Before cars and good roads, sports days in isolated parts of the region were local affairs held in paddocks. Horse racing was very popular in the late 19th century, with meetings at Murchison on Boxing Day and Tākaka on New Year’s Day.
Sporting fixtures were much easier to organise in the city. New Zealand’s first rugby game was played at Nelson on 14 May 1870 between the Nelson Rugby Football Club (the country’s first) and Nelson College. Each side had 18 players, and the game did not much resemble the modern version. For many years Nelson Bays was the region’s representative rugby team, playing in the second division of the National Provincial Championship.
Since 2006 the Tasman Makos have represented Nelson–Marlborough in the Mitre 10 Cup competition. After three losing appearances in the final, the Makos won the premiership for the first time in 2019. The Seddon Shield is a Ranfurly Shield–like trophy contested by the four northern South Island unions – West Coast, Buller, Nelson Bays and Marlborough.
Fishing and hunting
Nelson’s rivers and streams are ideal for trout, and the region offers some of the best brown trout fishing in the world, attracting many international anglers. Red deer were liberated in the region in 1860 and fallow deer in 1864. The search for huge stags in the Nelson backcountry and further south has been detailed in books such as Newton McConochie’s You’ll learn no harm from the hills (1966), Gordon Atkinson’s Red stags calling (1974), Charlie Shuttleworth’s In search of the wild red deer (1991) and Max Curtis’s Around the river’s bend (1991). Wild pigs supplied early gold miners, bushwhackers and settlers with meat, and hunting them is still popular.
Nelson’s forested mountains are a tramper’s paradise. The three national parks, plus the Richmond Range in the hills behind Nelson city, offer thousands of kilometres of tracks and around 100 huts. The Heaphy, Abel Tasman and Travers–Sabine tracks are the best-known. Mt Arthur and Mt Owen have the country’s deepest and most extensive cave systems. Sea kayaking, especially along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, boomed in the the 1990s and 2000s, becoming a major tourism business.
Early skiers headed onto the Mt Arthur tablelands in the late 1920s, and in 1929 they tried out Mt Robert on the Travers Range. In 1944 a club was formed and the Mt Robert Hut built. Rope tows and accommodation huts were constructed over the following decade. However, the site’s low elevation and lack of consistent snow saw it abandoned in 2005. The focus of skiing shifted to the Rainbow skifield in the nearby St Arnaud Range.
Mountaineers are attracted to the higher peaks of Nelson Lakes National Park (Mt Travers and Mt Hopeless), and those to the south in the Spenser Mountains (Mt Una and Faerie Queene). None of these is especially challenging, except in winter. Rock climbing is popular on the limestone bluffs at Paynes Ford near Tākaka, and rapids on the Buller River near Murchison attract white-water kayakers.