricultural valleys over the mountain range to the northeast.  Because the incline had grades of 1 to 13 in some sections, too steep for normal steam engines, it required a special engine design.  Even today rail grades are seldom greater than 1 to 30.  The Fell engine was used continuously until 1955.  The unique design used a third center rail for extra grip on the uphill and braking on the down.  Read all about it here -- it is a fascinating history. 

Oiling the old engine -- it still runs and they fired it up while we were there.

Old photos covered the walls in the museum.  This one shows the turn with constructed fencing in the area named Siberia.  It was added after a train was blown off the tracks due to high winds.

The rail trail was 17 kilometers from end to end, and there was campsites along the way.  So we planned an overnighter and filled up with provisions as we headed to the Incline.

I doubt that steam engines still cross here, but it is a romantic thought.
It was a beautiful sunny day, with puffy clouds on the horizon.  It was only 7 kilometers up to the high point they call the Summit, and that was our destination.  But the first two kilometers of the trail turned out to be just a narrow walking path through the forest along a creek, which we had to push our bikes along the whole way.  So we opted to camp at Cross Creek at the bottom of the grade, and the site of the old railway station.

Crossing the bridge at the end of the trail to Cross Creek station site.

Information posts were situated at points of historical interest all along the path.

Remnants of the old turnstile where standard trains coming up the flat valley were turned around after switching their cargo cars to the Fell engines, which would carry the cars to the Summit station.

Troughs where trains would be serviced -- brakes were replaced after every descent, they wore out so quickly.

We had the Cross Creek campsite to ourselves.  There was a small shelter with benches.
We were full of anticipation of the ascent the next day.  From Cross Creek we would follow the gravel rail bed, and we fully expected the great weather to greet us the next morning.  But some time overnight the winds picked up, so great that they bent our tent nearly flat.  We huddled in the shelter to cook breakfast as gusts of wind howled outside.

We proceeded up the trail.  the grade was steep but rideable, but the 100 km/hr gusts kept us from pedaling.  So we pushed our bikes most of the way up.

The site of the Siberia creek crossing (see previous old photo).  The bridge is gone, but all that remains is the piling.  The drop into and out of the creek bed was so steep we had to take the bikes down one-by-one -- John at the front, and me hanging onto the back so it would not roll down on its own.

Entering the Summit Tunnel -- one of four on the trail.

The Summit Station site -- the top of the steep 1 to 13 grade, and the beginning of the gentler 1 to 40 grade descent for the remaining 11 kilometers.

It's all downhill from here!
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