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Bird’s eye views don’t get much better than this, but my heart is racing, my hands are clammy and I feel giddy every time I glance down at the narrow black ribbon of road, which winds its way round the rocky coastline between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay.
We’re standing at the top of the first precarious staircase on the Paekakariki Escarpment Track, and I’m having to eat my words about not suffering from vertigo. Today my fear of heights is affecting me badly.
This spectacular 10 kilometre walk is the newest and most expensive part of the 3000 kilometre national Te Araroa Trail, which stretches from Cape Reinga in the far north to Bluff in the deep south.
It’s been called a must-walk for every self respecting Kiwi and, as one of those, and a keen walker, I was in boots and all when the idea came up, but as all five of us in our group discovered, it’s not for the faint hearted – nor those given to vertigo.
One such person died on the day we walked the track in late April (2016). He didn’t fall, although I would have understood if he had; he died from heart-failure. “It was bloody devastating,” said Te Araroa chief executive officer Rob Wakelin, when I phoned him for a chat about this track, its steepness and its safety.
Wakelin reckons it was physically impossible to build a gentle, meandering track along this stretch of coast, and says that it was always going to be a little scary for those with vertigo, and a little too difficult for those who are not relatively fit.
It begins gently enough. Drive or take the train to Paekakariki, cross the main road and you’re at the start of the track. Distances are clearly posted along the walk, which begins as a pretty easy meander through scrubby low lying bush, parallel to the State Highway – which, incidentally, was only built in 1940.
As we began the walk on a sunny day, my earlier misgivings after viewing the website fell away with each step. Then the first vertical staircase appeared in front of us. As the pictures on the Paekakariki Escarpment Walk website had promised, there were no handrails and the sturdy steps in front of us were very steep.
The walk is graded as a day visitor track, but all of the online information states clearly that it is not for everybody. As Wakelin says, it’s absolutely not a doddle, but it’s hugely rewarding once you’ve done it.
I agree. Wholeheartedly. And yet I was fearful during about 60 percent of its dramatic, narrow stretch. The 10 kilometres length (or 20 kilometres roundtrip if you don’t jump on the train at the other end) was not the problem. In fact, that was part of its allure. But I found the steepness and lack of handrails to be overwhelming at times. Again, Wakelin agrees.
“I absolutely agree when you’re standing at the top of that first big flight of steps, and look down, you can have a bit of a moment. It’s good as gold under foot and that moment can quickly pass, but that, too, is part of what makes it such a great experience and part of its overall appeal.”
It’s hard to disagree. The views are spectacular. Gaze in one direction and the South Island glistens in the ocean, while Kāpiti Island looks magnificent in the other.
The trouble is the steepness – and, for some – those steps. There are nearly 500 of them in total, with no handrails. They are all connected by narrow dusty pathways carved into the sheer vertical coastline. Add in a couple of 40metre long swing bridges across lush green gullies to enhance the drama of the experience. Even for me, the swing bridges were a thrill. Strong and new, they seemed like the safest part of the journey.
Wakelin says there is a loose recommendation for walkers to be at least eight years old but this is not an absolute. Parents are expected to make that judgement call. He imagines, as others who built the track do, that children younger than that may struggle to complete the track. No dogs or bicycles are allowed because it is not a multi-purpose track.
Of the call for defibrillators, which has followed the two deaths on the track, Wakelin says there are practical issues which could make this difficult.
“We’ve been very explicit about what lies ahead and for the most part, people have been understanding, but we’ve had the odd comment about how steep it is, especially following the poor chap that died, so we’ve had to do a bit of navel gazing.”
The most likely result of that will be to duplicate existing signage to create a second filter for those embarking on the walk. The key messages are that this walk is not for people who suffer from vertigo, nor is it suitable for those with significant medical conditions relating to hips, knees or hearts.
The rest is common sense. Dogs and bicycles cannot fit on the track, which is extremely narrow for most of its 10 kilometres. And it’s also pretty exposed up there; wind and sun beat down, so hats, sunblock and a plentiful supply of water go a long way. As does courage.
I’m glad I can tick this one off. Now to the next leg of Te Araroa.