The crackling sounds of breaking waves pierce the crisp winter morning air as I amble down to the start of the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway near the Lee Breakwater. The clear blue sea stretches out to the horizon where it meets the soft powder-blue sky. The Power Station chimney towers over a container ship berthed at Port Taranaki, and fishing boats are moored by the breakwater. The coastal walkway meanders around the bay past Len Lye’s Wind Wand in the central city out to the white wave-shaped Te Rewa Rewa bridge near the Waiwhakaiho River mouth 7km away and on through Hickford Park to Bell Block Beach.

In the early morning the walkway is quiet near the port. A tag team of three cyclists glide by me – perfect timing to fill the frame of my photograph. By 10am the local inhabitants are waking up to a stunning blue day, if not a little chilly – a perfect morning to pop on their walking shoes and embrace the sea air on the coastal walkway.

The Coastal Walkway has won numerous awards including an International LivCom award for Liveable Communities

A tall spindly red pointer topped by a perspex ball stretches up into the dark blue sky as I near the downtown area. Kinetic artist Len Lye tested his first wind wands in New York during the early sixties, 40 years before this 48-metre high example was installed on the New Plymouth foreshore. On windy days it bends so far in the wind I wonder if it may snap. The Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery has more of the New Zealand-born artist’s mesmerising sculptures.

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A cluster of people are gathered around Howard Tuffery’s bright stainless steel sculpture Light on Land, while nearby two women on a solid wooden bench overlooking the ocean are engaged intensely in conversation. Two young men with designer dogs on leads walk by, chatting about the previous night’s activities. People of all shapes and sizes are out walking, family groups, children on bikes, babies in strollers or on the back of bikes. It’s a busy scene as the day warms. A loud clack, clack, clack sounds behind me as skateboarders run over planks on the sidewalk and onto the paved walkway. This walkway has changed the way people embrace the coastal environment.

All ages enjoy a morning on the walkway

When I first moved to New Plymouth in the mid-seventies, it surprised me that the town was built right by the ocean yet all the buildings were facing inland. The railway station and yards covered the area by the foreshore near where the Wind Wand now stands, and there was no easy access to the foreshore in the central city until railway yards were relocated out to Smart Road. The whole of the foreshore area was redesigned, the road realigned, Centre City was built, and over time, buildings were moved to create a space for Puke Ariki museum and landing. Next in 1997 came the plans for a grand coastal walkway from Port Taranaki to the Waiwhakaiho River.

A great deal of thought, engineering and design went into creating the walkway. The design had to respond to the wild west coast – dangerous at times, yet peaceful on calm days.

Near Port Taranaki two dogs enjoy a morning walk

“We wanted to be able to walk out and be proud (of the west coast) and be windblown if we needed to be, and enjoy the quiet sunset when those days arrived, but (whatever the weather) we wanted to get out there and be in it,” said David Irwin of Isthmus, who collaborated on the design with landscape architect Richard Bain of Bluemarble.

“It started as a coastal walkway and ended up being a piece of infrastructure that changes the way a city sees itself. It’s given the city an identity. It has empowered people to show off their city. I don’t think we ever perceived it would unleash such pride,” said Irwin speaking to Landscape Architect Aotearoa.

The walkway finshes/starts near Port Taranaki

The walkway is rugged and strong with large piles of round rocks leading up from the ocean to the smooth concrete path, interspaced with wide planked wooden piers and solid bench seats, that provide uninterrupted views of the coast. The promenade was designed without an edge to avoid interrupting the connection with the sea. Between the Wind Wand and East End Beach a curved wall stabilises the bank above the walkway, an area that can be pounded by waves during stormy weather.

As the walkway rounds the corner to East End and Fitzroy Beaches the activity changes. Cars with surfboards fill the carparks with surfers clambering into wetsuits before paddling out into the hollow glassy waves. I watch as the surfers dance with nature, sliding effortlessly around the waveface until they are engulfed by the breaking wave. At Fitzroy Surf Club a crowd has gathered to watch the surfers negotiate the tricky hollow waves. One wrong move and the surfer is swallowed by the tube.

Lunch activity at The Kiosk at Fitzroy Beach

The smell of coffee fills the air and I realise it is lunch time. The Kiosk at Fitzroy Beach operates out of the Surf Club from 8am to 3pm each day. After studying the menu I choose a pulled lamb quesadilla with corn salsa, an excellent choice as it turns out. Seated in the sun at a bench table I watch the tube-riding action and chat with a family over lunch.

As the tide is going out I decide to walk this section along the beach rather than the walkway, finding the beach sand is soft in contrast to the concrete surface of the walkway. At the groyne by the Waiwhakaiho River mouth, there is a short clamber over rocks to rejoin the walkway. The water rushes out from the Waiwhakaiho River under the Te Rewa Rewa bridge to reach the surging ocean.

Crossing the Te Rewa Rewa bridge is a three-dimensional experience. It is like walking through a large curving sculpture – like a wave made from the ribs of a whale. The towering sculpture changes as you pass through the curved shape to the other side of the river. From the far side, on a clear day Taranaki Maunga lines up perfectly in the centre of the curved bridge.

A surfer enjoys the glassy conditions at Fitzroy

This is no accident; at the request of the Ngāti Tawhirikura hapū, the bridge design was turned around so it opens towards the sacred mountain. Bridge designer Peter Mulqueen was conscious that the bridge should ‘touch lightly’ on the Rewa Rewa side of the river, to honour the deceased in the Rewa Rewa burial ground on the north river bank.

This is where my journey finishes today, at this spiritual site by the Te Wera Wera bridge. I turn and retrace my steps along the walkway as the afternoon sun creeps across the sky. It is a credit to good architectural design, embracing our wild coastline to create a walkway that people walk, ride, or skate with a smile on their faces, appreciating nature and the simple pleasures in life.

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