The old National Road 3 through the Manawatū Gorge is permanently closed to traffic, but it could give walkers, cyclists and horseback riders a new life.
Such a move would prove popular among people who use the other trails in the area.
And there is already a well-worn trail on the slides that crosses the tarmac of the old road, and holes torn in the fences at either end, as people on foot or on bikes use the road for recreation.
The Waka Kotahi transport agency said in May that the road was not safe to use, but if safety works were to take place, it could reopen for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
Meanwhile, work on a new highway between Manawatū and Hawke’s Bay continued. It is scheduled to open in 2024, and until then motorists should take the winding roads of Saddle Road and Pahīatua Track.
Next to the building site on the Ashhurst side is the busy entrance to the gorge walking path.
On Monday morning, Grahame Stillwell was getting ready for his hilly walk and jog.
He said he would like to see the old road open for recreation.
“I think road cyclists and mountain bikers could safely use it as part of the loop that takes you through the gorge to Woodville and then back up the Pahīatua trail or the new saddle [Road].”
He said the old road had a perfect view of the gorge and he missed cycling through it.
The road was closed in April 2017 when slips occurred. It has experienced closures due to rockfalls and landslides, notably in 2011-2012 and 1995.
Brad Jonasen and Lance Schaffer, landscape architecture students from Victoria University, took a look inside the old road.
Jonasen is writing his master’s thesis on restoring recreational access to the old road.
“We are looking to do some work here in the gorge, maybe turning it into a recreational track, a cycle track if needed, looking to do something with the old road in the direction of infrastructure rehabilitation.”
It was important to retain the character of the place and not whitewash it with new materials, he said.
“We’re going to make drawings and generate ideas. If people like them, it could happen in the future…
“There’s quite a bit of evidence that people are already using it, and I think that’s really special.
“I don’t encourage people to jump over fences in any way, but if there’s already an urge for people to go hang out in space or use that space, I think there should be be made available to everyone.”
This sentiment was echoed by others RNZ spoke to.
Julie Collins said it was a shame to leave the road unused, while Colin, who did not give his surname, thought the view across the gorge was the best in New Zealand.
Eric Bodell said he wants to see the road reopened to tourist traffic.
It won’t happen, after Waka Kotahi received a draft geotechnical report which concluded the risks to motorists were too great.
However, because people on foot, bike, or horseback had more time to react to a slip or avoid debris on the road, they were at less risk if the road was made safe again.
Waka Kotahi’s regional manager for system delivery, Sarah Downs, said the main area of concern for hill instability was a 4km stretch in the middle of the road, about 10km.
Waka Kotahi was beginning the process of revoking the area as a national highway, meaning local councils or other parties could take control.
But, if they did, the job of reopening it to recreational users wouldn’t come from the Waka Kotahi purse.
“What we’ve done is have initial conversations with LINZ on a lane to determine that road stop,” Downs said.
“We certainly hope to have a plan in place by the time the new road opens, so we definitely have a timeline for that by the end of 2024.”
Tararua District Mayor Tracey Collis said her small taxpayer base probably couldn’t afford to fund such work and maintenance.
But she, like many area residents, would like to see the old road reopen for recreational use, and hoped interested parties could find a way to make it happen.
“I haven’t crossed it myself, but it’s a very, very special place. It’s the only place where you can see both the mountains of the Tararua and Ruahine ranges, and the river .”