Inspired by last week's campervan issue? Here's another route to add to your wishlist, writes Elen Turner
The popular Alpine resort town of Hanmer Springs is an easy getaway for residents of, or visitors to, Christchurch. But since moving to Nelson from Northland I've encountered many people "just popping down" to Hanmer for the weekend. I have a hunch that only South Islanders could consider a day-long drive that traverses an alpine pass to be a quick weekend getaway, but when in Rome…
Google Maps will tell you that Nelson to Hanmer Springs — via Murchison, the Shenandoah Highway, Maruia, and the Lewis Pass — will take less than four hours to drive, but be sceptical. If you're travelling in a campervan or motorhome, parts of this journey will take you longer as you trundle up the (albeit well-maintained) mountain roads. There are also many places where you could — in fact, should — break the trip. There's no need to make the full 294km drive in one day, with plenty of campgrounds en route, and tempting short hikes.
Not too long after leaving sea-level Nelson is the first lookout point offering a sweeping mountain panorama, with the peaks of the Kahurangi National Park to the west and the Nelson Lakes National Park to the south. The ranges to the south are the ones you'll be driving towards, between, and over, so take the opportunity to get the lay of the land.
From here, the drive to Murchison is a little narrow and winding, with the two national parks at either side, and the road running parallel to the Hope and then Buller Rivers much of the way. The Kawatiri Junction — with the remains of an old railway line, bridge, and station — looks like a tempting picnic spot, but the sandflies here are stealthy and abundant in the summer. Push on to Murchison, under two hours' drive from Nelson, with cafes and more comfortable public toilets. There's a pleasant riverside campsite here, if you've left Nelson later in the day and want to stop for the night.
Just west of Murchison, SH6 splits in two, with that road continuing to the West Coast and SH65 following the Maruia River. SH65 is also, rather incongruously, known as the Shenandoah Highway, and the first worthwhile stop along here is Maruia Falls. The 10-metre-high falls were created after the enormous 7.8 Murchison earthquake in 1929, which dramatically fractured the land throughout this area. More evidence of this quake can be seen at the nearby Buller Gorge Swing Bridge, a slight detour along the highway to the West Coast, where information signs show the pre- and post-earthquake levels of the riverbanks.
Aside from sections of winding mountain road on the journey between Nelson and Hanmer Springs, a notable feature of the drive is the long stretches of open road where you can cover a lot of ground. The Shenandoah Highway between Maruia Falls and Springs Junction is a 60km stretch where the speed limit is mostly 100kmph. Unless you're in a heavily loaded van, you can make good time along here and it will probably be the fastest leg of your journey. Maruia seems to go on forever, but it's more of a "locality" than a town as such, and a catchall descriptor for anything along this stretch of the Maruia River, from the falls in the north to the hot springs in the southeast, between Springs Junction and the Lewis Pass.
Springs Junction is another population hub in this "tri-state" West Coast, Tasman and Canterbury region, and it's advisable to stop here for petrol, at the very least. There are a couple of cafes and coffee carts, too. If your itinerary is unfixed and you're tempted by the lure of the rainforests and beaches of the wild West Coast, Springs Junction is where the highway splits again, with SH65 coming to an end and SH7 branching west to Reefton and east to Canterbury.
If you opt, like I did, for the eastward route towards the Lewis Pass, there's no need to go up and over right away. A few kilometres east of Springs Junction, a highway turnoff leads to the DOC-managed Marble Hill campsite, with "standard" grade unpowered sites, reservations required. Fishing in the Maruia River and birdwatching in the red beech forests can be enjoyed around here, and the thermal waters of the Maruia Hot Springs are a few kilometres upriver.
While you might think that Hanmer Springs is your ultimate destination, Lewis Pass might just be the wildcard of this trip. On a fine day, that is; the experience of crossing the 810m pass would be rather different in mid-winter, or during an unseasonal (but not uncommon) spring or late-autumn snow dump. One of three road passes over the Southern Alps that comprise the backbone of the South Island, it's perhaps the least known by travellers from outside the area: we know Arthur's Pass for its national park and TranzAlpine train crossing, and the southern Haast Pass for its crazy roads and picturesque Blue Pools.
The Lewis Pass sits within the Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve, and the mountains here are in the same range as the Nelson Lakes National Park, to the north. Keen trampers begin the four-to-five-day, 67km "easy" St James Walkway from here, but this isn't one to combine with a campervanning holiday as it's not a circuit. There are, however, a number of much shorter walks that are an ideal way to break the journey onwards to Hanmer Springs.
The shortest is a quick jaunt to a reflective tarn that visitors of almost any mobility level can manage. The slightly longer, 20-minute Alpine Circuit is an ideal option for families with kids who need to stretch their legs and burn off some energy. The boardwalks and well-graded trail pass through scrubland and woods dripping with moss, and provide views towards the higher mountains beyond. The other hikes — the two-hour (return) Rolleston Pack Track and the more challenging, four-hour (return) Lewis Tops route — can only be attempted if you have a bit more time, and are not dashing between Nelson and Hanmer Springs in a single day. As with all tramps in New Zealand, be prepared for all weather conditions.
The same advice applies to driving the Lewis Pass. Unless you're travelling in mid-summer (and, even then, you can't rule anything out), there's always a chance of snow on the pass. It's not infrequently closed in the winter after a heavy fall. Even a lighter sprinkling can diminish the fun of driving in a large campervan. A sign on the way out of Springs Junction advises whether the pass is open, but if bad weather is forecast, check at the i-Site in Nelson before embarking on this road trip.
Hanmer Springs is 70km from Lewis Pass, and once you're off the mountain, the roads are quick, even with some 80kmph sections. After days, or even just a few hours, behind the wheel, the hot waters of the Hanmer Springs Thermal Resort and Spa are a beacon. Luckily, they stay open late, so even if the sun is setting by the time you've found your campsite and settled in, you can have a soak. Two-day passes are available and well worth the extra few dollars. Once you've dipped a toe in the mineral-rich waters, you may not be in a hurry to retrace your albeit beautiful journey, or travel onwards to Christchurch.