Wedged between two national parks, it’s all about the outdoors in Murchison. To the right of town, Nelson Lakes National Park unfurls its bejewelled splendour, while the tapestried alpine grandeur of Kahurangi National Park rises up on its left. Murchison certainly sits pretty in the Four Rivers plain, dishing up nature and adventure at every turn. Located at the confluence of five major valleys—Maruia, Mangles, Matiri, Buller and Matakitaki—the town was once the cultural and commercial hub of a community of industrious pioneers. There was gold in the rivers, timber on the hills, acres of farmable land and the freedom to use it all.
Nowadays, outdoorsy tourism is the prime industry alongside agriculture, with wild brown trout fishing and white water sports two towering calling-cards here. Murchison happens to be home to the New Zealand Kayak School. But encircled by soaring mountainscapes, thickly enrobed in native forest it’s the hiking trails that commanded my attention. There are a spoil of short and sweet walks to enrich your daily sightseeing. Adjacent to the Murchison camping ground, the Kahikatea Walk is a serene 20 minute loop track through a remnant of the lowland podocarp forest which once dominated the plains around Murchison. You’ll see kereru, tui and robins fluttering about the kahikatea and matai trees, which have a lush understory ferns.
Also close to town, the Skyline Walk, which starts from the west bank of the Mataki-taki River, zigzagging up the hillside through beech and podocarp forest. As the name would suggest, it’s all about the view once you ascend the bush line. A stunningly rangy view of two national parks and the rivers that flow around Murchison, snaking across the landscape likes twisting silvered ribbons in the bright sunshine. Further afield, the super short track to Maruia Falls provides a divine perspective on the waterworks. These falls were created as a result of the 1929 Murchison earthquake. Nearby, the Six Mike Walk is a 90 minute return trail which starts and finishes at New Zealand’s oldest hydro station, looping through abandoned water races and beautiful forest.
Northeast of Murchison, head up to the Kawatiri Junction and strike out on the Kawatiri Historic Railway Walk, which follows a short section of the former railway track that ran between Nelson and Murchison. It includes crossing a gnarly old rail bridge and passing through a century-old eerie railway tunnel. Take a torch! My favourite Murch experience is the Upper Buller Gorge, which is adorned with New Zealand’s longest swingbridge – and the longest south of the equator.
The Maori name for the river is Kawatiri, which fittingly translates as “deep and swift.” What better way is there to soak up the grandeur of the grumbling Buller Gorge and its stroppy splendour than to walk across that bridge’s ridiculously long span? Longer than a rugby field and as high as a six storey building, gaze down at those gigantic boulders and that deep green churning water. Gephyrophobia is the fear of crossing bridges. I felt a twinge of gephyrophobia as I stepped out on this long swaying bridge, but the majesty of the views soon slayed my anxiety.
The locals say the river is like a drunk and violent neighbour. Its mesmerising beauty belies its unpredictable turbulence, which is not to be trifled with. The Buller has the fastest flood flow of any New Zealand river and after you’ve traversed the swingbridge, there’s a fantastic loop walk that includes markers of how high the river can rise in a raging torrent. In flood it has surged as high as 12 metres. Another powerful totem to nature’s might is the White Creek fault line, epicentre of the 1929 Murchison earthquake.
You’ll walk right across the fault line on this loop track and readily see first-hand how the ground was thrust up by 4.5 metres, in an instant, when that 7.8mag quake ruptured – the third deadliest in New Zealand’s history, after Napier and Christchurch. In the days leading up to the quake, there were a serious of loud booms the locals heard before the fault finally let rip. Also included in the loop walk are some vestiges of the 19th century goldmining boom and a replica miner’s hut, enrobed by native bush. www.bullergorge.co.nz
If you’re up for a four hour guided tour of the backcountry with a difference, the Natural Flames Experience is a bit quirky. Tucked away deep in the bush on private land close to Murchison is a seepage of natural gas that has been burning non-stop for nearly a century, after a couple of curious framers set light to it, while out hunting. It’s been flickering beneath the fern leaves ever since, and is now used to cook pancakes and boil billy tea, as you do.
And if you want to get up close with all that white water in the Buller Gorge, there’s a stack of excursions, whether you want to raft or kayak it, or take a spin in a Buller Canyon Jet boat ride. It’s a breathtaking body of water.Finally, Lyell marks the southern trailhead of the storied Old Ghost Road walking and cycling trail.
This long-forgotten gold miners’ road has been revived as a mountain biking and tramping trail – connecting the old dray road in the Lyell (Upper Buller Gorge) to the mighty Mokihinui River in the north, spilling out at Seddonville. The 85km-long Old Ghost Road traverses majestic native forest, open tussock tops, river flats and forgotten valleys.
The spirits of the old miners and track builders are inescapable and four ghost towns populate the route. Remote and challenging, this is an epic wilderness adventure for fit, intrepid mountain bikers, navigating narrow trails with seriously steep drop-offs. Alternatively, you can walk it, which on average takes four to five days. https://oldghostroad.org.nz/
Murchison boasts some quirky mercantile delights, great coffee and salivating pub fare at the Hampden Hotel. Check out the poignant displays showcasing the horror of the 1929 quake at the Murchison Museum. Tatuku Bakery is right next door, operating out of a caravan loaded with home-made goods and artisan pies. Hodgson’s general store is so old and authentic, it still has a ladder on wheels for reaching the upper shelves.
This retail institution was decimated by the earthquake, but was swiftly rebuilt, remaining a cherished mainstay in Murch. Dust & Rust, which operates from the original commercial stable building, is full of quaint arty vintage collectibles and even the local op shop’s eclectic offerings are definitely worth a nosey, from old milk bottles to sets of antlers. Wasps and sand flies can be aa pervasive menace during the sticky heights of summer. If you can defer your trip until late March, do.
Where to stay? Murchison Kiwi Park Motels Holiday & Animal Park is an exceptional holiday haven, strung across a serenely quiet setting, despite only being five minutes’ walk from the heart of town., Mountain views greet you at every turn, while the great Matakitaki River borders the property. (Be sure to take a stroll on the Mataki Willow Grove Walk.) A full range of accommodation options are on offer including non-powered/powered camping sites, backpacker cabins, self-contained units and fully-appointed motels.
Resident owners Lynn and Brent Winter are superb hosts, only too happy to ensure you maximise your time in Murch. Mountain bikes, gold pans and fishing rods are available. Check out the on-site Farm Animal Park and attend the feedings, morning and evening, which are a runaway family hit. https://www.kiwipark.co.nz/