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Old track a test in days gone by

It is thought the Suicide Track on the Gisborne-Waikaremoana Road gained its unfortunate name when the occasional pack horse, loaded with fencing materials, would topple off the narrow hazardous trail. Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club member Gillian Ward delves into the history of this “exciting” walk . . .

Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club members have been privileged to be invited to walk on Strathleven Station, at the end of Bushy Knoll Road, on three occasions in recent years.

Each visit has included a walk along the “Suicide Track” — part of the old Gisborne- Waikaremoana Road which forms the southern boundary of Strathleven Station.

Bushy Knoll Road is part of the old road and on the old NZMS1 (inch to the mile) map of this area the name “Gisborne- Waikaremoana Road” is still shown. To reach Waikaremoana, the old road continued from the end of Bushy Knoll Road down into the Ruakituri Valley and back out again climbing on an easy gradient below the Ngapakira bluffs, into the headwaters of Rimanaua Stream. It then sidled along the Matakuhia Range, joining the headwaters of Aniwaniwa Stream, then followed beside this stream to meet Lake Waikaremoana.

On Strathleven Station the old road is used as a farm track, with the tops up to 820m being farmed, and there are marvellous views from Hikurangi to Cape Kidnappers, including Te Urewera, Ruakituri, Tiniroto, and Wharekopae. There is regenerating bush — manuka, silver beech, horopito, hekatara, bush lawyer and clematis, and remnant beech forest patches among the rough farmland beside the track.

Adjacent to the old road, a “travel reserve” (Bushy Knoll Road Conservation Area) was set aside so that droving stock could rest and feed en route. We walked along the old road beside this reserve, which is a bush remnant consisting of tall silver and red beech forest with totara and an understorey of broadleaved trees, epiphytes and climbers.

The whole route was surveyed and then formed, initially as a bridle track, with a uniform and gentle gradient, which was of prime importance to make the route possible for pack horses and later for horse-drawn coaches.

Peter Bennett, who spent six decades growing up on, and farming, Strathleven Station said, “There's no doubt that Mr Mouat, the surveyor of this road, achieved a brilliant job in surveying a line for the bridle track with easy gradients through some difficult country. However, his ambition not to deviate from this line meant a major rock cut in places.”

The “Suicide Track”,which was cut on a bench between two bluffs, joining the saddles on the east and west side of this bluffy rise, is one of these places. It is an exciting walk along a bench track which is sometimes barely still a “bench”, with drop-outs from below and slips from above, several small streams/waterfalls to cross, rockfalls, and bush regenerating on the track.

“The name Suicide Track has been used by locals for as long as I can remember,” Peter said.

It is also referred to by this name in “The Hangaroa Story”, by Hester Harris.

The name originated because occasionally a packhorse loaded with fencing materials would accidentally fall off!

“In my younger, horseriding days, I always led my hack along the Suicide Track. But eventually boldness took over and I did one ride along the track, just for the record's sake!”

An art to riding along narrow rocky sections

Bushy Knoll Station, adjacent to Strathleven Station, was farmed by Hyla Bennett, whose son is another Peter Bennett. This Peter Bennett worked for his father on the station for some years. He said that the station staff took their horses along the old track going to and from the Ruakituri horse sports and Hunt Club events, always returning in the dark. He remembers taking mobs of cattle along the Suicide Track over to Ruakituri in early years.

Peter Bennett (ex Bushy Knoll Station) said there was an art in riding along the narrow rocky sections: “Lean a little outwards in the saddle, thereby causing the horse to hug the inside part of the track.” He said they had very good horses back then.

Peter Bennett (ex Strathleven Station) could remember, as a boy, hearing the groups singing and laughing their way back from the Ruakituri Valley — just as well their horses were sober!

The last section of the Gisborne-Waikaremoana Road (or bridle track) was cut through Te Urewera bush in 1899. The through route was used as a pack track and stock track, but only as a coach road for a short period when the Aniwaniwa valley at Waikaremoana was farmed and the forest was being milled. The track was no longer used as a through route from the 1920s.

After the track became disused there were efforts to re-open it to vehicular traffic right up until the early 1950s because it is the shortest route between Hangaroa (and Ruakituri) and Waikaremoana. In these years the road was more commonly referred to as the Hangaroa-Waikaremoana Road.

Peter Bennett (ex Strathleven Station) says, “The stumbling block always must have been the Suicide Track section; a difficult feat to establish a mere five to six foot wide track into the rock face in the first place.”

In the Poverty Bay Herald on January 8 1921 there was a report on the poor state of repair of the track, experienced by a group of travellers.

“The road had been well formed and graded, but had been absolutely neglected, and as a result was in a continual state of disrepair. Trees had fallen across the road, which was overgrown with tutu, and as a result, numerous deviations had to be made. The culverts too, were all blocked up with fallen trees and tutu.”

On December 15 1934, the Poverty Bay Herald reported on a report by the Wairoa county engineer, Mr. A. G. Smith, considering the Ruakituri-Waikaremoana track as a proposed stock route.

“About 12 miles of this route is through standing bush, although the track was formed about 40 years ago. All the original bridge creek crossings have collapsed and the track in many places has slipped away and would have to be widened for traffic.”

He considered the Erepeti Road, not completed at the time and 17 miles longer, would be the preferred route.

On August 19 1937, the New Zealand Herald reported on a presentation to the Cook County Council by Mr F. K. Jones.

“Through the courtesy of East Coast Airways I had the opportunity of a trip to Waikaremoana by aeroplane,” he said. “The visibility was excellent, and a close look-out was kept on the continuation of the Hangaroa-Waikaremoana road through to the lake. Except for the bush portion of road, I should say that the other part is quite useable. The bush portion however, appeared to be considerably overgrown.”

On February 17 1938, the Poverty Bay Herald reported on the Hangaroa- Waikaremoana Road, under the headline, Gem of Dominion – Waikaremoana Lure.

“People in this district must be made to realise what a golden opportunity is knocking at their door, and to work hard for a reduction of the road distance between Waikaremoana and Gisborne,”stated a businessman of wide experience of tourist resorts, in conversation with a pressman today.

“These two places should be linked by the shortest possible road, and Gisborne made the travel-centre for tourists from overseas who are drawn to the lake.

“Waikaremoana is the real gem of New Zealand resorts, and thousands of people will visit the lake every year, once the road from Rotorua is put in good condition for handling a large volume of traffic,” he said.

“An old track existed along the route which the road extension would follow, but parts of this had slipped away, and others had become overgrown.” He was informed, however, that the construction of the greater part of the new work would present small difficulty.”

Then on April 11 1938 at a meeting convened by the Gisborne Thirty Thousand Club, with the cooperation of the Gisborne Chamber of Commerce, the road was again discussed.

The Thirty Thousand Club was established in 1936, and its objective was to raise Gisborne's population from 17,000, as it was then, to 30,000.

The Poverty Bay Herald reported that Mr James Chrisp, chairman of the Gisborne Thirty Thousand Club, reviewed the purpose of the meeting as being, “to shorten the distance between Gisborne and Waikaremoana, and so induce a certain proportion of the tourist development to flow in this direction.”

“Mr. K. F. Jones, engineer to the Cook County Council, while explaining that he was not a representative of that council, outlined the obligations and responsibilities of county councils, which, he said, were more concerned with the needs of ratepayers than with the through traffic, tourist or otherwise.”

The reality was that there were less direct but more practical routes towards and to Waikaremoana, and although there was the potential for tourist traffic this was insignificant relative to farm development needs, and so roading investment was spent on the other routes.

The dream of re-opening this track as a road seems long gone now, but perhaps the easy grade, interesting countryside, and spectacular views could suggest a walking or cycling trail in the future.

TRICKY TRAIL: The Suicide Track was cut as a 6-foot-wide track on a bench between two bluffs. This has now slipped away in many places. Pictures by Gillian Ward unless otherwise stated
BOUNDARY ROAD: The old road is used as a farm track along the southern boundary on the tops of Strathleven Station, about 800m.
REST SPOT: The 'travel reserve' adjacent to the old road consists of a remnant of red and silver beech forest with Halls totara and a diverse understorey.
FROM A DISTANCE: The tip of the helicopter rotor blade roughly points to the Suicide Track, and in the far distance are the Ngapakira bluffs. The Gisborne – Waikaremoana Road continues towards Lake Waikaremoana just below these bluffs. Picture by Melissa Bennett
You can just make out a bit of the line of the Suicide Track about a third of the way down the bluff from the skyline, joining the saddles on the east and west sides. Picture by Melissa Bennett
A segment of NZMS1 N97 showing Bushy Knoll Road, with its earlier name of Gisborne – Waikaremoana Road.