By any measure it’s a heritage-heavyweight, a blockbuster trail and a star specimen of Upper Hutt’s sparkling outdoorsy credentials. The Remutaka Cycle Trail is one of New Zealand’s Great Rides and the flagship section of this riveting circuit is indisputably the Remutaka Rail Trail, for the intimate experience with the Remutaka Incline. Built in 1878, this historic inter-provincial rail route between the Hutt Valley and Cross Creek, Featherston is now a politely graded 18 km walking and cycling track. Easily conquered by bike within two to three hours, I made my way to Kaitoke Summit Road in Upper Hutt, which is the official start point of the Remutaka Incline section.
Under a bright blue sky and bathed in soft autumn sunshine, there were hordes of weekend cyclists and walkers striking out on this storied track, which many locals consider as their glorified open-air gym. After parking up the car, I hired a bike from Wildfinder, who operate a Kaitoke base adjacent to the trailhead, open from 10am- 6pm, weekends and public holidays. They’ve got a great range of mountain bikes and e-Bikes for hire, plus a shuttle service back from the Wairarapa to their Kaitoke base. As much as I’ve become immensely infatuated with e-Bikes, the Remutaka Incline’s oh-so-gradual gradient impelled me to go old-school and plump for a “manual” mountain bike, a super comfortable Trek mountain bike, with gel saddles, front suspension and ergonomic grips. www.wildfinder.co.nz
Plus, Wildfinder kitted me out with a trusty helmet and a handlebar-mounted torch that you’ll definitely be switching on when traversing the pitch-black old railway tunnels. The first stretch of the trail ever so gradually hoists you up to the Summit of the Remutaka Ranges, blazing through the verdant grandeur of the Pakuratahi Forest, as the glistening Pakuratahi River burbles to your side. There are some idyllic picnic spots sprinkled along the way. The ascent from the Kaitoke side is so gradual, you’ll barely even notice the gradient, unlike the hellfire ride uphill from the Wairarapa side, where the 1 in 15 gradient is an unrelenting gut-busting ordeal – vividly reinforcing the prowess of those Fell engines, back in the day.
From Kaitoke, the ride to the Summit is pepper-potted with a series of information panels, showcasing the revered railway heritage of this line. I learnt how the rail route was established in 1878 between the Hutt Valley and Featherston, hauling passengers up and down the steep incline between the Remutaka summit and Featherston for 77 years, until the opening of the Remutaka rail tunnel in 1955. The innovative Fell mountain railway system pulled trains up the formidably steep slope of the Incline. A tunnel was always the preferred option but couldn’t be afforded initially, so the 77 year 'temporary' solution was this steep mountain railway, to link the agricultural hinterlands with Wellington. In 1863, the English engineer John Fell had patented the first drive friction system, and it had worked on Mt Cenis in the European Alps.
New Zealand chose Fell's system to traverse the 4.8 km Remutaka Incline – the third and last Fell system to be built. (You can visit Featherston's Fell Museum which houses the rebuilt H 199 - the only remaining Fell engine from the six that serviced the line.) From the late 1870s’, the railway captivated the attention of the community as a scenic mountain journey – until sparks from the locomotives caused fires and burnt off all the bush. Over time, traffic steadily grew and the incline operation, once a marvel, became a slow and expensive bottleneck. The trip up the incline was so gobsmackingly slow, passengers would regularly clamber on and off the moving trains.
Today, the incline is regarded as a special part of New Zealand's history and is recognised as one of the significant railway heritage sites in the world. Highlights along the trail include the Pakuratahi Tunnel, built in 1876 and 73m long. This was the first c...