An almost forgotten group of World War One tunnellers saved the Paekakariki Hill Road from closure, as HUGH DE LACY discovers.
THOSE CANTANKEROUS heroes of World War One, the New Zealand Army Engineers Tunnelling Company, deserve the credit for there still being a Paekakariki Hill Road northern approach to Wellington – without them it would have been shut down at the start of World War Two.
The Paekakariki Hill Road was every bit as much a bane to travellers to the capital down the western side of the island as the similarly precipitous Rimutaka Hill eastern route was from the Wairarapa to the Hutt Valley.
Both roads began their lives as Maori walking tracks that eventually evolved into paved highways, but where the road out of the Hutt River valley became the base for the eventual SH2 the Paekakariki Hill Road was supposed to have been closed after the massive SH1 western deviation along the Pukerua Bay coast to Paekakariki was completed just as World War Two began.
The Paekakariki Hill leaps out of the sea 41 kilometres north of Wellington, opposite Kapiti Island, bringing a pinched end to the broadening sweep of coastal plains that take in Palmerston North.
Near-vertical cliff in some places, the hill climbs 248 metres above the sea that laps it, and until the completion of the western deviation the only way to get to Wellington by road was over the top.
After fleeing the Waikato tribes and his home harbour of Kawhia for the Kapiti coast, Ngati Toa leader Te Rauparaha exterminated the resident Muaupoko tribe in 1822 and was in control of the area when European settlement began.
The colonial government bought the land north and south of Paekakariki from Te Rauparaha in 1847, and two years later widened the old Maori walking track over the hill to accommodate coaches.
That became the sole western approach to the capital for the next 90 years.
Accordingly, it came as little surprise to most people that the government decided to close the hill road after the completion of the western deviation when Hutt County said it couldn’t afford to maintain it. And closed the Paekakariki Hill Road would have been were it not for the quality and speed of the work of veterans of the Engineers Tunnelling Company.
Soon after the war a group of them was doing maintenance work on the hill for the county as it battled to get the government to take over the cost of the road’s upkeep, which the county reckoned was beyond its own means. The tunnellers were a specialist army unit formed during World War One after a plea from the British government to its far-flung colonies for miners and engineers to drive tunnels under the German lines, fill them full of explosives, and then blow them and the Germans up.
The Germans had themselves set the precedent for this tactic by exploding 10 50 kilogram mines under the British trenches at Festubert in the Pas de Calais just before Christmas 1914, then destroying the British frontline at Cuinchy with double the number of mines a month later.
The New Zealand company was formed of 937 men with the Engineers Tunnelling Company. – mostly from the gold and coal mining areas of the Waikato, the West Coast and Waihi – reinforced half a dozen times between June 1916 and November 1917.
Their greatest feat was blowing up the German lines at the Second Battle of Arras, which allowed the British forces to make significant gains that, typically, then bogged down in stalemate.
The New Zealanders were commanded by a young Boer War veteran, Major JE Duigan, who lamented that the unit contained 17 ex-secretaries of labour unions and a number of members of the Red Federation, a founding element of the Labour Party.
Duigan reckoned he had disciplinary problems with his tough and worldly troops, but if he did they melted away under the heat of battle.
The standing in which the tunnellers were held immediately after World War One ensured that Hutt County’s plea to keep using them to maintain the Paekakariki Hill Road – because they were doing such a good job – was eventually acceded to by the then government’s Minister of Works, Sir William Fraser, and soon after the road was gazetted as part of the national highway network.
But as World War Two loomed, the Labour government’s Works Minister, Bob Semple, committed to hacking a highway around the coast to avoid the hill, and he proposed then closing the hill road altogether.
But as the Plimmerton-Paekakariki deviation neared completion, a cry went up from the Farmers’ Union, Hutt County and the Automobile Association to save the old road.
Semple devolved its maintenance back onto Hutt County, but the county protested that the cost was beyond its means – the hill road was just too steep and bendy, too prone to slips, and now too little-used – but not beyond the government’s.
With World War Two under way, the argument refreshed the country’s memories of the tunnellers to the degree that the wartime government saw war service advantages in reclaiming the road out of respect for them.
Because World War Two was a fluid rather than a static war, there was no need to call on the tunnellers for specialist service again, and after the war their memory faded away.
It wasn’t until the Arras tunnels were re-discovered in 1990 that interest in the New Zealand tunnellers’ contribution to World War One was rekindled, and they have since been accorded the recognition they deserve.
The hill road they kept from closing has since adopted the mantle of a scenic drive, with windy and bushy gullies having to be negotiated up the Hutt Valley side before the road bursts out onto the summit and the gob-smacking views across to Kapiti Island, south to the entrance to the Pauatahanui Inlet, and northwest to Mt Taranaki away in the misty distance.