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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 3 (July 1, 1929)

The Old Horse Coach

The Old Horse Coach.

First come with us some way down the Buller from the point where the north road strikes its wooded, rocky banks. One's memory goes back to the old coach days, when we used to board the five-in-hand at Corlett's Inn, six miles from Motupiko. A good hundred miles of coaching is before us, two days' run over mountain and down glen and along cliffy river-bank to Westport.

It is a glorious day, up on the box seat, as we swing along in this exhilarating mountain atmosphere. We cross up from the Motupiko watershed to the Hope Saddle (2,000 feet), and from there have a glimpse of the distant sea, the mountains round the Sounds, and the blue wooded ranges in the rear of Nelson. Wave after wave of green mountains to the south melts into purple haze, and the distant glimmer of the snowfields on the Spenser Ranges, where Mt. Franklin's frosty peak rises to a height considerably over 7,000 feet. Descending from the sharp backbone of the land, we curve and zigzag down the gullies into the Hope Valley, where we strike the head of the Buller, fresh from its mountain lake. A lovely, cool, forest-shaded creek is the Hope, singing over its rocky channel. The mountain country is clothed in beech woods, the trees silver-barked and thin of foliage.

At the meeting of the waters, where the Hope hands over to the Buller, we begin our page 18 course seaward in close company with the powerful river; it is our constant company for eighty-five miles. Precipitous mountains now rise on each hand. From rocky water-side to cloudy peak the ranges are densely timbered. The gleaming waters roll onwards into the narrow defile and vanish beyond a far-ahead spur of purple gloom. Our road is cunningly carved from the mountainside, the rocky river banks on the one side and the climbing forests of the range on the other.

Every road crook opens up a scene of fresh enchantment. The sun by this time is well down to the westward; we drive along under the cool shadows of the hills, and through the loneliest of forests. This mountain-beech country harbours little life; not one note of a bird falls on the ear. The sole living thing is an occasional dark-brown weka (the “Maori hen”), wandering down the white road, and sometimes coolly tarrying in the middle of the way, with its impudent little eyes fixed on us until the leaders are nearly on top of it and then scuttling away in a comical hurry into the fern to which its plumage is so near akin in hue. Sometimes the river roars down in a brawling rapid, then it lies smooth and gloomy in silent black pools.

“Deep in the glen, the merry waters racing…”—A. G. Wilson. The junction of the Owen and Buller Rivers, South Island.

“Deep in the glen, the merry waters racing…”—A. G. Wilson.
The junction of the Owen and Buller Rivers, South Island.

The river-bank configuration is curious; the floods have guttered the rocks into all sorts of strange shapes—rounded isolated bosses, stratified parapets, caves, overhanging rock-freaks. Away up on the mountain tops the golden light of late afternoon paints the feathering trees in fiery radiance; then, all suddenly, the sun drops down over the ranges and the forest changes to a dark blue wall. The first morepork's melancholy call comes from the bush and tells us it is full time for kaikai—and just then our Yuba Bill swings round into a little open flat, ringed by the mountains, and draws up all jingling and rattling at the door of the Long-ford Hotel, an old-fashioned two-storeyed building, half-way to Westport. (You will look for it in vain to-day; the old inn has vanished long ago.)

That was the first day's run on the coach journey of the pre-motor days. The route is the same, the road is improved, the speed is double and more what it was.

On the second day we were roused at an hour which would bring many a grumble to-day. We were off again at seven o'clock a.m., and it was seven o'clock at night before we climbed down off the box seat at Westport, stiff and incredibly hungry.

page 19

But the charm and wonder of the road made up for it all—that soul-quickening run down the lower Buller—sixty miles of it, through the sheer canyon in places, past gold-dredges working the river, through that lost and forgotten-looking old digging township of Lyell; through small farming settlements here and there; Fern Flat, Tois Flat, and other little oases, a bush schoolhouse, an orchard or two, again the forest, silent and gloomy.