TO THE LAKES - robmellors


Last February we travelled down the West Coast of South Island from Abel Tasman via Murchison and at the time we thought that it would have been nice to spend a few days there rather than just have a quick coffee break. So this time we booked into the very comfortable and clean Matangi Motel for three days. The town (village really, though it's the largest settlement for miles around) isn't that remarkable but, as with many places in New Zealand, its position makes it very appealing, at least for us.

Murchison lies at the confluence of no less than four river systems; the Matiri, which flows down from the Kahurangi National Park; the Mangles which flows down the incredibly beautiful Mangles Valley; the Matakitaki which rises high up in the Spencer Mountains and the Buller River into which all the others eventually flow. The Buller just has to be my favourite river in New Zealand. It has an intense green colour and because it gathers countless rivers and streams on its long journey to the west coast, it flows fast and furious for much of its length as it squeezes through narrow valleys.

Just outside of Murchison you can walk over the Buller on a 'swing bridge' - a steel rope suspension bridge in the UK. Looking down into the churning waters you can appreciate how difficult it was for early settlers to find a safe crossing of the river. On the other side of the bridge you can walk along old mine workings and still see countless tiny glinting pieces of metal in the sand. These are fragments of gold left behind from the washings.

In its time this area was a mecca for goldminers and at nearby Lyell a whole gold town once flourished. Nothing is left now but rusting machinery, rotting timber and the ghosts of yesterday.

We did a number of walks out of Murchison. First up the aforementioned Matakitaki River to Six Mile (sadly, now 10 Kilometers) where New Zealand's first hydro-electric plant was built. It only served the surrounding area but apparently the farmers and housewives were very happy to have power at the flick of a switch. It was decomissioned a few decades ago as being no longer economic and you can now wander up the old wooden sluices to where the water was drawn off to feed the turbines. In the afternoon we elected just to drive up the Mangles Valley. Such an intriguing name you just have to explore it. It's a gorgeous valley with isolated houses and homesteads.

The following day, just to complete the picture, we hiked up the Matiri valley. In theory, if you've enough time, you can hike high into the Matiri Range and get to the lake which feeds the Matiri River. However, this is a 6 hour walk, involves a river crossing and a scramble across a washed out section of track and a night in a back country hut. We just hiked until we got fed up crossing the countless gullies and streams and then hiked back. But it was a beautiful walk in the bright summer sunshine.

It was at Murchison that I realised I have a syndrome (well, another one to add to my growing collection, in all honesty). We met an Australian who, as a fellow sufferer, told me that my habit of losing car keys, pen knives, glasses and anything that isn't nailed down, is a symptom of Hydrone-esterix Syndrome. This is described as an inability to find the Easter eggs that you have hidden yourself - hence Hide Your Own Easter Eggs Syndrome. It's nice to know that I'm not alone in my suffering!

After Murchison we moved on to the Nelson Lakes area. You might suppose that this is a bit like our own Lake District and in the sense that you have a lake surrounded by high mountains (or Fells in the UK) it is. However, whereas Cumbria boasts tens of lakes, Nelson Lakes has but two (unless you count the several small lakes right at the top of 6,000+ ft mountains).

The first of these, Rotoroa is the undoubted Sandfly capital of the Southern Hemisphere. Sandflies are a blessed nuisance, particularly on the west coast of the south island and when you see someone sitting at a table idly scratching at the nether parts of their body you know that they have been in the zone.

At Rotoroa you don't even need to get out of the car - I swear they can get in through the air intake or under the rubber seal of the windows. We drove down to the lake front, got out for ten seconds, got back in and drove off. Naturally, we had a few extra passengers with us and spent the rest of the journey trying to squash them against the windows before they bit us.

St Arnaud lies at the end of the second lake in the area, Lake Rotoiti. The lake is hemmed in by the St Arnaud Range of mountains on one side and the Braeburn Range on the other so it has a pinched in, squashed feel but it is a spectacular setting. It is at this lake that the great Buller River has its beginnings. But dominating the St Arnaud end of the lake is the superbly named Mt Robert, which naturally attracted our attention.

You can do a hike up this mountain but it's a tough climb and a steep and at times rocky descent so we contented ourselves with driving up to a viewpoint, taking some photos and then hiking lower level paths around the lake and elsewhere. This is good hiking country and we had a great time even on the lower tracks. Nearby lies one of the lovliest valleys we have walked in this time around - the Howard Valley. If you wander off up some of the side tracks you can hike to some creeks where fossicking is permitted (except for commercial fossicking, which is understandable really). But with Jane's right arm in plaster we decided that fossicking wasn't such a good idea and it will have to wait until we get home (Note: 'fossicking' means panhandling for gold, not what you're thinking!).

The weather was a bit iffy whilst we were in St Arnaud; hot one day cloudy the next, but we've had a full moon and the stars at night have been brilliant. We've really enjoyed our time in the South, despite having to visit A&E and Jane having to adapt to life as a left hander. We're now overnighting in Picton and catching the ferry to Wellington tomorrow. Then we shall make our way up to Auckland over the following three days. It's time to put 'Homeward Bound' on the cd player.

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