New Zealand wasteland transformed by volunteers into stunning river trail by jessamy baldwin

Seven years ago, a group of Westport cyclists from the Buller Cycling Club had a dream: to transform an inaccessible, muddy sea of gorse and marshland into a beautiful network of walking and cycling trails. It was hoped that the trails would not only be enjoyed by local residents, but that they could potentially attract more tourists to the area too.

That dream is now a reality and thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers and help from the Department of Conservation, the Council and other donations, the Kawatiri River trail is seeing unprecedented use. In fact, 18,500 trips have been made across the harbour boardwalk section of the trail in the last three months alone, despite only a few thousand people living in the area and it being winter. That equates to about one person every three minutes during daylight hours.

The 8km walking and cycling track runs along the Buller-Kawatiri river and links North Beach, Shingle Beach, the Westport Harbour floating basin and the Buller Bridge. According to those behind the project, the trail’s creation has encouraged a greater respect for the local environment and appreciation of the community’s heritage, sentiments that continue to grow.

Buller Cycling Club secretary and driving force behind the $300k project, Richard Nichol, said: “The trail showcases some of the best aspects of Westport that were previously hidden, including unique wildlife and wetlands, it facilitates further recreational opportunities like surfing, kayaking, and fishing and taps into the fascinating history of the town.”

Fellow Buller Cycling Club member, Glenn Irving – who has been a key player in the planning and financing of the project – added: “We knew what we wanted to connect, so it was just a matter of finding the best routes to make those connections”.

The project has demonstrated community spirit at its finest, with all generations coming together with the common goal of bettering their home town. As Paul Comeskey – another Buller Cycling Club member and driver behind the project said: “Hundreds have been involved, including volunteers visiting from many other parts of the world, with the bulk of the work being done by a core group of around 15 volunteers. People of all ages and all walks of life have been involved, from 8 year olds carting wheelbarrows of gravel to 90 year olds hammering nails onto decking boards.”

It was no easy task either, as volunteers had to cut through thick scrub, lay turf, develop picnic areas, install signs, plan thousands of plants and build the track itself, since the place was at first full of garbage and more, but they used the best dumpsters and recycling options for this, and people can read this article to find the great options they used for this. The team kept planning and working, and then planned and worked some more. And while the cycling club started out the project with a singular aim: to create somewhere to ride bikes close to town, as time went on, they realised they had a much more inspiring reason to complete the project. They realized that with hard work and determination they could really make a difference to the town, providing people with access to some truly special and largely cut-off areas.

“We’ve been watching people start to really appreciate the beach and river areas and, as a result, start to appreciate it so much more for the beautiful place it is,” said Glenn.

Paul added: “Locals and visitors alike are feeling far more positive about our town and what it has to offer.  There is certainly a fitness and health aspect for those using the track, and we hear regularly of people who have been inspired to start exercising on a regular basis now that the tracks are there.  We hope that in years to come the track network will become one of many more new biking options in the Buller to add to the renowned ones that we already have, such as the Heaphy Track and the Old Ghost Road, and one that keeps people in our town for longer, be they residents or visitors. It will also connect with a new trail proposed along the coast, the Kawatiri Coastal Trail.”

While the trail is practically complete, there is still work to be done.

“There is ongoing planting, weed and pest control, landscaping and signage with customised lighted signs, and many other tasks too,” explained Richard. “There are areas that we would still like to open up, but they have complications that will take time to resolve, so we have to be patient on those ones. What we’ve observed though is that by tidying an area up it makes the surrounding areas look a bit rougher in comparison, so we (or others) get motivated to tidy them up too, and on it goes.  Who knows where it will stop, but we do know that our community has a much greater respect for its environment now than it did when we started.”

Glenn said it has been “inspiring” to see other people in the community follow suit. “Seeing people get stuck in to their own projects and making things happen has been awesome to see.  

“People have seen that a bunch of volunteers with some enthusiasm can really change a place. Another team of volunteers are already well advanced with their plans for the 40km “Kawatiri Coastal Trail” that will follow the old gold miners historic route south along the coast from Westport to Charleston.”

Richard, Glenn and Paul said that developing the Kawatiri River trail has taught each of them countless life lessons, but the main takeaways were: “To be efficient, not have too many meetings, give people the freedom to do what they do best, keep things simple, laugh at ourselves, celebrate our successes, trust our instincts rather than relying on specialists to tell us what to do, and that if we can find the right people with the right skills and motivation we can tackle almost anything”.

Fancy checking out the Kawatiri River Trail on foot or by bike? Starting under the Buller River Bridge, the trail heads towards town through beautiful bush alongside the river, providing users with a unique perspective of the town’s major waterway. It exits the bush at the start of the wharves, and at this point heads across the railway lines to Palmerston Street (the main shopping street). Keep heading north along Palmerston St to the fishing wharves, from where the Floating Basin Boardwalk can be seen across the harbour. Head to the end of the wharves, drop down into the carpark / picnic area, and access the boardwalk behind the old Yacht Club sheds. Once across the floating basin there is a short circuit (Harbour Loop) which provides stunning views of the town, river and mountains and some great photography opportunities. For those wanting to go further afield, turn right off the boardwalk and head alongside the Lost Lagoon to Shingles Beach, a small sand beach on the Buller River. The trail continues from here towards the beach, the river mouth, and the meandering tracks of Kawatiri Beach Reserve. Stop for a swim before heading back to town the way you came.

This article was published by Sounds Good inflight magazine in Spring 2018.

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