Westport wasteland transformed by volunteers into beautiful river trail
For six years a group of Westport volunteers have worked to transform a muddy sea of gorse by hand into stunning cycle trails.
The project was the brainchild of the Buller Cycling Club (BCC) which mobilised about 100 volunteers and co-ordinated thousands of volunteer hours to created the 8km track network alongside the Buller River.
"We started out with a tractor just blazing a trail through and then we got into the hand chipping things out with spades and shovels and laying gravel and turned it into something that's pretty nice for everyone to use now," said club spokesman Glenn Irving.
Westport has been through a rough few years with more than 1000 people being made redundant in the district since 2013 from the mining industry and the town's cement plant.
Buller mayor Garry Howard said the cycling club had brought the community together and created something to be proud of.
"The Buller Cycling Club has gone absolutely out there and done a huge amount of work on the Kawatiri Trail from the beach to the wharf. Council has assisted with minimising costs and bureaucracy and providing some funding but full credit to the club for an exceptional job on the trail. It's been well-used and benefited the community outstandingly," he said.
The project started about six years ago when the Department of Conservation called for expressions of interest to develop land it had taken over at Westport's North Beach.
The Kawatiri Beach Reserve area had, up until then, been a wasteland attracting rubbish dumpers, wheel-spinners and dope growers. The club teamed up with a local business owner and farmer Allan Walker and the Buller Western Riding Club to submit a proposal for bike tracks, farmland and an equestrian arena.
The club's aim was to build some family-friendly tracks close to town.
"DOC had no resources to do anything with it themselves and our bid was successful so in the winter of 2011 Allan started crashing around in the gorse and scrub with his tractor to start beating things into shape. In October 2012 the BCC started work developing a 3km track network through the gorse-infested bush. We had no idea what we were doing," Irving recalls.
They enlisted the help of Hamish Seaton from Mountain Biking Otago who gave a weekend of his time to steer them in the right direction.
"When finished he commented to me on the amazing ability of the Westport community to support something like this. We had borrowed diggers, loaders, chainsaws, compactors, quad bikes and trailers for free from various generous places, and he'd never seen anything like that happen before in his years of track building," Irving said.
Seaton said he was impressed with how well supported the project was from the very beginning.
"A lot of work gets done with donated machinery and materials but even more so on the Coast because the local companies were very supportive. The club had an architect's view with pictures so people could visualise what they wanted to achieve and get behind it. I've been back recently to have a look and they've done a great job," he said.
Irving said it took about three years to complete the construction of the tracks at the Kawatiri Beach Reserve.
"The thick scrub made track cutting a tough job, but the real work began once the corridor was cleared. The sand and soft root base meant we had to cut out any remaining vegetation, lay old hockey turf or weedmat down to keep the sand from mixing with the gravel, then lay the track surface with quad bikes and trailers, shovels and rakes. While that was going we also oversaw the development of the picnic area on the beach side of the reserve that was once a sea of gorse and blackberry. We built a track leading into the reserve, hacked out gorse, designed and installed signs and planted thousands of plants," he said.
DOC contributed a boardwalk and chemicals for weed control but over the last six years, on an entirely voluntary basis, this piece of Westport has been cared for by people who want to make their place a better one.
The rejuvenated area soon attracted tourists wanting to camp close to the beach, and with it came a negative impact on the environment.
So club volunteers installed a portaloo provided by the Buller District Council which will be maintained by DOC.
The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association also contributed to earthworks and a small group of Westport-based association members have done most of the work.
"It is a work in progress, but soon there will be signage up to tell campers where they can and cannot park overnight, and what the expectations are. Hopefully, with some care and respect from all of us, the area will become something we can all be proud of," Irving said.
Once the beach reserve was finished the club decided to keep going so turned its attention to the Lost Lagoon and Shingles Beach areas to create what is now known as the Kawatiri River Trail.
"We realised to get from town to the beach was pretty hard work for some people so decided on a track linking the two. The result is a 200m long boardwalk, it took 10 weeks to build with a crew of up to 15 volunteers working almost every day to get the job done. It cost $120,000 so a pretty big project but a thoroughly enjoyable one," he said.
Irving took on the challenging task of fundraising. He estimated the total cost at $250,000 over the six years. DOC gave $70,000, Holcim contributed $35,000 before it closed its cement plant in Westport with the loss of 105 jobs.
Westport's Mitre 10 gave $15,000 in materials, the council $12,000 and crowd funding $8,000 helped complete the last bridge structure on the 8km network of tracks.
"We took to Givealittle and this worked really well, and meant that many people in our town are now part owners of the structure, and will therefore be inclined to look after it, and the tracks around it. We were amazed by the support that we got through this part of the project," he said.
Opus helped overcome the challenges of building in a tidal swamp and a local cafe provided free lunch for the volunteers every day for weeks.
The volunteers worked through a wet and cold West Coast spring to open up a stunning area of Westport that had been out of reach.
Westport resident Casey Giddens said she loved the new track and exploring the wetland area.
"I've lived here all my life and didn't even know it existed. It's so peaceful and quiet," she said.
Previously only accessible by a rough whitebaiters' track, the lost lagoon was dredged in the late 1800s for berthage along the Buller River.
Volunteer and retired coal miner Paul Comeskey is helping build the bridge over the lost lagoon, which will be called the "volunteers bridge".
The 48m bridge in the middle of a muddy tidal lagoon is about 200m from the nearest piece of solid land.
Comeskey said the volunteers had to do all the manual labour of lifting and carrying materials in from the road and are led by a qualified builder.
Also a member of the cycling club, he's been working on the project since 2010.
"I'm just one of those people who's fortunate enough to have the time to come down and work on these projects for these guys. People just turn up and if it's what they like doing they keep coming back. Each piece is slightly different and each time you come back to do another bit you learn from the previous bit so you're always getting better as you go along basically."
"Apart from it being a really nice place to work – although the weather is not always brilliant it's usually pretty good – we get people coming down to chip in in various ways. One of the ways we quite like is people bringing down baking for lunch and morning tea," he laughed.
"It's a bit of a passion and a hobby so you do it purely for the love really. Every time you come down here you see something different. The seasons, the wildlife, the history that's in here, there's the people that turn up so it's just a constantly moving picture. It's just a nice place to come and work and at the end of the day you can always come down here to go for a walk or a ride take the dog for a walk and enjoy this as a normal track user. It's a bit of a home away from home really."
Irving said the club was for cyclists, but was full of people passionate about making Buller a better place.
"While most sports clubs fund raise and organise things that benefit just their members, these projects have given our little club the opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that has been such a rewarding process for everyone involved. It will always require some volunteer community input to keep the beach reserve and river trail going, and we believe it is worth the effort."
The club will be running work days on the first weekend of each month throughout the year to finish and maintain the tracks.
"The interesting thing with our club is that we have no official members, but we do have a dedicated team of volunteers who love what they do, gain great satisfaction from seeing people out there benefiting from the fruits of their labour, and have found a very meaningful way to use their spare time."
"My girls now talk about "Dad's Boardwalk", which always brings a smile to my face as I know that I've played a small part in making it all happen."