European exploration was driven by a search for extensive grazing lands, for road routes to the West Coast and Canterbury, and for minerals. In 1842 the only suitable grazing land found by assistant surveyor John Cotterell was the Wairau valley – the rest was mountains. The explorers Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy made epic journeys in the 1840s, but found no plains.
The road that never was
Parliament allocated money for a road from Collingwood to Karamea on the northern West Coast in 1881, and it was surveyed in 1886. However, it was never completed. The route of the planned road became the Heaphy Track, popular with trampers (hikers).
In the 1840s and 1850s horses were expensive and feet were the universal means of transport. The inland route went to Tophouse then followed the Buller River to the West Coast. The Heaphy and Wangapeka tracks were pack tracks (suitable for packhorses), used as trading routes between Nelson and the West Coast. The bridle track over Tākaka hill was upgraded to a coach road in the mid-1880s, and sealing it began in the 1950s. Its apocryphal 365 corners (one for each day of the year) in 25 kilometres still make for a slow trip. By 1860 packhorses were using the Maungatapu Track from Nelson over the Bryant Range to the Pelorus River valley in Marlborough. In 1885 the road over the Whangamoa Saddle and the Rai Saddle to Rai Valley, then on to Picton, was completed with a bridge over the Pelorus River.
The population was small, so roads boards levying landholders struggled to raise money to build – and then maintain – roads. Most country roads were narrow, muddy, and impassable after heavy rain. Slips and surface erosion were common. Travel was slow, and almost every rural locality along a route had an accommodation house for travellers.
Once is enough
Henry Franklin Solly, nicknamed ‘Tinny’, was a service-car driver for Newmans on the Tākaka–Nelson route for over 20 years. He had a stutter and a quick wit. On Tākaka hill a tourist inquired, ‘Do motor vehicles often go over the bank on this hill?’ Tinny replied, ‘O-o-only o-o-once – u-u-usually.’1
In 1911 the coaching company Newman Brothers (later Newmans) bought their first service car (large car used for passenger transport), and in 1912 this became the first car to drive down the Buller Gorge. Horse-drawn coaches coexisted with service cars until about 1918. In 1930 buses replaced service cars, and trucks taking produce to ports placed more pressure on roads. Relief work for the unemployed improved some roads during the 1930s depression, but the Second World War slowed progress. Earthquake damage in 1929 and 1968 led to large reconstruction efforts on State Highway 6 down the Buller River. In the 1950s most roads were metalled, and it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that many were sealed. Even in the mid-1970s, the road via the Maruia Valley to Lewis Pass was still not fully sealed.
Nelson once had a railway to nowhere – it ran from the city as far as Gowanbridge, 110 km south-west, on roughly the same route as State Highway 6. The line was meant to be part of the Midland railway, linking Canterbury with the West Coast and Nelson. In 1871 Parliament approved a 34-km first stage of the railway from the city to Foxhill. Construction began in 1873, and work continued in fits and starts. By 1912 the line had reached Glenhope – still 90 km from linking up with the Grey Valley line at Īnangahua Junction. Embankments had been cut as far as Gowanbridge by 1929.
From 1905 to 1920 the line was profitable, but construction stopped in 1931. The railway carried 40,000 people in 1929, but fewer than 5,000 in 1953. To appease disgruntled Nelson residents, from 1957 the main road from Nelson to Blenheim (State Highway 6) was treated as if it were a branch line connecting Nelson to the main trunk railway line – passenger fares and freight were subsidised, in 1961 costing the government $4.6 million (in 2019 terms). The amount of rail freight decreased as roads improved. In the 1950s the government decided to close the line, instead of completing it through the steep, unstable and earthquake-prone country alongside the Buller River.