The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 5 (August 1, 1939)
Highways and Byways — The Lewis Pass Route between Canterbury and Westland
In the past Westport has been one of the most isolated places in New Zealand. Communication with the outside world was limited to sea or land routes, taking valuable time to traverse. The overland road to Nelson was nearly two hundred miles long, and hilly for the greater part of the way, thus making the cost of transport high. Communication with Canterbury, also, was any-thing but easy.
The opening up of the Lewis Pass road as a main highway was one of the factors which was to see the isolation of the northern towns of the West Coast slowly melt away.
There are three milestones which have made or will shortly make history in the development and progress of this part of the Coast. The first is the Lewis Pass route which is a quick out-let to Canterbury from the towns of Westport and Reefton. The second is the extension of air services for passengers and mails so that all the main parts of the Coast are connected and have speedy and regular access to the outside world. The third factor will be the completion of the Buller Gorge railway which is already well advanced towards Inangahua and which will carry heavy traffic when finished. It is expected that a railcar service will operate between Westport and Christ-church—a service which is bound to be popular judging by the regular passenger complement that the Greymouth-Christchurch railcar carries.
The Lewis Pass route was surveyed by Tarrant in the early 'eighties, and it does not take a great deal of imagination, even from the comfortable interior of a modern car, to realise the hard-ships of the surveyors who risked all kinds of privations in order to open up and map the country.
It is said that, when the gold rushes commenced on the Coast, the diggers traversing the ranges from Canterbury used the Lewis Pass, but this is only partially correct.
In 1884 a contract was let to Connington and Seawright (names still known on the Coast) for a six foot track from the site of the present accommodation house at the Maruia Springs to the summit. Since then this has been used as a stock route between Canterbury and Westland. From the time of the opening of the track a regular pack service was maintained by a man named Otto Walker. As the tracks were improved this transport service developed through the various modes of vehicular conveyance. The pack horse gave place to the spring cart, and that in turn was ousted by the five-horse express wagon, and later still by motor transport.
Early reports of the development of communications between these remote places are most interesting. The survey reports of 1881–1882 speak of the road under construction from Hampden (the present Murchison) to Maruia.
The back country about the Maruia district is one which takes some knowing, and even today it behoves a deer stalker to know his geography before he ventures too far into the back hills. Being so close to the divide between Canterbury and Westland the direction of flow of the rivers is apt to be most disconcerting.
Although Maoris are very rare on the Coast today, they travelled in this area in former times, when travelling from Nelson or Canterbury to the West Coast. In this connection it is interesting to note that settlers in the Maruia have ploughed up Maori axes and found the remains of old Maori camps.
The present fine highway from Westport, through the Buller Gorge to Reefton and Maruia Springs, and through the Lewis Pass, is one that can be fascinating from many points of view. Nor is one trip over this route sufficient to enable one to fully appreciate the country. It is unbelievably different by day and by night, and in summer and winter.
The road, when it is really completed and consolidated will be a fast one. It is well-graded and presents, as it were, a cross section of the South Island. In parts, such as the stretch to the west of Maruia Springs, the road reminds one strongly of the increasingly popular Eglinton Valley with its tall trees and well-surfaced wide track. The Lewis Pass road is a tribute to the modern pioneer of New Zealand—the roadman. One cannot but take note of him and realise the Herculean size of his job. What his thoughts are as the fast cars whizz by over that bit of road that he has helped to make, would make interesting conversation. All along the way one sees the isolated road camps, or places where they have recently been; perhaps a solitary hut or two on the bank of a mountain stream, or one by the roadside with its exterior kept neat and tidy and a heroic garden struggling to shoot forth bright coloured flowers in the rigours of a mountain climate. Here and there a tall tree doing service as a wireless mast is a strong symbol of isolation which these men put up with in order that the country may develop and march forward as a nation.
Farther on, over the Pass itself, a veritable fairyland presented itself. We had been warned that there was snow on the top, but were quite unprepared for the sight that was unfolded. Snow can cast a white mantle over everything and practically obliterate the landscape, but here the trees were just peppered lightly so that they looked as one imagines a Christmas tree to be like. The peaks of the mountains were covered in white, thrown up vividly by a background of deep blue sky, and rising over the whole scene, masses of billowy cloud and a crystal clear moon.
On the road itself snow-ploughs had been used so that there was a clear track of dark grey road lined by the snow on either side. It was possible with the greatest of ease to cruise for mile after mile, simply by the light of the moon and drink in the beauty of a snow scene which would be impossible to beat anywhere in New Zealand. The moonbeams were caught and reflected like a myriad diamonds from the lightly snow-spattered trees making the stars themselves, although set in such a crisp sky, look pale.
Winter has its delights, but autumn is equally beautiful. The Buller Gorge may be swollen by flooded, muddy waters, but all along the road which skirts it, the green of the bush is brightened by the brilliant red of the karaka berries. The settled farming areas from Inangahua Junction to Reef-ton are a blaze of autumn tints on the many poplar trees. The bright yellow of their leaves against the clear blue of the mountain sky makes a most colourful sight. On through the mountainous areas the poplars near Glen Wye and on far towards Hurunui make an equally beautiful sight. To the photographer it comes as a great delight that colour films are available in New Zealand and that the wonderful tints can now be recorded in all their faith-fulness of colour instead of having to pass them by as would have been the case a few years ago. This autumn, several photographers, fully equipped for colour shots, have been attracted by these areas.
As one rises on the Canterbury side of the mountains, towards the Lewis Pass, the road passes vast areas covered with toi-toi. Seen in the late afternoon, with the sunlight lighting them from behind, their plumed heads take on a honey-coloured delicacy that invites one to feel their soft texture.
A summer evening drive up the Buller Gorge amply rewards the visitor. To be really effective the moon needs to be high. Its light is reflected from the surface of the deep waters, and out-lined against it rise massive trunks of bushland trees. Gleaming eyes picked up by the headlights of the car may prove to belong to an opossum, or one may even surprise a deer which clatters away in alarm and leaps up the high banks skirting the road, to be followed by receding crashes in the undergrowth as it flees up the mountainside. Past Tiriroa, about twelve miles up the Gorge, where is situated a constructional camp, glow-worms gleam beside the road.