Voyager 2021 media awards

Nelson nostalgia: Reliving the beauty of growing up in the top of the south

NZ Herald
By: Helen van Berkel

Ask a Kiwi in Adelaide or Bangkok or Kathmandu where home is and they will say "New Zealand". But when the travel horizons are pulled in close, instead of watching a sunset over a Himalayan peak, we turn our minds to the towns where we were born, went to school and eventually left behind. And we learn that our sunsets are just as magnificent, our history as fascinating, the adventures as thrilling, the golden beaches, well, how did we not see their beauty as we built our childhood sandcastles?

When holidays meant visiting family in Christchurch, arriving home for me meant rounding the final curves of the wonky Whangamoas. Now my trip home is by plane, our faces masked against contagion.

Winter paddleboarding at Tāhunanui Beach, Nelson. Photo / Nelson Tasman NZ
Winter paddleboarding at Tāhunanui Beach, Nelson. Photo / Nelson Tasman NZ

Now, those complicated feelings of "home" start unravelling as the first blue peninsulas that delineate the Marlborough Sounds appear in the plane window. I can just about feel the thrillingly chill air of those silent Sounds, smell the salt and see the clouds of jellyfish that used to accompany summertime trips on the mail boat. Soon we are beside Nelson's Port Hills, above Haulashore Island, its anchor of Fifeshire Rock since renamed Arrow Rock. It's all the same. It's all different.

As I go to the baggage carousel (I already miss the little tractor towing little wagons that brought us our luggage back in the day), I see new layers of sophistication at an airport where my siblings and I would spend Sunday afternoons watching parachutes bloom and float to Earth. The orange-and-brown carpeted terminal has been replaced with a sleek hub complete with coffee shops and plenty of device-charging points.

I get lost on my way to my mother's house, confused by new roundabouts and roads where there didn't used to be roundabouts and roads. Nelson is not a town that has stood still.

Later, settling in to the Sands apartments, directly across the road from the famous Tahunanui Beach on the site where we once lined up for icecreams, I realise how we took it all for granted. The seemingly never-ending and never-crowded arch of silver sand, smoothed to grey perfection by the gentle tides of Nelson Haven was where we turned cartwheels before Instagram fame introduced it to the world. Some things are the same: the KFC, the dairy, the castle slide and whale at the playground, but there's now a swing designed for wheelchairs. The concrete seals and turtles we used to daringly jump between are now to be stepped around in our sensible walking shoes rather than clambered over with sticky hands and bare feet.

Historic South Street in Nelson City. Photo / Barry Peck
Historic South Street in Nelson City. Photo / Barry Peck

We sat on the deck with our fish and chips from the Sands takeaway downstairs, reputed to be Nelson's best. Across the bay, the sun set in a glory of pastels I don't remember from hot summer evenings as a teenager focused on boys and their Toranas.

I may have left Nelson in my past, but Nelson, thankfully, was not so cavalier about its own history. South St was a rat-infested alley of decrepit workers' shacks when I attended nearby Nelson College for Girls. Now it's a luscious lane of the oldest renovated cottages in New Zealand. Primary-colour painted planter boxes burst with flowers even in winter and the homes, which date back to 1863, are festooned with references to the past. We took our time, peered through rippled glass windows and admired lovingly tended gardens, grateful to the city leaders who decided the once unloved was worth saving.

I imagine the same wonderful people were behind Founders Park. The first of the city's historic buildings were only just starting to move to the park when I drove out of town in my E-series Honda Civic. Now it's a spectacular collection of lovely old churches, school rooms, hotels and former industrial buildings, including the former office of the Nelson Evening Mail, where I used to work after school. Shadows of the past come clamouring when we board the Bristol Freighter parked at the back, and I hear with the ear of memory its ponderous drone as it flew over my parents' home before it was replaced by quieter descendants.

Some of the stories told at Founders Park were still fresh when I was growing up, such as the ultimately fruitless fight for the railway. Its route is now an internationally renowned cycleway, still traversing tunnels as it makes its way through the hills southwest of Nelson. Bad weather, unfortunately, put the brakes on our planned ride through the 1.35km Spooners Tunnel, unused from 1955 to 2016 when another genius saw potential in the past, and brought it into the future.

To really go into the past, we turn left – instead of right to Abel Tasman National Park and Kaiteriteri Beach (oh the memories of camping with girlfriends there after School Cert exams!) - to conquer Tākaka Hill, otherwise known as Marble Mountain.

Tākaka Hill is literally a return to prehistoric times. The compressed carapaces of billions upon countless trillions of sea creatures, ground into marble and limestone and further sculpted by water and geological forces are now an astonishing gallery of stalactites and stalagmites. Every flash of the torch reveals another cascade of fluted stone, carved fantastical shapes and natural wonder. Our guide points to a low-reaching stalactite and invites us to come back in 80 years, when it was expected to close the gap with an upward probing stalagmite. I can't wait.

Distant moist plinks remind us that nature is still very much at work here, water dripping through the layered rock to emerge at the Riuwaka Resurgence, a well worthwhile detour at the foot of the Tākaka Hill. The water emerges out of a dark horizontal cleft in the mountain, jade green in the shadows. From the deep pool fledges the Riuwaka River as it begins its 20km bubbling rush to the Tasman sea.

Driving onwards, the Tākaka Hill road offers glimpses of the green and verdant valleys of Tākaka and Collingwood, bisected by neat hedges and fencing, crooked creeks breaking their straight conformity.

The Grove Scenic Reserve, Nelson Tasman. Photo / Oliver Weber
The Grove Scenic Reserve, Nelson Tasman. Photo / Oliver Weber

We stopped at The Grove Scenic Reserve, its name giving but a tiny taste of the Indiana Jones-like landscape we found. Expecting just a viewpoint over the valley, we instead found a carnival of towering rocks, seemingly stacked on each other in impossible positions and shapes. Mysterious chasms led into dark shadows and tree roots and moss festooned the layered stone. A mere fissure between multi-storey rocks took us to the platform. Calling this a scenic grove is like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch. Our astonishment at the unexpected marvellousness of the Grove encouraged us to turn off to the almost invisible sign for the Labyrinth Rocks only to discover yet another funpark of limestone tunnels and channels. I'd never seen anything like it and deeply regret not allowing more time.

The equally alluring Farewell Spit was calling. A lumbering Eco Tours bus took us through the historic Collingwood Village and towards one of the natural wonders of the world. Our guide Pino shared her delight at spotting the terns, oyster catchers – even a seal – with the kinds of delighted squeals the rest of us reserve for particularly fruitful Christmas mornings. We learned about the early Māori who lived in these valleys and the gold miners who eked out a mean living. Pino had a story for every one-way bridge in an unforgiving but unforgettable landscape, untamed and largely unspoiled thanks to its isolation.

Farewell Spit Lighthouse in Golden Bay. Photo / Nelson Tasman NZ
Farewell Spit Lighthouse in Golden Bay. Photo / Nelson Tasman NZ

It was a six-plus hour journey of non-stop beauty to the lighthouse at the end of the spit. On one side is a sea view unrivalled anywhere: clouds riven by rays of sunlight stabbing rows upon rows of white-edged waves. On the other are undulating sand dunes, spreading streams of water and grasses seeking a foothold in the blasting wind. And everywhere are the seabirds. Farewell Spit is now a nature reserve, untraversable without the Eco Tours guide but a trip that's worth every minute. Even the elderly Dutch lady on the bus was impressed: "We have nothing like this in the Netherlands," said my mum.

For my last night in Nelson, I could not resist one last foray into my past. I still remember my envious astonishment when my new friend announced, as we ate our playtime sandwiches at Hampden Street Primary School, that she lived "there" and pointed at the (then) DB Rutherford, still Nelson's tallest building and most iconic hotel. But this time I was not the manager's daughter's friend, I was an actual guest. And The Rutherford Hotel was every bit as thrilling as back in the day. The foyer has lightened up considerably but the elegant curving staircase I desperately wanted to slide down as an 8-year-old is still there. So is the pool that seemed so extravagant in those days.

My room looked across to the Nelson Cathedral, the Gothic spire that overlooks the attractions of Trafalgar St. From the oddly squat rear it is a confection of arches and spires, twin wooden doors opening to the stained-glass windows within. At its feet is one of the country's prettiest main streets, lined with a mixture of chain stores and boutiques and offering plenty of dinner options for my evening meal.

Cable Bay Adventure Park's Skywire, one of Nelson's newer and very exciting tourist attractions. Photo / George Guille
Cable Bay Adventure Park's Skywire, one of Nelson's newer and very exciting tourist attractions. Photo / George Guille

Before my flight home, I have time for one last adventure. Triathletes Richard and Elina Ussher are developing the former Happy Valley Adventures into an ecopark of native trees, crisscrossed by mountain bike paths. Now called Cable Bay Adventure Park, its Skywire drew me up the hill on a chilly morning. My guide pointed out ancient giant rātā and explained the native replanting going on here. Then he strapped me into the Skywire's sturdy curved frame and pushed me off the hill for an exhilarating rush high across a bush-filled valley. A slow pull up the other side gave me time to watch flitting pīwakawaka and hear the invisible waterfalls rushing after recent heavy rain. Suddenly I was going backwards at more than 70km an hour, my feet swinging as I craned to see the shining sea on my right. On the drive back to the base, we watched the paintballers stalking and shooting at each other on the course below.

The Usshers have great plans for this place and it's nice to know there will be something new to see when I return.


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