Waterway walkway

Last updated 14:46 25/07/2012
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ROBERT KITCHEN/FARIFAX NZ
OUR PLACE: The Manawatu River provides the backdrop for Janine Rankin’s stroll along 9 kilometres of pathways.

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There has been a quiet transformation taking place on the banks of the Manawatu. City council reporter Janine Rankin goes down to the river to explore Palmerston North's hidden secret.

Palmerston North has long considered the banks of the Manawatu River as some kind of grotty backyard.

The river has been seen as a barrier, sometimes a threat, often, an embarrassment. But just as joint-party efforts to clean up what is in the river are starting to make a difference, so, too, is the riverside reserve running the nine kilometre-length of the city undergoing rehabilitation.

The walkway and Bridle Track, where cycles have long replaced horses, have already been sealed from Riverside Dr at its upstream end to the Holiday Park end of Dittmer Dr.

The effect has been like opening the door to a playground, inviting the less-sure-footed, even those with disabilities, to climb over the stopbanks.

City council policy planner Geoff Wilkinson is keen to bring more people down to the river to explore, to walk, to picnic and socialise, to connect with the region's cultural history and present.

There is a budget of $1.5 million from 2017 onwards for implementation of the Manawatu riverside master plan.

The master plan only exists as a vision at the moment - with no concrete examples of what it might include.

It will be a joint effort with Horizons Regional Council, which has been subtly beautifying the area as it carries out stopbank improvements.

The only way to figure out what they are all on about is to go for a walk and see for yourself.

One of the best places to access the shared cycle and pedestrian path is at The Esplanade.

It is a natural hub, below the Fitzherbert Bridge, a short stroll across the grass from the playground, and sporting the recently refurbished and only public toilets along the route until a $159,000 budget kicks in in two years' time.

There's also plenty to see and do.

The Okatio Steps, one of few places where it is easy to get to the water's edge, sport a wordy billboard explaining the Manawatu River leaders' accord.

Alongside, wooden foundations mark the spot where Horizons is about to build and landscape a $130,000 viewing platform, where people walk out above the rock embankment. A marked column as part of the structure will show the measure of the river's highest-yet floods.

Under the bridge and upstream, there are the timber remnants of a groyne, one of a series of early river engineering efforts, complete with a billboard telling its story. There's a picnic table where you can sit and watch the river.

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A little further on, the old Teachers' College recording station tells me the river is flowing at 10 cubic metres a second, I can read about Keeping Palmerston North Dry, and the list of great floods.

In comparison, the scout bonfire site sits unexplained.

Heading upstream as the traffic noise fades, the sealed pathway beckons, as does the prospect of the view of the Anzac Cliffs.

I meet 45 people over the next 1 hours, but for a few moments, I am almost on my own, apart from two people high above at Anzac Park, who have climbed the fence for a closer look over the edge. I am relieved when they scramble back.

Around the bend, the cliffs tower dramatically.

Leaving the sealed path, I venture down to the beach. A sign warns of the possible danger of landslips. That's one of the reasons these cliffs will soon be tamed, and the river's hairpin will be smoothed into a gentler bend.

I just happen to know this. There's nothing there to tell me the story.

The next pause is at the bottom of Albert St, at another unsigned exit.

Once an industrial site, home of a crusher plant, the city side has been transformed with new homes. The view from the top of the stopbank, along the path and the river, to the wind turbines on the east and white-capped ranges ahead in the distance, is one of the most spectacular along the route.

Further along, a row of huge trees has been dropped near the Waterloo Cres exit and the rapids roar below.

Behind Waterloo Park, the grass is green and manicured. A couple of groves of natives are maturing nicely, named in memory of Pauline Keys and Jose Jull. Keys was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the walkway and Bridle Track and a founding member of Manawatu Tree Trust (I just happen to know someone who knows this), and Jull was a fellow trust member. The plaques beg an explanation.

A gazebo off the path beckons.

I am not needing a sit down, a mere half hour into my walk. I just need to take some clothes off.

This section of the route is wide open, which helps me feel safe.

But on one of those rare Manawatu days when the sky stays clear after a morning frost and there is not a puff of wind, even down here along the river, the sun is warm.

Reorganised for greater comfort, I follow the path along behind the industrial area of Roxburgh Cres. On reflection, I remember I have been here before, years ago, when there were shingle piles and trucks and machinery parked about, and it was unclear whether public access was even allowed.

Now, it is much more welcoming.

I stop off at a picnic table over the bank at the end of Ruahine St. The car park is full. The information board tells me I am on the Te Araroa trail. I'm on track. Surprisingly, I've covered two-thirds of this 6km stroll already.

The city recedes again.

The only sound is the occasional "tonk" of a golf ball being driven down a fairway.

I look around for some sort of marker defining the Fitzroy Bend, a huge piece of river engineering that saved our collective hides in the 1997 floods.

There is none.

Twelve cyclists, two joggers, 10 walkers, 11 dog walkers, two walkers with buggies, four walkers with buggies and dogs, a couple of kids on scooters and a skater provide occasional company. Most say "hello". There are no incidents or confrontations or near-collisions.

There are enough people for it to feel safe, but not so many as to intrude.

I ask one dog walker to take his earphones out so I can ask where another unidentified exit might take me. It is the Pioneer Drain. I continue to the end - a short stroll in the countryside.

I feel like there should be some kind of sense of arrival.

But no. No shelter, no seat, no bin, just a pile of dog poo and broken glass.

It is like the track sort of gives up.

Unprepared for what an easy walk it is, I factor in the downstream sector for another day.

Surely I will see conflicts between users here. I'd certainly heard enough about speeding cyclists intimidating walkers, and incidents with dogs frightening small children.

Eighteen walkers, two with buggies, two dogs, two cyclists, two joggers and three scooters and 1.3km later, the whole scene was reminiscent of a Victorian walk in the park, all Sunday constitutional and good manners. A parasol would not be out of place in this well-established park.

The scooter-riders are clearly anxious about the dogs up ahead, and scooter back to their responsible adult for reassurance.

The dogs will be on leads - it is a bylaw along this section.

The dog walkers pause to allow buggy occupants to pat their pets.

Beyond the Holiday Park, the path ends abruptly, and it's not clear where walkers are to go.

The top of the stopbank provides a great vantage point, while a well-worn cycle rut at the base indicates where hundreds have gone before.

This will change in the coming year, as the council has budgeted $366,000 to form a limestone pathway, probably along the track people have worn in the grass.

A couple with a dog are taking a break at a picnic table. Apart from that, the area is devoid of people. I could be out in the country.

I stop at the steps down to the river to talk to two ducks.

The formed path resumes behind a row of Buick Cres houses. This is about as close to the water's edge as any section of the path. A pair of tui are my only companions.

It is possible to carry on along a rutted path close to the river, if it's not too wet, all the way down to what becomes a popular swimming hole in summer. It is beyond the abandoned Allied Milburn site, which the council has its eye on buying in two to four years' time. As if this corner of town does not already have enough wilderness.

At Waitoetoe Park, a sole man and his dog are taking their exercise.

It is so quiet, it is almost spooky, especially as the path bends through Bill's Bush.

It is named in honour of the late Bill Regnault, a Buick Cres resident and member of the Manawatu Walkways Society that lobbied the council to establish the Bridle Track. His particular project was the retention and rejuvenation of this once-struggling stand of native trees and bush.

I only happen to know this because it is my corner of town. There is not so much as a signpost acknowledging the name.

I walk with one hand firmly wrapped around my cellphone, the other holding my pen like a weapon.

The last exit to Buick Cres depends on walkers knowing that is where it leads to.

A few paces on, the path disappears into the open vista of Paneiri Park.

A minute later, I am back in suburbia, where a signpost tells me where I have been.

Our riverside might not be the Queenstown waterfront with a view over Lake Wakatipu to The Remarkables, but it has its own beauty, it is a lot easier to get to, and it is ours.

More of us should notice.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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