Reefton: Illuminations along Rutherford’s road

Rivers, lakes and old towns at the north of the South Island are perfect places to lose today’s hustle and bustle, writes Nicola McCloy.

After a pretty lazy start to the day, we headed out of Nelson in search of a local hero. It only took us half an hour to find him. Just on the outskirts of Brightwater stands the Lord Rutherford Memorial. That’s because Ernest Rutherford, world-famous atom splitter and face of the Kiwi $100 note, was born near here. The memorial consists of a red brick spiral that leads up to a statue of the schoolboy Rutherford, complete with maths book in hand and catapult in pocket. Along the walls of the memorial there are panels about his life and audio tracks that tell his story. It’s a great wee spot to sit a spell and contemplate the impact that Kiwi ingenuity has had on the world.

Just along the road is the charming village of Wakefield, which is apparently not named after Captain Arthur Wakefield, one of Nelson’s founders, but after a town of the same name in Yorkshire. Whatever Arthur’s role in this place was, the town that shares his name has a lovely heritage feel to it. That’s probably because it’s home to the oldest continually used school in the country — Wakefield Primary School was established in 1843. Three years after the school was built, St John’s Anglican Church went up and, after Christ Church in Russell, it is the second oldest surviving church in New Zealand.

Although our destination for the day was Reefton, we decided to take a detour to the Nelson Lakes. From Wakefield, we headed up the Eighty Eight Valley Rd to Golden Downs.

This took us through farmland up into the forest-covered hills of Spooners Range. After Golden Downs, the road briefly follows the course of the Motueka River before climbing through the forestry over Kerr Hill and dropping down to the village of Kikiwa. The Motupiko River valley then led us down to where we finally rejoined the main road through the Wairau Valley to St Arnaud. Until we reached the Wairau Valley, we saw pretty much no other traffic but were kept company by the almost ever-present skid marks on the road that denote the presence of enthusiasts for sustained loss of vehicular traction … It’s amazing the distance people will drive in order to do skids and burnouts.

For a town in the backblocks of the north of the South Island, St Arnaud has a curiously European feel about it, even in summer – in winter, it must almost look like a Swiss village. This is largely down to the chalet style of some of the town’s buildings, especially the Travers-Sabine Lodge, which is a local backpackers. While the name Travers-Sabine has a Swiss ring to it, it’s actually named after two nearby rivers – the Travers and the Sabine. There’s a tramping circuit, which shares the same name as the lodge, that goes from the township and takes in both of these rivers.

The main draws to this region are its two lakes — Rotoiti and Rotoroa. The town used to be called Rotoiti, but things got a bit confusing for posties as there’s another Lake Rotoiti up near Rotorua, so in 1951 St Arnaud got the nod. Weirdly, this isn’t actually as a mark of respect to a saint called Arnold (Arnaud is French for Arnold). Rather, it’s in memory of a bloke called Armand-Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud, who was French Minister of War from 1851 until 1854. During the Crimean War, he served alongside his British sidekick Lord Raglan, who got his own town in the North Island.

Lake Rotoiti is easily accessed from town and is the DoC base for Nelson Lakes National Park. There’s a network of walking tracks around the lake so you can disappear into the beech forest if the lakefront is busy. If you really want to get away from everyone, there’s a track right around the lake that takes seven to 10 hours to complete, but if you want to stretch it out there are a couple of huts en route where you can overnight.

The lake is 82m deep and is blimmin’ cold but very swimmable. I was happy to have been warned by a local about the eels that hang out under the wharf … and I might have had a little giggle to myself as I watched a busload of young tourists taking turns to jump off it as we left.

Leaving St Arnaud, we passed the turn-off to Lake Rotoroa and decided not to take the 40-minute detour to get down there. Next time. Instead we carried on along the Buller River valley to Kawatiri, where we joined State Highway 6, which formed part of the route from Christchurch to Nelson while State Highway 1 through Kaikōura was closed.

The road follows the river into the town of Murchison, which has been impacted by the extra traffic coming through — it was a whole lot busier than I’d expected it would be.

There were all sorts of small businesses making the most of this unexpected windfall, my favourite of which was easily Hodgson’s General Store. This is a classic old Kiwi store that sells everything you could possibly need and a few things you probably don’t — the signwriting on the veranda gives you some clue as to what you’ll find inside: Gardening, Groceries, Hardware, Drapery. I could have spent half the day just wandering through the myriad shelves crammed with all sorts of everything.

Murchison is known for two main things — one was the catastrophic earthquake that almost destroyed the town in 1929, the other is its proximity to multiple rivers, making it a draw for white-water enthusiasts.

Out of Murchison, we crossed over O’Sullivan’s Bridge and pulled over just on the other side of the river. That’s because the views from the bridge were absolutely gobsmacking, and we weren’t even in the Buller Gorge proper yet. Crikey.

The road here is shrouded in forest and winds its way through the gorge with sporadic flashes of views down to the river. It’s absolutely magic. We decided to stop as soon as we could to take some photos so we pulled in to a short loop road. As we got out of the car, I wondered whether there was a dead possum somewhere nearby to explain the distinct fragrance in the air. Then I heard my travel buddy Jane say, “Oh god!”. The banks that dropped down towards the river were festooned with toilet paper, from which the aroma was coming. Clearly this spot is a regular stop for overnight non-self-contained campervans. We spent the next bit of the drive trying to fathom why anyone would so blatantly spoil such a beautiful, untouched place.

Just down the road from the Rutherford Memorial is the ghost town of Lyell. It’s been given something of a new lease of life since the opening of the Old Ghost Road, an 85km tramping and mountain-biking trail. The track follows an old gold-mining road that linked Lyell with the Mōkihinui River to the north. All of the work done to restore the trail to its current state has been done by volunteers, which when you consider the isolation of the place is pretty amazing. There’s a DoC campground here — Lyell Camping Ground — if you fancy staying a night, as well as toilets if you need a pitstop.

From Lyell, the road winds through the upper reaches of the Buller Gorge before turning south towards Īnangahua, a town that sits next to the confluence of the Buller and Īnangahua rivers. The road along the Buller River heads out to the sea at Westport. Our chosen route took us south and along the Īnangahua River. Having spent so long driving along a winding road in the bush, it’s something of a relief to be on an almost dead-straight road through the plains of the lush, green river valley.

Arriving in Reefton, the first thing I noticed was the number of gold-era buildings that have survived. Then I noticed the incredibly cool vintage-style street lights, a nod to the fact that, in 1888, Reefton became the first town in New Zealand to get a public electricity supply. In classic West Coast style, this came about because a chap called Walter Prince demonstrated the delights of electric lighting in some of Reefton’s hotels; as a result the locals decided to form a company to bring electric light to the whole town.

The sense of heritage is tangible — I knew straight away I was going to like the place.


Checklist

GETTING THERE

The drive from Nelson to Reefton should take about 2hr 50m.

• This edited extract is from Let’s Get Lost, by Nicola McCloy. Published by Penguin Random House. RRP: $45

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