For more than 20 years, Ian Argyle has led a crew of volunteer track builders all over the Tararua Range in constructing new trails for all to enjoy.
f you’ve ever walked the section of Te Araroa Trail between Palmerston North and Levin, then you owe virtually every step you take to the tireless efforts of one man. Ian Argyle grew up a farmer in the hills near Palmerston North, but for the last 23 years has dedicated his life to building tracks for recreational hikers and local families.
It started in 1999 with the Sledge Track, near Palmerston North. Argyle noticed there was no real access to Hardings Park, an 860ha scenic reserve. When the project was completed, Argyle was asked to continue his work and take the track further. He didn’t know then that this volunteer-run project would continue for more than two decades.
“We completed the Sledge Track to the old platinum mines, which were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by a German fellow,” says Argyle. “After that, we built the Toe Toe Loop Track, slowly forging our way through Hardings Park.”
In 2011, Argyle and his crew built the Otangane Loop, which Argyle describes as his greatest achievement. “It meant people could get full use of Hardings Park. We got permission from DOC to follow the watershed to the Otangane Stream right round in a loop. It’s very popular.”
You might wonder how one goes about building a track. For Argyle, the trick lies in using paper roads as a guide. “A paper road is a road that never was,” Argyle explains. “It’s been surveyed but never made; it only exists on paper. But it has the same rights as a normal road.”
Negotiating access and agitating for public rights is a key role for any track building coordinator, and in this regard no one is better than Argyle. But you also need the field skills of an army general. One of Argyle’s great strengths is in recognising the skills of others and utilising the combined talents of a group.
“I’ve always been able to pick up people who are good at different things,” he says. “I had a fellow who did all the GPS work; others were good bushmen and could pick the right watersheds. If you find someone who knows how to build steps, you don’t get in his way. It’s just a matter of organising them all.”
Sometimes prisoners would be employed to help build the tracks. Argyle would chat with them during lunch breaks, imparting his knowledge of the land. It was an experience he found incredibly rewarding. “A lot of them never had a decent upbringing. They loved me telling them about different things and afterwards some got jobs building.”
Building the Burtton’s Track (part of Te Araroa) through Tokomaru Gorge was another milestone for Argyle and his crew. The track was opened in 2008 by Helen Clark, who was Prime Minister at the time.
Two years ago, Argyle received a Queen’s Service Medal for his efforts to develop recreational walkways. “It was a terrific surprise to me,” he says. “I’ll cherish that medal my whole life.”
Argyle is about to turn 88, and people who have worked alongside him over the years are lining up to pay tribute. Long time Tararua tramper Joe Nawalaniec has volunteered regularly with Argyle. He describes him as a “visionary, indefatigable organiser, coordinator and feather-ruffler extraordinaire”.
Nawalaniec says Argyle is responsible for basically every track in the northern Tararua Range. “Without his selfless vision, drive and industry, there would be nothing there.” What Nawalaniec finds ironic is that Argyle isn’t even a tramper. “He’s a retired farmer who foresaw untapped opportunity for recreation for others in these hills.”
Pat Redwood is the GPS genius of Argyle’s crew. He says Argyle’s great skill is his undying determination to see a project through. “He also has a great skill of finding what people were best at and making sure the team worked. Building a track across the Tararua Range was a great achievement for all of us, but Ian single-mindedly engineered the whole thing. Without him, it wouldn’t have occurred.”
For Argyle, the reward comes from seeing people enjoying the tracks. His achievements also show it’s never too late to start a project, no matter how ambitious.
“I didn’t start doing this until I was 65,” he says. “I get great satisfaction from having built these tracks, especially when I see all the families and children using them. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”