17 Jun 2017
Captivating lakes, uninterrupted landscapes, thermal pools and an old gold mining town – through Nelson Lakes district down to Christchurch
To continue our journey south, with the aim of getting to Christchurch by night time, we began by driving back to Motueka, and then south-west via the Motueka Valley Highway. The traditional route to Christchurch from the upper South Island used to be to follow the Kaikoura coast south, but with the extensive damage to roads and land slips following the earthquakes in November, that road is now closed. This shouldn't put anyone off - the road following state highway 65 is beautiful, and the Nelson Lakes area is well worth seeing!
The road took us through a myriad of landscapes, including vineyards, rural countryside, forestry, and small towns. We followed the Motueka river to Tapawera, a small town which is a gateway to the Kahurangi National Park. With a population of about 400, it’s barely a town, but it does have a local supermarket, a campground, a few cafes, and a garage; making it a good pit stop if you need one whilst cruising through.
Further along the road, at Gowanbridge, we took a turn off to Lake Rotoroa. Along with Lake Rotoiti, Rotoroa makes up the stunning scenery of the Nelson Lakes district. It is almost eerily beautiful, and being a little off the beaten track, is very quiet and mostly unfrequented. There are picnic spots around the lake, and lots of walking tracks, too. This area really is the botanist’s dream, with tall forest trees, shrubs, climbing vines, mosses and ferns. We did a quick nature walk, to break up the day-long drive, which was revitalising. For the more intrepid traveller, there are lots of longer multi-day tramps and hikes, with huts available to stay in. These huts are serviced by the Department of Conservation and are well-equipped with bunks and cooking spaces, and really give you a great opportunity to see the flora and fauna of the area.
We piled back into the car, and reached Murchison by lunchtime. Here, the Buller River meets the Matakitaki River. To get a great view of the Buller river, you can continue down state highway 6 for a short while, and cross a swing bridge to see the gorge. The history of Murchison is interesting too, as it is coloured by its days as an early gold mining town. The iconic 19th century Hampden Hotel is worth stopping at; either to stay the night, or to get a drink or meal at the restaurant there.
With lots of nearby rivers, the white-water rafting from Murchison is legendary - the town has actually been dubbed the “white water capital of New Zealand”; and the fly-fishing is very good, too. With another 4 hours of driving to do before reaching Christchurch, we decided not to take up one of these activities, but they’d be worth staying a little longer for!
From Murchison, you can head west to reach the west coast of the South Island, or follow state highway 65 through Victoria Forest Park, southward towards Lake Sumner. Another beautiful lake and conservation area, Lake Sumner is well worth a stop in itself! It’s great for camping, lake activities, and walks; with natural hot pools to be found north of Lake Taylor. Likewise, Hanmer Springs is a great place to stop or to stay. More popular with tourists, travellers, and locals from surrounding towns, Hanmer provides lots of great attractions. From nature walks to mini golf, mountain biking tracks to spa treatment at the pools, it’s the perfect weekend getaway location. In fact, it has become known as a ‘resort town’; for its locality to the ski fields in winter, combined with the thermal pools and beautiful landscape.
It’s just 90 minutes onwards to Christchurch, and we didn’t stop after we’d been through Hanmer. We passed through Waipara - which is known for its wine - and rural Amberley, before we reached Kaiapoi and the outskirts of Christchurch city just as it was getting dark. What a day!