I’d heard that the Rimutaka Rail Trail was a popular cycling route, but it was “The Runners Guide to Wellington” which made me think it should be on my ‘to-do’ list of local running trails. The Rail Trail follows the old Wellington to Wairarapa railway line up over the Rimutaka ranges from Kaitoke in Upper Hutt to Cross Creek in Wairarapa (and on to Featherston). The line opened in 1878 and and stayed in use for over 70 years, until the Rimutaka rail tunnel opened. Nowadays the railway tracks are gone and 18km of well maintained trail is open to cyclists and walkers. And runners. I didn’t quite do the full round trip as my turn point was the old Cross Creek Station, which is about 3km away from the very end of the trail at Cross Creek car park. The old station seemed like a convenient place to stop anyway. There’s a picnic area, stuff to look at, toilets, and a whole load of sandflies which basically means you won’t be stopping for long!
Starting from the Kaitoke car park there’s 10km of well compacted gravel road all the way up to “The Summit” at 384m. It’s called “The Summit” but the climb of about 140m is barely perceptible over this distance. This part of the trail roughly follows the Pakuratahi river, and takes you over a couple of restored bridges with lovely views down to the river below. About half way to the Summit you encounter your first tunnel, the 73m long Pakuratahi tunnel built in 1876. The tunnels are probably the most fun thing about the whole trail. There are four of them. They’re dark and cold and damp, and even though some light spills in from the ends, in the middle you can hardly see a thing. The longest tunnel is near the Summit and runs for 584 metres, so it’s very dark most of the way. It’s a faintly weird experience to be running along without the satisfying flow of your surroundings moving past. All you see, literally, is the light at the end of the tunnel slowly getting bigger and moving towards you. Well, if you switch off your torch anyway. You need a torch to avoid going arse over tit in a pothole.
The Summit is a nicely landscaped picnic spot, with a shelter and some pretty views of the surrounding hills, although it doesn’t really feel like a summit as such, as there are plenty of higher peaks glowering over it. From there it’s a steeper downhill of about 5km to Cross Creek and for me the best bit of the trip. After emerging from the dark of the Summit Tunnel onto the Wairarapa side it really feels like you’re up in the Rimutakas. The trail narrows and becomes looser and rockier, though still easy enough for bikes (and running). The scenery looks wilder, with expansive, bush clad hillsides and deep gorges, especially near the Siberia Curve. This bit of the trail was so named because of the wild, cold weather often experienced there, and it certainly seemed to catch the wind more than any other bit of the trail, even on the fairly ordinary Wellington day that I was there. At Siberia Gully, the original embankment which carried the railway line was entirely washed away about 40 years ago leaving a huge scar in the hillside. There’s a fast flowing stream to hop over, which was easy enough, but I can’t say I’d like to try crossing when there’s been heavy rain!
Past Siberia Curve there’s the 100 metre Price’s Tunnel, which partly collapsed and was the scene of several deaths during its construction. You can feel spooky about that if you like, while running along in the dark, on your own. On the other hand it’s as good a place as any to remember the toil and determination which went in to the construction of the line during the 1870s, and perhaps tip your cap in respect.
You know you’re approaching Cross Creek when the flat plains of the Wairarapa appear through a gap in the ranges, and before you know it you’re there. Time for a fig bun and a drink, a wander around, swat away a few sandflies, then you’re off again back up the incline. The climb back up to the Summit from Cross Creek is a lot more noticeable than from the other side but nothing too horrible, about 300 metres over 5km.
So the Rimutaka Rail Trail is well worth the journey north (only about 40 minutes from Johnsonville). My 30km round trip took 3 and a half hours in total, including drink and photo stops and time to gawp at various things. I happened to be there at the same time as a school trip, so I passed numerous kids walking and cycling on the way to the Summit and back. Most of them looked pretty perplexed to see someone out running, on their own, for hours at a time. To a ten year old, three hours running along a road in the middle of nowhere must seem pretty boring! “How did you run all the way up and then all the way back down again?” one of them asked, as I passed them on the way back. “You just keep going!” I said, although I don’t think they believed me.
For road runners wanting a bit of spice in their lives without threatening their ankles, the trip up to the Summit and back would make a good 20km round trip. That stretch is basically road running, so you can get into an easy rhythm and it’s not at all steep. Also, it would be good for group runs as the trail is wide enough for several people side by side. Trail runners, though, will be anxious/keen to get to the Wairarapa side for the short stretch down to Cross Creek, with its slightly wilder feel (although it’s still pretty genteel compared to many tramping tracks in the Rimutakas!) I found the Wairarapa side the most interesting, so it’s worth pressing on past the Summit and going the distance to Cross Creek.