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Upper South Island loop road trip, Kaikoura, Marlborough returning to Nelson

Have you ever heard of Murchison? Here is a trip from Nelson to Murchison and beyond where west meets wild New Zealand. A scenic route through a roll call of gold mining nineteenth century towns of Murchison, Buller Gorge and Reefton. Then it’s onto Hanmer Springs for luxurious spa treatment, next Kaikoura and wildlife watching and then savour vineyards and relaxation in wineries of the Marlborough region. From Blenheim you return to Nelson. The scenery is classic landscape scenery, a photo opportunity around every bend while you wander, linger and explore the hidden corners. The holiday has options to fit the interests of families from adrenaline jet boating, exploring a bee hive or vigorous walks among 19th gold prospecting trails.

Several days
Several nights

Trip Overview

From west coast gold mining heritage towns to the whale watching Kaikora coast, from the fertile vineyards of Marlborough to Nelson’s shining beaches.


  • Glorious South Island West Coast scenery
  • Heritage gold mining trail exploration
  • Waterfalls and roaring white water rivers
  • Hanmer Springs hot springs
  • Kaikoura whale encounters
  • Marlborough vineyards and quiet coastal walks
  • Nelson beaches, vineyards and markets
Start Nelson
Finish Nelson


December to April

Start Nelson
Finish Nelson

Route map

Vehicle suitable for motorhomes

Nelson to Murchison

Abandoned farmhouse Nelson to Murchison, location Spring Grove, Great West Coast state highway 6 touring route (sheep in paddock)
Nelson to Murchison abandoned home

Start the journey in the quiet corners of the upper South Island and discover where wild meets west with heritage gold mining trails, then indulge in natural hot mineral spas then splurge on scenery that is picture-poster perfect. The start and finish is in sunny Nelson where foodie trails, heritage and scenery add to a glamorous bookends to a New Zealand holiday experience.

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Nelson Honey shop & Quinney's Bush Camp

@Quinney's Bush Camp
@Quinney's Bush Camp

For fishing fans a few days at Quinney’s Bush Camp offers the chance to dry fly fish the Motupiko River. Motupiko River is a well known haunt for dry fly fishing. Quinney’s Bush Camp has extensive adventure playground amenities including flying fox, water slides into the local river, hammocks, go-cart rides and skatepark.

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Kawatiri Rail Tunnel

Kawatiri River trail deserted beach, a solitary surfer, South Island, New Zealand
Kawatiri River, South Island

Take a few moments to explore a historic rail tunnel. Located at Kawatiri Junction at the intersection of SH6 and SH63, the tunnel is 35 km northeast of Murchison. There is an information shelter, picnic site and toilets beside the large parking area. The walk starts from a carpark with information panels detailing the rich history of the area.

The drive from Nelson to Murchison, through mountain beech forest, is your first taste of South Island high country forest and it is tantalizing. At the Kawatiri junction wander to the river and there is the famous tea coloured water of the Southern Alps.

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West Coast SH6 view before Murchison, New Zealand
West Coast SH6 view before Murchison

Murchison’s story and the Buller River and its tributaries are inextricably entwined. The Buller is 177 km in length originating in the Nelson Lakes National Park. The Buller meets the sea at Westport. Near Murchison the Buller River becomes a force to be reckoned with. The Matakitaki, Mangles and Matiri Rivers flow into the Buller forming a major confluence. Flowing through narrow granite gorges the river boils and roars its way past Murchison. Murchison is part of the Nelson Regional District yet you are in an area where it is wild meets the west coast.

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Murchison to Reefton and a Mountain Pass

Beautiful scenery at Buller River, South Island, New Zealand
Beautiful scenery at Buller River, South Island

Murchison to Lyell to Blackwater School, to Waiutu ghost town finishing in Reefton.

Today is about fabulous, glorious South Island scenery. For even jaded New Zealanders the road from Murchison to Westport is the most beautiful in the country. Breathtaking mountains vie with plunging gorges and the roar of white water. Maori prospectors were the first to obtain gold from the Lyell region and by 1863 the gold rush had started. There are heritage sites to explore, perhaps some gold prospecting and bridges that sweep over numerous rivers and cataracts.

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Swing Bridge & Maruia Falls

New Zealand’s longest swingbridge at 110 metres (360 ft) in length spans the Buller River 14 kilometres west of Murchison in the Upper Buller Scenic Reserve
New Zealand’s longest swingbridge at 110 metres (360 ft) in length spans the Buller River

As you depart from Murchison you will notice signs for Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park. It’s the home of New Zealand’s longest swing bridge.  Crossing the white water magic of the Buller River on a swing bridge leads to a park where you can pan for gold, learn about the gold mining heritage of the area and do a giant zipline across the surging Buller river.

The bridge is 110m in length and 19m above the Buller River. There is an admission fee to cross the bridge. For views of the Buller swing bridge turn onto New Creek Road and park.

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Lyell Cemetery

Cemeteries, forgotten graves. Lyell historic graveyard Buller Gorge
Historic graveyard of Lyell

Lyell Historic Reserve has ample parking, a Department of Conservation Campground, water and toilet facilities. The campsite has signposts to Lyell Cemetery. Leaving from the campsite, the track passes the former Catholic Church site and enters native beech forest clinging to a steep hillside and leads on to one of the more picturesque goldfield cemeteries. The headstones, some in lace iron fenced plots are of young people and tell the story of tragic deaths. It is quiet and the surrounding beach trees offer a place of contemplation. Between 30 and 40 people were buried here from 1880 to 1900.

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Abandoned gold mine Waiuta, West Coast, NZ
Blackwater Mine chimney and winding engine foundations at Waiuta

Waiuta area: Places to go on the West Coast is today’s highlight. There are visible reminders of the industry and the lives of over 7,000 miners and their families. It is evocative with the bush reclaiming areas, the industrial archeological sites are in good condition and the sheer remoteness of the area. It is a considerable distance from Reefton or any other settlement. The road is gravel, narrow and seems to be disappearing into the bush. Before you arrive at the Waiuta heritage area you will pass Blackwater School. It is worth a stop to view an intact 1950’s schoolhouse, now in dire need of a new roof.

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Reefton main street, New Zealand
Reefton main street

You have arrived in Reefton. Spend a day or two exploring a town that has reinvented itself as a tourist destination. Reefton origins are gold and coal mining. There are a number of historic buildings, such as the School for Mines and the main street facades reflecting the past glory. The many buildings are the Surveyors House (1871), the ‘Top of the Town’ shops and Forsyth & Masters Store (1870s), the Courthouse (1873), the Oddfellows Hall (1872), Bank of New Zealand (1873), National Bank (1873), Catholic Church (1877), St Stephens Anglican Church (1878), Reefton School of Mines (1886) and the Band Hall (1901).

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Reefton to Hanmer Springs

Hanmer Springs seen from Mt Isobel, New Zealand
Hanmer Springs seen from Mt Isobel

You will pass through the dappled light of mature beech forests lining the route into the Lewis mountain pass through to the Canterbury region.  It is a journey from the west coast with its temperature rainforests to the drier east coast. You will pass Maruia Springs with its geothermal waters tempting you to stay a while, there are opportunities in spring to capture photos of the lupins in flower. For nature lovers there is the Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve to linger in. You are spoiled for choice whether you indulge in geothermal mineral waters in Maruia or Hanmer Springs.

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Hanmer Springs to Kaikoura

Kaikoura, New Zealand

After a leisurely breakfast and perhaps a final therapeutic soak in a spa you are on your way to Kaikoura. You will experience a dramatic change in scenery from alpine vistas to rugged coastal beaches. You are joining the picturesque Alpine Pacific touring route, State Highway 70. Get the camera ready as it is very scenic with contrasts between rolling hills, rivers and farmland.

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Waiau Falls flow through Coromandel Ranges, New Zealand
Waiau Falls

Waiau has a picture perfect village green with a historic jail and some village stocks on the domain. The town’s heritage buildings include the Highfield Woolshed located 2 km north of Waiau and is the oldest surviving woolshed in the Amuri district. Waiau community hall and library 1921 is classified as a Category II listed building under the Historic Places Act 1993. There are two architecturally distinct parts. The original building of the Arts and Crafts style was constructed in 1911-1912 with government subsidies made available for the construction of public facilities to commemorate the coronation of George V.

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Kaikoura, New Zeland

Kaikōura is the meeting point for the ocean and mountains with a picturesque fishing village reimagined as a tourist destination offering marine experiences from dolphin encounters to whale watching.  All of this washed down with local wines and a plate of succulent freshly harvested crayfish. Kaikōura’s drawcard is marine mammal encounters – whales, fur seals and dolphins live permanently in the coastal waters. There are ocean going birds and local seals to observe on your foreshore walks. Whale watching trips leave the town several times a day.

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Kaikōura to Blenheim

Dominion Salt Lake Grassmere, Marlborough, New Zealand
Salt Lake Grassmere

Today you are following the coast to Blenheim.  The road hugs the coast with spectacular views of the ocean, sheer cliffs rising out of the sea and constant muted sounds of the sea. Then you swoop over the dry hills of Marlborough with its farms and rural countryside. As you near Blenheim peeping into view are vineyards and vats of wineries.

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Row of beautiful grape yard before sunset with mountain in Blenheim, New Zealand
Blenheim vineyard backdropped against Marlborough hills

Often overlooked by visitors rushing off the Picton ferry on their way to Nelson. Marlborough, with its vineyards, vibrant artisan community, wide open spaces and iconic Queen Charlotte Sounds is a world class destination tucked into the hills and rivers of the South Island. Blenheim is the hub for the next day or perhaps Marlborough charm has evolved the stay into several days or more.

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Blenheim to Nelson

Rai river swing bridge over the Rai river below, at Pelorus, Marlborough, New Zealand.
Rai river swing bridge over the Rai river below

This is another glorious road trip with the Pelorus Bridge as one of the many highlights. Perhaps you have time to book a rafting trip on the river together with a chance to explore walks in the Pelorus Reserve.



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