27 Apr 2019

No end in sight to Taranaki Whitecliffs Walkway impasse

6:54 am on 27 April 2019

Authorities in Taranaki are being called out for failing to resolve an impasse that has put part of a famous walkway off limits to the public.

The Whitecliffs walkway runs through a mix of public and private land.

The Whitecliffs Walkway runs through a mix of public and private land. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The New Plymouth District Council says it is unable to prevent a landowner stopping people using the Tongaporutu end of the Whitecliffs Walkway, but locals say that is a cop out.

The 14 kilometre walkway follows the Kapuni gas pipeline from Pukearuhe to Tongaporutu traversing the area's papa-rock cliffs from above and along the beach.

It also takes in the 130-year-old Te Horo stock tunnel - which is caved through the cliffs - before emerging on private farmland.

Murray Dixon, who leased a bach at Tongaporutu, said walkers were now being short changed whether they tackled the track from north or south.

"Originally we could walk all the way to the tunnel and through the tunnel and utilise the Whitecliffs Walkway properly and since this issue our scope for walking has dramatically reduced.

"We see a considerable number of tourists and obviously a lot of locals who are frustrated by this impasse which we currently have."

Since 2016, Tongaporutu farmer Russell Gibbs has stopped walkers crossing his land after the Department of Conservation (DOC) issued a concession to a commercial tour operator.

Mr Gibbs said at the time that went against the deal his father made back in the 1980s.

DOC has since removed its signage from the northern end of the Whitecliffs Walkway and the tour company only operates at the Pukearuhe end.

Mr Gibbs has meanwhile altered his signs to say the track is closed and trespassers will be prosecuted.

Mr Dixon said it was a shame because nature regularly puts on spectacular displays that could only be viewed from up on the walkway.

"Yesterday out here right up against the cliffs we had 40 to 50 dolphins and a killer whale fishing. They were chasing kingfish or kahawai and they were there for several hours.

"Now that sort of thing, as well as the significant beauty of this place, is being denied to the public and to outsiders who come here with the expectation of being able to participate in this walkway."

Mr Dixon's family have made a deputation to New Plymouth District Council asking it to step in.

He said Clifton Road which crosses Mr Gibbs' farm was a council administrated road and it should find a way to resolve access issues.

Tongaporutu farmer Russell Gibbs is withdrawing permission for public access to his land over an alleged breach of agreement.

Tongaporutu farmer Russell Gibbs withdrew permission for public access to his land over an alleged breach of agreement in 2016. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The historically-recognised Te Horo stock tunnel was also protected in the district plan and should not be allowed to fall into disrepair, he said.

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom, however, said the council got its fingers burnt when it tried to repair the tunnel in 1995 and it was reluctant to force the issue.

Neil Holdom.

Neil Holdom Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"We are in a view that the landowner's got great legal capabilities and we lost $100,000 the last time we attempted to do some work there.

"So the risk for us is really that we could go out and take an aggressive approach and try to legally attempt to acquire easements and form a road, but that would cost a significant amount of money with no guarantee through the Public Works Act that we'd be successful.

"That's why to date council hasn't been able to reopen that walkway."

Mr Holdom said complicating matters was the fact that parts of the walkway had been relocated on to Mr Gibbs's property.

That was cold comfort to Mr Dixon.

"I personally think that the landowner is really keen for a resolution and it's just so petty. That's the way I see it.

"I think he just wants recognition but I want to keep focused on this walkway. I don't want to know any of his other issues.

"If he's got issues with various other parties then they should be solved separately from this vital walkway."

DOC Hauraki-Waikato-Taranaki operations director David Speirs said the Whitecliffs Walkway presented many challenges that the department, the New Plymouth council and Walking Access Commission New Zealand were wrestling with.

"Two parts of the section along the Clifton Road Reserve from Tongaporutu have been washed out and you need to cross into private land belonging to Russell Gibbs to get around the washouts.

"As Mr Gibbs restricted public access to his private land DOC removed its signage from the Clifton Road Reserve which was welcomed by Mr Gibbs. The legal access for the walkway is the road reserve, not necessarily the track you follow and definitely not the two sections that skirt around the washouts."

Mr Speirs said the situation with Mr Gibbs remained at a stalemate.

"There have been no discussions to reopen those sections of private property on the walkway and they continue to remain closed."

Mr Gibbs declined an interview but said his position remained the same as in 2016.

Meanwhile, the New Plymouth Council has asked its officers to prepare a report on access to Clifton Road.