Destinations: walking the Manawatu Gorge

Once a year, for the past 20 years, the 8km section of railway track through the Manawatu Gorge is closed to mainline train operations for around five hours to allow the public a rare and unique opportunity to walk its length.

This very successful fundraiser by the Woodville Lions Club has seen more than 20,000 people walk between the rails across 15 bridges and through two long, dark tunnels since its inception.

"So far almost $300,000 has been raised over the years to help cancer care and other community projects", says event co-ordinator Clive Boyden.

"This year we hope to be able to assist the Arohanui Hospice to fund much needed equipment for its patients."

Walking along the tracks of a working railway is both dangerous and illegal, so the chance to experience the gorge from a different perspective was too good to pass up.

The rousing sound of bagpipes greeted me at the Ashurst Domain where a convoy of buses was lined up to take everyone through the gorge to the Woodville end where the walk begins.

As we drove through the gorge there was already a large number of people on the tracks making their way back to Ashurst; the bright colours of their jackets and backpacks contrasting against the greens of the bush-clad hillsides. No doubt drivers unaware of this event would have been surprised to see a human train across the river instead of a regular one.

Officially called the Manawatu Gorge Track & Tunnel Walk 2014, it starts at the lime works just short of the now day-lighted twin tunnels. You could feel the excitement as our bus disgorged its colourfully dressed contents.

Laughing and chatting away loudly we formed an orderly line to clamber up the bank onto the rails; then away we went trying to find the most comfortable way to negotiate the ballast and the sleepers. There isn't one. The sleepers are spaced too close together for the average stride and the ballast moves as you walk on it. My solution was to walk alongside the track wherever I could.

Walkers included teens, family groups, couples and - perhaps surprisingly – 70 to 80 year olds. It was easy to talk to people although I tried my best to stay aloof in case I missed a photo opportunity. Didn't work, though - I missed a shot as a couple of geese flew out from the bank, across the line and down into the river.

Yet again I'm reminded of the saying, "Photographs taken are soon forgotten; it's the ones you missed you always remember".

Manawatu _Gorge _5

One of the main features of walking this line is the close up views of the bridges which are almost works of art – especially those with intricate latticework on the piers and decks. A surprising feature was on the bridge that carries the highway across the river; it has three curved concrete piers spanning the river, invisible when you drive across in a car but very scenic when viewed from the railway line.

Along the route security guards dressed in high visibility vests of lime yellow and burnt orange were stationed at the approaches to each bridge for safety reasons and to assist anyone who had vertigo concerns. A happy and cheerful lot, they clearly enjoyed their job greeting and talking to all attendees as we passed.

One of the more macabre scenes on the walk was the number of opossum carcasses littering the track. I counted 17 in the first half hour of the walk before losing interest.

Two hours into the walk we reached the portal of the first tunnel where I stopped for a bite to eat and to do some people watching. Behind me a waterfall cascading from the hill making a soothing sound as I watched scores of people cross the bridge and disappear into the tunnel, torches flashing. Peels of laughter echoed from inside the tunnel walls amplified the sound.

The second tunnel was very dark, long and a little damp. To lighten things up we lit our faces from below with our torches. Then someone asked if anyone had a train whistle sound on their mobile. Luckily no one did as, people being people, those behind us may have panicked and got hurt running in the dark. I couldn't help smiling to myself though at the naughty things people dream up.

Then the conversation turned to what would you do if there was a real whistle. With each silly suggestion there was raucous laughter and by the time we got to the end portal a few of us males had to make a hasty pit stop.

The final stage was across a long bridge that spanned the Pohangina River. Those of us on the bridge when the rail-mounted truck came through with all the security guards onboard were the last of the walkers to finally return to the Ashurst Domain.

It was an exceptional day, river scenery, perfect weather, railway tunnels and bridges, great photo opportunities and constant laughter with an ever-changing group of new found friends topped off beautifully with a home-made chocolate raspberry muffin offered to those of us fortunate to be the last ones stepping off the rails.

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