Wed, Feb 8, 2023 7:56 PM
Words: Judene Edgar
The story of The Whale Trail began dramatically at 12.02am on 14 November 2016 when the magnitude 7.8 Kaikōura earthquake struck. The earthquake destroyed homes and infrastructure along Kaikōura and Marlborough’s east coast, including sections of State Highway 1 and the rail corridor.
Marlborough winemaker Dr John Forrest was woken abruptly from his sleep and almost tossed out of bed. “I couldn’t find my clothes, I couldn’t find a torch, I couldn’t find my cellphone,” he says. He left his house and walked around his winery inspecting it for damage. But in the days following the earthquake, the seed of an idea started to grow.
“A group of people had already been looking at the possibility of a trail from Picton, south towards Kaikōura. So, from that was born the idea that within the rebuild perhaps a cycleway could be incorporated.” The goal was to build “the world’s best cycling and walking trail… traversing some of the most beautiful seascapes and pastoral vistas in the world”. From its inception, the idea of a cycle trail on the defunct railway line saw a groundswell of public and council support. A working group was soon formed to look at the feasibility of developing a cycle trail and the Marlborough Kaikōura Trail Trust was established in 2017.
Despite all of the adversity surrounding them, the cycle trail provided, for many, a ray of hope for economic recovery along with the promise of social and well-being benefits. Trust chairperson Luke van Velthooven says that the trust's vision is to deliver an exceptional world-class trail from Picton to Kaikōura. “The trail can showcase our unique landscapes and connect locals and visitors with our communities. As the trail is developed there will be increased opportunities for new and existing businesses within the region.”
Stretching 210 km from Picton to Kaikōura, the Whale Trail will traverse a range of landscapes to reach previously inaccessible areas of outstanding natural beauty. Users will be rewarded with epic views of the dramatic Kaikōura Ranges, the rugged Pacific Ocean coastline and spectacular panoramas over vineyards, wetlands, tussock land and riverscapes.
Momentum and enthusiasm built quickly and a $600,000 grant from the Rātā Foundation’s special Recovery Fund helped with initial project development costs and a $322,000 Provincial Growth Fund grant supported the development of a business case and technical study that confirmed the feasibility of the trail. An Executive Officer, Katherine Hume-Pike, was appointed February 2019 to help drive the project forward. Marlborough District Council was also an early supporter of the Whale Trail, providing initial funding to support the feasibility study and then a further $2 million capital funding as well as ongoing operational funds.
Wairau-Awatere ward Councillor Gerald Hope says that everyone wants to see that coastline. “It’s going to be an iconic cycleway.” Not without its challenges, he says that the Trust have worked incredibly hard to negotiate with landowners, establish critical partnerships and attract funding. He was delighted when the government awarded a whopping $18 million towards construction costs through the government’s Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund. “I’m a great fan of targeted strategic investment by central government, and Marlborough has a history of delivering. I really want to applaud the energy and initiative of all of the trustees, it’s a fantastic project.”
With construction funds secured, access agreements in place, design nearing completion and consents lodged, Stage one, Picton to Seddon, was nearly ready to go. Of the 13 bridges along the Stage one route, Luke says that two are significant structures in the context of a walking cycle trail; a clip-on bridge over Wairau River and a cycle walkway to be constructed within the existing historical rail bridge formation over the Awatere River. Despite being hit by a major storm event in July 2021 and then again in August 2022 by an ‘atmospheric river’ that created widespread flooding and devastating slips, the Wairau River clip-on was finished earlier this year. The 293-metre-long steel structure is the single largest item in the project budget. “It is encouraging that despite several weather events, the team completed this milestone within the original project timeframes and budget,” says Luke.
“The bridge was blessed on 23 August by iwi from Rangitāne, Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Rārua. The Wairau Toa is significant to all these local iwi, and we were honoured to enjoy this special moment with them.” Wanting to use local contractors as much as possible for the work, Luke says that they have made an immense contribution, including the donation of materials, towards creating a quality regional asset. “We have an ambitious summer construction programme ahead of us as we target to complete Stage one of our project, Picton to Seddon.”
Luke also acknowledged the efforts of their Executive Officer Katherine, who is handing over the reins to Nigel Muir in January. “I would like to thank Katherine for her tireless work over the past four years. I can unreservedly state that without her professional leadership and energy we would not have achieved any of the milestones we now celebrate. Most significantly, the application to IRG securing $18 million of government funding, the magnitude of easement agreements and the relationship with KiwiRail and Waka Kotahi.”
In December, Nigel stepped down after nearly 14 years in the role of CEO of Sport Tasman, but he’s not new to the project or to Marlborough. A former Marlborough colt rugby player, he’s been a trustee of the Marlborough Kaikōura Trails Trust since its inception, and more recently, has been undertaking a massive restoration project at his 200ha section in Boons Valley. And while he’s sad to relinquish his role as a trustee, he says that the opportunity to roll up his sleeves was too good to miss. “Cycle trails are one of the cheapest and highest impact infrastructure for community well-being and physical activity,” he says. “The impact on communities and connectivity – bringing people of all ages together to improve well-being – is critically important.”
Having been a trustee for Ngā Haerenga, New Zealand Cycle Trails Trust, Nigel says that there are so many lessons that can be learned from the 22 existing cycle trails to make the Whale Trail one of the “next generation” of cycle trails. While the cycle trails were initially envisaged for international visitors, he says that it’s actually Kiwis who got out in force to use them. “The experience of having coastline, an inland experience, an adventure into the mountains and then back out to the ocean, is a bucket list opportunity for so many people, and to do it all in one achievable manner is part of the dream.”
He’s also excited for the storytelling opportunities that the trail affords with a treasure-trove of stories from iwi, the railway history, whaling, the earthquake, and about the natural environment. “Te Tauihu is so culturally rich and there are so many untold stories. We want to walk the journey in partnership with iwi to learn and to work out how we can honour, respect and share these stories. It’s important to take an holistic perspective when you do community projects.”
Nigel also acknowledged the big shoes he had to fill with Katherine’s departure, but is looking forward to working with the community to create new opportunities and to accelerate construction. “Cycle trails can be so powerful and reinvigorating for small communities and provide a step-change for users. I’m just excited to be part of a legacy project.” And while Nigel acknowledges there are still going to be many challenges along the way, he’s hoping that the full 210km Whale Trail will be open in time for summer visitors at the end of 2025.