We put our trail bikes on the 11.01 from Featherston. It’s an old fashioned station, where they hand write the tickets and the guard helps lifts the bikes aboard (and he’s as cheerful as they come). We get off through the tunnel at Maymorn Station and are back 5 hours later after a glorious day cycling the historic Rimutaka Rail Trail. This is the track the railway took before they cut the tunnel through the hill in 1955. It’s a fairly easy ride with lots of stops, packed with bush and mountain scenery and haunted with history.
There was once a steam railway here, linking the Wairarapa and Wellington.
Completed in 1878, the Rimutaka Incline on the Wairarapa side is famous for the Fell Engines that chugged up the hill for 55 years, negotiating the steep 1:15 gradient, clenched to a third, middle rail. The line was built and maintained by a remarkable group of engineers, navvies and gangers. It’s the ghosts of the gangers I’ve come to find.
I’m writing a novel set in 1878 and one of my characters, Lars, works on the Incline. He walks in from Kaitoke one day with a companion and doesn’t come back. It is blowing a gale on the tops and the mud slides down over the track, leaving ugly scars of exposed greywacke on the unstable slopes.
I rode alongside Lars’s ghost up through the lush Pakaratahi Valley over his 1870s bridges and culverts to the Summit, where we stopped, as he did, for water and a sandwich. When Lars sheltered from my imaginary wild storm of ’78 there was the beginnings of a settlement bursting with pioneering potential. Not for us – we walked among the rusty remains of long abandoned steam engines, discarded over the years and left to decompose in splendid ruin on the peaceful plateau.
In the icy Summit tunnel the third rail begins and the track descends steeply towards Cross Creek. Here I checked the logistics of my story, imagining the danger of exposure on the stretch they call Siberia where the winds (later, in 1880) were so strong they blew a passenger carriage and goods vans off the rails and down into the valley below.
For us on our bikes, it was an unusually still day. Half of my head was tripping along the raised rail with the gangers battling an historic gale, the other half enjoying a calm bike ride, almost 140 years later, stopping in the sunshine to read the old stories on the plaques posted along the route.
“My father occasionally took my sister and me for a ride on a three-wheel railway jigger. As we all sat on one side of the jigger, it had a tendancy to upturn when passing around the many curves … I was always frightened going over Ladle Bend Creek Bridge as it was rather high and had no sides.” Ron Mitchell, child at Summit 1933-40