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Clearing the way

Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club members spent a day over Labour Weekend tidying up the western end of the Otoko Walkway, now downgraded to a “non-maintained” track . . .

The railway line from Gisborne to Moutohora near Motu was the first railway to operate from Gisborne. All earthworks were carried out by pick and shovel, and work was at times hindered by floods, washouts, and landslips and (in the later stages) a wartime shortage of materials.

The Otoko Walkway follows a 5km section of this old railway formation in the Waihuka Valley. The rail formation here runs parallel to SH2 which climbs over Otoko Hill. At the Gisborne end, the track begins at a picnic area near the bottom of Otoko Hill.

Some of the rail features along the walkway are the Mahaki tunnel, the Dreadnought Bridge (named because the shape of the central pier was similar to the bow of the Royal Navy's HMS Dreadnought), a large concrete culvert and spillway, wooden culverts, and the hill cuttings and benchings. At the western, Otoko end, the walkway drops off the rail formation and follows a farm track down to the Waihuka River and a carpark.

Work started on constructing the rail line in early 1900 and it was opened in stages as each section was completed. Initially the work was relatively easy but at Kaitaratahi the Waipaoa River had to be bridged. Te Karaka was reached in 1905, then as the line progressed, four tunnels, heavy earthworks, water drives and culverts, and the construction of two large viaducts, and several bridges on concrete, steel, or wooden piers, were required. Progress continued steadily and the line was opened to Moutohora near the end of 1917.

Apart from occasional passenger excursion trains, all trains on the Gisborne to Moutohora line were mixed, carrying both passengers and freight. Much of the freight was road metal from the Moutohora Quarry, as well as timber cut from the Matawai-Motu forests, and livestock.

It had been planned to connect this railway line to Taneatua and the Bay of Plenty, but by 1920, and after 13 separate surveys seeking a practical route, the expense of the construction work required meant there wasn't the political will to invest in this rail connection.

The timber mills gradually closed down in the 1930s and with the onset of the Depression both passenger and freight operations fell away. Passenger services were withdrawn from the branch in early 1945 and were replaced by a New Zealand Railways Road Services bus.

The last train ran on March 14, 1959 and now much of SH2 to Matawai, and the Matawai to Motu Road, is built on the railway formation.

For the past several years, the Department of Conservation has been considering downgrading the status of the Otoko Walkway. A survey apparently showed low visitor numbers on the walkway, with people preferring to walk along the coastal walkways. This decision has now been made and the walkway is a “non-maintained track”. The department has put up signage advising of this.

From the Gisborne end, most of the track has been and continues to be maintained by the landowners whose farms it goes through, but at the western end is the “unmaintained section”. Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club members did some clearing and maintenance on this section at Labour Weekend. We found large branches across the track, encroachment by barberry and blackberry, and the wooden steps and the track overgrown with vegetation.

This end of the walkway is not much used because most people who do this walk tend to park at the picnic area at the Gisborne side of Otoko hill and walk “there and back” along part of the walkway, rather than walk right through to Otoko.

“One way” walks like this are awkward unless you can plan to walk with friends and leave their car at the far end of the walk so y ou can meeet it at the end. However, the Otoko end is an attractive track with nice views along the Waihuka River, and a variety of planted exotic trees and regenerating native bush.

Thanks to the club members who spent a morning working on the track. At the moment the track down from the rail formation to the end of the walkway near Otoko is clear and easy to walk, and we recommend it!

SAFE PASSAGE: A small wooden bridge crosses a steep-sided stream on the track. Picture by Gay Young
LEAFY: Waihuka River, viewed through a window of regenerating native bush and exotic trees. Picture by Gillian Ward
NEW GROWTH: Walking along the rail formation in regenerating bush next to Otoko Scenic Reserve – a view through kawakawa with 'candles'. Picture by Barry Foster
IT'S OFFICIAL: The new DoC sign notifying visitors that the Otoko Walkway is no longer up to the standard of a walkway. Picture by Barry Foster
LUNCHTIME: Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club members stop for refreshments on the old railway formation after the morning's work clearing the track. Picture by Gillian Ward
HAPPY VOLUNTEER: John Newman working with a line trimmer under regenerating bush on the Otoko Walkway. Picture by Gillian Ward
CLEARING THE STEPS: Yvonne Waide, Barbara, and Panmuk Szillat, get to work with spades on the the track above Waihuka River. Picture by Gillian Ward
IN THE PAST: The Dreadnought Rail Bridge, named because the shape of the central pier was similar to the bow of the Royal Navy's HMS Dreadnought. National Library of New Zealand picture
NOW: The bridge as it is today, with just the concrete piers remaining. Picture by Calvin Bailey