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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 6, April 1973

The Whangamoa – Rai Valley Road

The Whangamoa – Rai Valley Road

The hill-girt early settlement at Nelson did not provide sufficient land for the settlers and soon explorers were setting out to west, south and east. Even when good grazing land was discovered in the Wairau (Marlborough) the ranges to the east of Nelson formed a somewhat formidable barrier.

As early as November 1842 J. S. Cotterell, in his explorations to the south, found the Wairau Pass (Tophouse) and this was the only overland route for some years.

Naturally attempts were made to find a shorter more direct route and in March 1843 a party explored the ranges near Brightwater by following up the headwaters of the Lee Valley.

It would appear that the early settlers knew of an old Maori track over the Maungatapu to the Pelorus valley and after several attempts, extending over a year or so, a party reached the mouth of the Pelorus River by this route in January 1844. This still did not solve the matter of access to the Wairau Valley and further explorations were carried out from time to time.

In 1846 and 1847 several parties tried exploring routes east from the Waimea Plains by way of the headwaters of the Wairoa River and Ward's Pass. This was apparently regarded as too steep for a vehicle road.

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By this time the Wairau land was being taken up for sheep runs and the provision of a good overland route was important. The alternative route available was either the inland trip by way of Top-house or a sea journey round the Sounds and Cook Strait.

In November 1849 John Tinline and party explored a possible route ever the high hill from Whangamoa to the Pelorus River by way of the Tinline Valley. Exploration for possible routes was no easy matter as in most places the ranges of hills were heavily clad in native forest and visibility was limited. Tinline's proposed route did not appear tc offer any advantages over known routes and so late in 1851 it was decided to proceed with a survey and lay off a road over the Maungatapu. This was carried out but it would appear that this was never more than a pack-track in considerable use at the time of the Wakamarina gold 'rush' in 1864.

By then it was possible for wheeled vehicles to get overland by the Tophouse route and this remained the only 'road' to the Wairau for some years. No doubt exploring parties still hoped that they would find an easier route.

It was not, however, until the summer of 1870–71 that the existence of a suitable route by way of the Whangamoa Saddle, Collins Valley, and the Rai Saddle had been proved. A. S. Collyns and T. Mackay forced their way through this bush country from Wakapuaka to the Pelorus River and returned by way of the Maungatapu track. A party headed by the Superintendent of Marlborough, A. P. Seymour, tramped through in January 1871, reported favourably on the route and even granted A. S. Collyns £100 from the Provincial chest and authorised him to make a track from the Pelorus bridge as far as the money would allow. With the help of W. Wastney and other members of the Suburban North Road Board, of which he was chairman, Collyns also laid out a good track from Wakapuaka to the top of the Rai Saddle which was afterwards improved by Government surveyors.

Two of the first travellers between Blenheim and Nelson on this route were the Bishop of Nelson, Bishop Suter, and Sir James Hector, a professor of mineralogy, in June 1877. Only slow progress was made in the formation of a road and it was not until 1885 that wheeled vehicles were able to negotiate the route. One of the first users was William Pickering of Havelock who drove a passenger coach between Blenheim and Nelson in April 1885 and pioneered a regular service on the new road. Conditions were difficult and for a start it was a weekly service but when a subsidy was granted for a mail service Clark and Pickering commenced a bi-weekly service.

In 1887 Newman Brothers started a coach service on the Nelson to Blenheim road and when they later secured the mail contract Pickering withdrew and concentrated on the Havelock to Blenheim service. Soon Newman's service was maintaining a four-horse coach service thrice weekly each way which settled down to a regular routine, the coach leaving at 7 a.m. each morning.

From Blenheim there were five stages with changes of horses at Okaramio, Nelson side of Canvastown, Halfway House page 23(Collins Valley), Nelson side of Whangamoa Saddle. At the changing stables at the foot of the Whangamoa two separate teams were kept: the team used for the haul over the Saddle was composed of a strong heavier type of horse, while the team used to and from Nelson city was made up of light stylish horses picked as a show team. People used to line Trafalgar Street to see the coach come in precisely at 6 o'clock. Drivers who could not maintain the schedule did not last long in the job.

When heavy wagons were transporting timber over the hills from the Rai Valley-Pelorus area to Nelson as many as eighteen were in use at one time and ruts, axle deep, created a problem in road maintenance. For some time after cars came into use travellers were taken by stage coach over the hills and then transferred to service cars for the easier part of the journey to Blenheim.