This route follows the course of the Buller River. On this trip you will be driving through sleepy little towns, to a dramatic gorge where the road is cut into a vertical cliff face. Many of these towns were busy goldmining centres in the early days of European settlement.
In 1845 Charles Heaphy, an explorer and artist, was sent southwest from Nelson to explore the land towards the west coast. Bureaucratic difficulties had prevented the first settlers from taking up land and setting up farms when Nelson was founded in the 1840s, so there was hope that Heaphy would find wide fertile plains and new opportunities further inland. Heaphy followed the mighty Buller River to where it entered a narrow gorge and as far as he could see, there was no suitable land in sight for farming. A year later Heaphy, William Fox and Thomas Brunner followed their Maori guide, Kehu (Ngati Tumatakokiri) back to the area and then in 1846 Kehu led Heaphy and Brunner on a long 18 month journey to Lake Rotoiti and down the West Coast to Paringa. They lived off the land, using Kehu's hunting and gathering skills and benefited from the hospitality of the local Maori they encountered on the trip. The difficult country, cold weather and lack of food made it a harrowing journey and Brunner's reports were to finally put to an end the dream of a large fertile inland plain. In Nelson the industrious German immigrants had planted grape vines and fruit trees that flourished in the sunny climate. Horticulture became a thriving industry and many of the unemployed established themselves on small holdings. By 1860 the first scientist to visit the Nelson Lakes, Julius von Haast, prepared detailed reports of the rock, fauna and flora of the area, also reporting that gold was to be found around Rotoiti and Rotoroa. The gold rush was short lived, but reports from a surveyor called Rochfort that gold had been found on the edge of the Buller created another gold rush further west in 1862. Most of the miners worked in the Matakitaki valley, but were soon lured by goldfields further south. The early settlers had worked hard to develop farms further inland and to open up routes through to the Wairau River as well as along the Butler River to the West Coast. The gold rush sped up progress on establishing the route along the Buller Gorge to Westport. The hordes of prospectors and gold diggers further enriched the towns and although little remains of many of these towns today, the region has been well established with stonefruit, berries, hops and vines, supplying the rest of the country with its rich harvest.
From Nelson drive 16 km southwest on SH6 through Richmond to Hope.
Hope was founded in 1844 by German settlers from Hamburg and was originally named Ranzau. The town has retained its links with its German past, you can still see Ranzau School built in 1848 and St John's Lutheran Church built in 1849 on Ranzau Road which has a graveyard with the headstones of some of the early immigrants inscribed in German. There is also a two-storeyed cob house built in 1863 further along the road.
Continue 5 km southwest on SH6 to Brightwater.
Brightwater was the birthplace of Sir Ernest Rutherford, winner of the 1908 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the founder of nuclear physics. The district was given its name by Alfred Saunders, who established a flax mill here in the 1850s. St Paul's Anglican Church was built in 1857 and the young wife of Nelson's first bishop, Bishop Hobhouse, was buried in this churchyard when she died in childbirth.
Continue southwest 7 km on SH6 to Wakefield.
The oldest school in continuous use in the country, Wakefield primary can be found here, while the oldest surviving Anglican church in the South Island can be visited by making a short detour signposted 'Pig Valley' to St John's Anglican Church, built in 1846. A little west of Wakefield, the signposted Pigeon Valley Steam Museum contains a fascinating collection of steam-driven machinery.
Sheep graze peacefully around derelict buildings, South of Wakefield
From Wakefield drive 24 km southwest on SH6 to Kohatu then continue for a further 31.7 km southwest across the hills to Glenhope.
A cairn beside the road records the contributions of some of the early pioneers who settled in the Hope Valley including George Fairweather Moonlight. George was a flamboyant character who after making a number of significant discoveries of gold in Otago retired in the Murchison area where he became a local legend as an extravagantly costumed publican and the self appointed sheriff. The railway finally reached Glenhope from Nelson by 1912 but it had taken 33 years to build the 66 km line. The plans to link Nelson by rail to the rest of the South Island went back to the 1860s with construction beginning in 1873. Economic recessions and the First World War delayed work on the line and by 1931 the line had reached Gowan Bridge only 70 km from Inangahua Junction, where it would connect with the main trunk line. Another recession put an end to the work and in the 1950s, when the main highways were completed, the line was closed despite a 12,000-signature petition and a week-long sit-in by a group of women on the line.
Continue for 42 km on SH 6. From Kawatiri the road follows the course of the Buller River. Near Gowanbridge the road passes through impressive gorge scenery, then across the river flats to Murchison.
Located on an alluvial gravel plain formed by the Buller and Matakitaki Rivers, Murchison lies close to the Alpine Fault, where two sections of the earth's crust grind slowly past each other, occasionally generating enough pressure to create an earthquake. On 17 June 1929 a powerful quake that was felt throughout New Zealand was centered on Murchison, with aftershocks continuing for the next 2 weeks. You can see in graphic detail the devastation caused by the quake in displays at the Murchison Museum on Fairfax Street. The town was evacuated, but 17 lives were still lost and the surrounding area was left in ruins. The earthquake changed the course of the Maruia River, causing it to gouge out a new channel and create a waterfall. Some of the upheaval on the landscape created by the earthquake is still clearly visible, but the scars caused by extensive gold dredging, which continued on the Matakitaki River until the 1940s, have now been largely covered by scrub. The area is now recognised as the 'Whitewater capital’ of New Zealand, with the Gowan, Mangles, Matiri, Glenroy, Matakitaki, Maruia, and Buller rivers providing numerous whitewater runs for rafting and kayaking. These rivers are also renowned for there brown trout and are popular for fly fishing.
6buller gorge swingbridge
Continue 14 kilometres west on SH6 from Murchison to the Buller Gorge Swingbridge.
Kawatiri, the Maori name for the Buller River, means 'river flowing swiftly through a narrow gorge' which is an accurate description of this impressive waterway. The Nelson Lakes act as a buffer in times of heavy rainfall, collecting huge volumes of water from the mountains which is then released into the Buller River. The river can swiftly become a raging torrent making crossing the Buller Gorge swingbridge an exciting experience as it sways above the raging Buller River below. The swingbridge is the longest in New Zealand and if crossing the bridge isn’t exciting enough for you, try strapping yourself onto the Cometline which provides a 160 m long flying fox ride across the gorge. There are forest walks on the other side of the river and you can also try goldpanning or take a jetboat ride.
Continue west on SH6 for 19.5 km to Lyell.
Once one of the largest gold mining settlements in the South Island, it is hard to imagine today that several thousand people lived in Lyell in the mid-1800s, lured by the chance that they may strike it rich. A fascinating pioneer cemetery is hidden in the bush a short distance along the 3 km Lyell Walkway. The track follows an old dray road to the Croesus stamping battery where New Zealand's largest gold nugget was found and you can still try your luck panning for gold in the local streams.
In many of the South Island's rivers a shovel and a pan are all you will need to try searching for gold. The gold-bearing shingle, known as ‘pay dirt’, is placed in the pan and then submerged in water. The pan is shaken from side to side or swirled in a circular motion which causes the gold to sink. The pan is then quickly tilted to spill the stones over the rim. This process is repeated until only the flakes of gold remain. Out on the West Coast the gold is usually mixed with heavy black sand which can be dried and then blown away, leaving small flakes of gold if you are lucky.
From Lyell drive 16.2 km southwest on SH6 to Inangahua.
Once known as Christies Junction, the name of the town comes from inanga, the Maori word for whitebait. Inangahua Junction is the place where the Inangahua River meets the Buller River. It was once an important centre in the movement of quartz-crushing equipment that was being moved up the Buller River from Westport to Reefton. Located only a short distance to the west of the Alpine Fault, the town has experienced numerous earthquakes including one that forced the evacuation of all its 100 inhabitants in 1968. The earthquake, measuring 7 on the Richter scale, is still the largest on-land earthquake that has been measured in New Zealand. The area has features impressive limestone caves, including a cave system that extends 5 km through a hill.
Small forest stream feeding the Lower-Buller-River
9lower buller gorge
Drive 13.4 km west on SH6 to Berlins, which marks the beginning of the lower Buller Gorge, then continue 26.9 km west to the junction with SH67. Turn right onto SH67 and drive north 5 km to Westport.
Named after Charles Buller, a man much involved in the colonization of New Zealand in the 1800s, the Buller River cuts a 169 kilometer track from its source, at Lake Rotoiti, westward to the Tasman Sea at Westport. Maori have an apt traditional name for this South Island river: Kawatiri, which means "deep and swift". Highly appropriate, considering that this watercourse has the greatest flood discharge in New Zealand. Today the spectacular Buller Gorge is still renowned for its mist-shrouded forests and the distinctive section of roadway at Hawks Crag where the road has been blasted into a vertical cliff face, providing just enough space for the tourist buses to squeeze through. The crag is named after Robert Hawks, an early prospector who came to the area in search of gold.