The Buller (Kawatiri in Māori, meaning deep and swift) is the largest river on the West Coast. From its source at Lake Rotoiti in the adjacent Nelson region, it flows 169 km to the Tasman Sea near Westport. On the way it crosses two major mountain ranges, forming the upper and lower Buller gorges. The upper gorge is narrow and rocky, whereas the lower gorge is wider and more open.
Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy, with a Māori guide, Kehu, explored the West Coast in the mid-1840s. Although Brunner and Heaphy have major landmarks on the West Coast named after them, Kehu was ignored in naming features. A minor stream in Cascade Creek, a tributary of the Buller River, was belatedly named after him in the 1970s.
After the Scenery Preservation Act 1903 was passed, the upper and lower Buller gorges were two of the first areas to be designated scenic reserves. The Buller River is regarded as one of the outstanding wild rivers in New Zealand, and since 2001 has been protected by a water conservation order that bans changes to its natural quality, and to the level and flow of the river and many of its tributaries. There is considerable recreational use of the river, including jet-boating, kayaking, rafting and fishing.
Travel through the upper Buller Gorge was difficult until the late 19th century. Boats, tracks and, later, narrow roads made the valley more accessible by the 1870s, although they were susceptible to damage from bad weather and earthquakes.
There have long been plans for a railway along the Buller River to link Nelson and the West Coast, but the gorge sections have been difficult and expensive to excavate. The section through the lower gorge was opened in 1943 but the planned section through the upper gorge has never been started.
The discovery of alluvial gold in late 1859 brought prospectors into the valley, although there was never a gold rush. Supplies were transported up the Buller River by boat – at times poled, rowed, and pulled by horses and men.
In 1869 Antonio Zala and Giorgio Zanetti discovered gold-bearing quartz veins in a tributary of Lyell Creek. Underground exploration led to the discovery of a reef 4–5 metres wide. The Alpine mine produced gold from 1871 to 1912.
From 1891 to 1911 a number of small gold dredges worked the middle section of the Buller River, between Blackwater River and Lyell. Gold returns were patchy, and dredges were often damaged or washed away by floods.
Gold mining in the Buller valley had virtually ceased by the First World War. Although gold can still be found locally, no areas rich enough to work have been discovered.
The 1955 discovery of uranium ore in the lower Buller Gorge, west of Hawks Crag, created great excitement. Despite considerable prospecting over the next two decades, only low-grade deposits were found, and no mining has ever been undertaken.
A big shake-up
The northern part of the South Island was shaken by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake at 5.24 a.m. on 24 May 1968, centred around Īnangahua Junction. There was widespread damage close to the epicentre, and landslides closed both the upper and lower Buller gorges. It was the first time that many New Zealanders had heard of Īnangahua.
A small settlement near the juncture of the Īnangahua and Buller rivers, 46 km east of Westport. The name is derived from īnanga (a native fish), for which the Īnangahua River was noted.
An abandoned gold-mining town, 18 km north-east of Īnangahua Junction. The township occupied a tiny strip of flat land near the mouth of Lyell Creek, named after Scottish geologist Charles Lyell. After mining ceased, a hotel remained and a small number of people continued to live at Lyell until the 1960s. The town site is now a Department of Conservation camping ground and the start of several walking tracks in the Lyell Creek valley.