Wellington’s land-locked harbour made a road over the Remutaka Hill vital for the young colony’s development. HUGH DE LACY tells how it got there.
A RETURN TRIP TO Hawaiki by a great-grandson of Aotearoa’s Polynesian discoverer, Kupe, and the elopement of his wife with two slaves while he was away, were the disparate events that led to the naming of Remutaka, the hill that separates the Hutt Valley and Wellington Harbour from the plains of the Wairarapa.
And no, that’s not a misspelling: it may be written and spoken these days as the virtually meaningless Rimutaka, but Remutaka is what it should be, and may yet become.
Haunui-a-Nanaia – the latter part of his extended name is his mother’s, and distinguishes him from Kupe’s son, Haunui-a-Aparangi – was one of a group of brothers who left the New Zealand their ancestor had discovered to return to his starting-out point, the Hawaiki which the Cook Islands claims to be, but is perhaps in the Marquesas Islands.
While Hau was away, his wife Wairaka was abducted by two slaves, named Kiwi and Weka, from her home near the Mahia Peninsula in Hawke’s Bay, and taken to Pukerua Bay on Wellington’s north-west coast.
It was there that Hau, according to ethnologist Elsdon Best, caught up with them when he eventually returned from Hawaiki, and killed the two slaves.
Whether or not Wairaka was a willing party to the abduction, Hau seems to have presumed some guilt on her part, because he ordered her down onto the rocks at the edge of the bay, supposedly to gather shellfish, then turned her into a stone that remains there today, buffeted by the sea.
All of which may seem remote from the Remutaka Hill far inland, but that was the route Hau took on his way home from Pukerua Bay, and he sat on top of it, contemplating the gleaming Lake Wairarapa on the plains to the north, and mourned his wife.
It is from his act of sitting, of remutaka, that the hill takes its name.
When written language came to Aotearoa with the Europeans in the 19th century, “Remutaka” was belatedly misspelled “Rimutaka”, and remains so today.
The original spelling, as it commonly appeared in 19th century newspapers, used the ‘e; the ‘i’ seems to have slipped in accidentally sometime in the 20th.
In 2010 the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal recommended that the misspelling be corrected, just as it had recommended the ‘h’ be returned to Whanganui, the river port Hau passed through in his pursuit of Weka, Kiwi and Wairaka.
Both of the tribunal’s recommendations drew naysayers, the then mayor of Wanganui getting in such a fluster about it that he refused to add the “h” to any written reference he made to it, even after the change had been formally put in place.
Rimutaka’s proposed correction to Remutaka revealed the same polarities: opponents called it political correctness gone mad; proponents, led by local Maori, said it’s simply a matter of historical accuracy.
Whatever it was to the Maori, that big hill blocking the way between the marvellous natural harbour of Wellington and the equally marvellous natural farmland of the port-less Wairarapa was a major hurdle to the development of both.
The early farmers Bidwill, Clifford, Weld and Vavasour had driven sheep round the coast to the Wairarapa in the early 1840s but this had, if anything, intensified the colonial demand for a cross-country route.
He did so, but work on forming it was delayed by Maori unrest in the Hutt Valley until 1847, after which the hard-charging Governor, Sir George Grey, ordered its completion.
It was achieved under the direction of government surveyor Thomas Fitzgerald – formerly of Kerry, Ireland, later the first superintendent of Hawke’s Bay when it became a province in 1858, and later still the founder of the Australian sugar industry – and, as construction foreman, Henry Burling, the founder of the Wairarapa town of Featherston.
As New Zealand engineering feats go, the 1.3-metre wide Remutaka Hill track was not that great a challenge: it was a relatively gentle climb on the south side as the track wound in and out of innumerable gullies, and much the same on the north side, albeit considerably shorter and steeper.
It took about three years to complete the trail, and in 1850 Te Ore Ore runholder Richard Collins was able to pack his wool clip out over it to the great harbour the Maori called Heretaunga, resting place of canoes.
What was more or less comfortably negotiable by packhorses however was more daunting for the main means of bulk land transport of the day, bullock-wagons, and though they could make it over the hill by the mid-1850s, they could do so only by charging the exorbitant cartage fee of $46/ton.
Traffic was backing up as immigrants sought access to their sections in Greytown and Masterton when the great earthquake of 1855 struck, destroying many stretches of the track and closing it for weeks.
Almost immediately it was determined to push a proper dray road through where the track had been, and this was completed in the winter of 1856, with one Thomas Kempton Jnr taking the first vehicle over it, a ton of goods on a dray pulled by four bullocks.
Thereafter horse-drawn traffic found its way over but it was not until World War One, and the establishment of the big army training camp in Featherston, that extensive widening and upgrading was undertaken to facilitate troop movements between the camp and the soldiers’ port of departure.
This included the building of seven one-way concrete bridges on the Featherston side, since replaced with two-lane structures.
In the meantime a railway had in 1878 conquered the Remutaka Hill with the help of a series of tunnels and the addition of specialist hill-climbing Fell locomotives for the steep 4.8-kilometre stretch between Summit and Cross Creek stations, at a gradient of one in 40, on the Wairarapa side.
The Rimutaka Incline rail service – by then the spelling mistake had become semi-official – continued until the end of 1955 when it was replaced by a long tunnel between Maymorn in the south and Lucena’s Creek, through which passenger and freight services continue to operate.
The old railway line is now part of a popular Rimutaka Forest cycle path.
With World War Two looming, focus again centred on the road, State Highway 2, the first part of which was sealed in 1935-36.
During World War Two the former Featherston Army Camp was converted into a Prisoner of War facility for Japanese captives, who staged a revolt in 1943 that led to the deaths of 48 of their number and one New Zealander.
Sealing was tackled in stages and largely completed about the end of the war, after which efforts went in to straightening out some of the curlier bits.
The most challenging of these was Muldoon’s Corner, a sharp right-hand bend (coming from the south side), that parliamentary opponents named for the 1970s’ Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, as supposedly reflecting the degree of change in the direction of his politics.
This $16.5 million straightening, which involved moving 200,000 cubic metres of earth, was completed in 2011.
The New Zealand Transport Authority continues to chip away at the Rimutaka Hill’s bends, and motorists to grizzle at the road’s frequent closing by snow and dangerously high winds.
But despite its notoriety the Rimutaka Hill offers one of the country’s prettiest road trips and, with the burnt-over bush now vigorously regenerating along most of its length, even the legendary Hau might recognise the summit as the place where he sat to mourn the loss of his wife.