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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2001

Trail Blazing Motoring: The first car trip from Nelson to Christchurch

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Trail Blazing Motoring: The first car trip from Nelson to Christchurch

The following account of a history-making landmark expedition by car from Nelson to Christchurch was supplied from family records by Richard and Peter Vining, grandsons of the pioneer motorist who made the trip, William G ('WG') Vining.

The inserts in italics were supplied by Athol Blair to give background and elucidation where such may be helpful to the reader.

When the first cars to Nelson were landed in 1903, the roads outside the towns which carried horse and bullock traffic were often rutted and deep in mud. As well rivers were seldom bridged.

As recorded by Margaret Brown in 'Difficult Country', a car finally got to Murchison in 1908, carrying no less a person than Sir Joseph Ward, the Prime Minister. Although Tom Newman of the highly regarded Newman Brothers' coach lines remarked that cars would never be any good for where coaches went, Newmans were in fact using motor vehicles for the easier routes, such as to Motueka, by 1911. But it was not until 1918 that coaches were finally superseded by the new tangled automobiles.

Thus William G Vining's epic journey ten years earlier in a little 10HP single cylinder open Cadillac, was both a daring venture and a remarkable expression of confidence in the motor car and the coming of a motor age.

On 26 March 1908, at the striking of 11 am by the Nelson Post Office clock, WG Vining and his passengers headed out in pouring rain along the winding road that bordered Nelson Haven. The passengers were three well known Nelsonians, Mrs W Sutton, Miss Lucy Hunter-Brown and Miss B Humphries. On over steep Gentle Annie they soon passed the first (or last) of Newmans' changing stables for coach horses on the Nelson – Blenheim run.

They then laboured up the twisting road over the Whangamoa Hill, past perpendicular drops to valley or gully below, and around bends so sharp page 46the bonnet of the car almost disappeared before them. Often the wheels were close to the outside edge, with very little room to spare.

On they went in the rain and, by another tortuous climb, crossed the Rai Saddle and soon passed the turn-off to the Carluke mill township and Brownlee's big timber mill. The smoke and steam from it could be seen above the tall trees by the Rai River. There was little where Rai Valley township now stands, not even the dairy factory. They chugged past the settlement of Flat Creek with its school and, at long last, reached the coach changing stables and accommodation house at Rai Falls for a late lunch.

They did not stay long, as the road was bad and progress slow amid the bush. The Cadillac crossed the Pelorus River by a high bridge that replaced one which had been swept away by a devastating flood just four years earlier. They motored on down the Pelorus Valley past Canvastown to the end of the Brownlee Railway, which ran from Carluke to the estuary port of Blackball. A slow twisty road then took them beside the estuary to Havelock, where they refuelled with benzine at Brownlee's General Store, near the Methodist Church which is now the museum. The fuel was stocked in four-gallon tins, two to a benzine case.

Rain fell in buckets as the Cadillac left Havelock, but the purchase of a man's large umbrella for four shillings and sixpence to shelter the four in the open car proved an inspired move. It was growing dark by the time they reached the Kaituna Accommodation House and the turn-off to the Tuamarina Track, which wound around the bluffs of the Wairau River.

The Wairau had not yet been bridged at this point. Coaches often forded it but, when this was too dangerous, they followed the Tuamarina Track to the Picton-Blenheim road which, by 1908, had a combined road-rail bridge. The Track had been but a bridle track in earlier times.

Their pace was now down to a crawl, as they warily followed the dangerous cuttings with all their eyes glued to the road. Finally they were through and turned for Blenheim. Still the rain bucketed down and visibility was cut to a metre or so. They waited for a train to cross the combined rail-road bridge and 'WG', impatient and wet, then sped onto the bridge, forgetting the sharp turn at the other end. A warning cry prompted him to apply the emergency brake just as the front wheels disappeared into a cattle stop. Fortunately, the rear wheels stayed on the road and, after much pushing, they were back on the trail again. Ten minutes later they page 47were regarding the face of the Post Office clock in Blenheim which said 8.15 pm. It was nine and a quarter hours since they had left Nelson.

'WG' left Blenheim in rapidly clearing weather the next day at 11.30 am on the second stage of their journey, travelling through Starborough (Seddon) and Flaxbourne, which was not known by its present name of Ward until the railway was completed. They were told that they would never negotiate the Flaxbourne Hills because they were deep in mud and new gravel. Apart from one stoppage, however, they found the going reasonable. A friendly roadman showed them how to use tussock to give the wheels better grip on slippery sections.

They reached the Ure River without a hitch and found it so dry that it did not even afford them drinking water, so they pushed on to Kekerengu after visiting a homestead. Ahead lay 'the slip', a bad piece of road one kilometre long which was always subject to sliding.

This was an unstable blue papa hillside which kept slumping, cutting the road, and the railway too after it was laid.

They negotiated it successfully until they were only a metre from the end, when the Cadillac bogged down. All hands gathered armfuls of tussock, but still they could not get a grip. Next, they hauled on the car with a block and tackle until they could pull no more. In fact they bent the iron pin holding the tackle, but the car remained stuck fast.

With darkness coming on, they walked the five kilometres to the Rutherford homestead where several men offered to help with an enormous cart horse. While the horse pulled and the crew and men heaved, the morass reluctantly gave up its victim. The motorists arrived at the accommodation house at 9.30 pm, tired but pleased with their progress. Again they encountered 'croakers', pessimists who forecast tales of doom on the trail ahead, but they were sceptical, no longer the nervous motorists who had started from Nelson the morning before. The next day, after driving only a few kilometres, they encountered the 'Devil's Elbow', a fearsome hill covered in mud. 'WG' had been told they would need a horse to get to the top, but first they tried the roadman's trick with flax and tussock. They made a track through the mud and, with one person driving and three pushing, the Cadillac crept up the hill.

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Whenever it stuck they laid flax in front of the wheels, and ultimately reached the top of the hill safely. It had been hard work in the heat of the day so they paused for tea at The Shades, where they regaled everyone with their tales.

WG Vining, Mrs Sutton, Miss Hunter Brown and Mrs Humphries in the first car to drive from Nelson to Christchurch, 1908. (RA Vining)

WG Vining, Mrs Sutton, Miss Hunter Brown and Mrs Humphries in the first car to drive from Nelson to Christchurch, 1908. (RA Vining)

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Lunch followed at the Clarence Accommodation House, which was full of the relics of the 1886 Taiaroa wreck. Then they found themselves on fine roads through lovely scenery until they reached the Hapuka River, which was dreaded by local people. Some Maoris came to their aid, and soon there was a large gathering on the banks of the river. Two of the motorists crossed in a borrowed gig, and its horse was then harnessed to the Cadillac. With the horse pulling and the car straining forwards, they reached the middle of the river, but there the Cadillac became stuck against huge boulders.

Two passing cyclists came to their aid and helped move the boulders. The car came bumping up the bank with water pouring from it after an hour's delay. The Maori children raised a cheer, and the motorists felt they had at least provided them with an afternoon's entertainment. Contrary to all expectations, the motor started without demur and they ran the remaining ten kilometres into Kaikoura in fine style. During their overnight stop a coach driver was emphatic that the road to Christchurch was impassable with a 'new tangled machine', but 'WG' decided to continue the journey until they could go no further.

In 1908 there was no coastal road between the Kowhai River and Oaro. The route went inland via Lynton, Charwell and the Whale's Back to Waiau.

Brilliant weather favoured them again. A horse helped pull the Cadillac through the waters of the Kowhai, the first obstacle, and another provided help at Stormy Creek. Crill Creek was crossed with no assistance. At the tiny Lynton the Cadillac stuck fast on the soft sandy bottom and they extricated it from the middle of the creek using sacks, planks and manuka.

Friends at Lynton Downs provided lunch and sent a horse to help the motorists over the Kahutara ford. The Kaikoura mountains rose close above the road and they revelled in the wonderful scenery. Their route climbed great cuttings, such as Forty Corners, and dipped into deep river ravines with sheer bluffs rising on each side. At Charwell Crossing a friendly shepherd used his horse to pull the car from the soft silt. It was dark by the time they reached the Conway Accommodation House, where they spent the night.

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They started before dawn the next morning to allow plenty of time to attempt the infamous Conway Cutting. Two men with horses accompanied them, to haul the Cadillac up the precipice on the southern bank of the river, and then rode with them the fifteen kilometres to the Upper Mason ford. They faced five kilometres of water and river bed but, fortunately, the horses did not mind the sound of the engine running, so together they overcame the river without too many delays.

The Cadillac became stuck once more at the Wandle and was hauled out by a team of horses. A roadman's horse and cart towed the car through the Lottery, while a shepherd and two draught horses saw them safely across the Lower Mason. Ahead lay the town of Waiau, where the excited motorists sent a telegram to Nelson announcing that they had practically completed the first journey by motorcar from Nelson to Christchurch.

After the trials of the previous five days, the crossings next day of the Pahau and Waipara rivers went without a hitch and they arrived in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, at 10 am on 31 March, the sixth day of the journey.

Travel-stained but elated with the mishap-free marathon, the motorists rested in Christchurch for three days before turning homeward. They had an easier return because the rivers were much lower and roadmen had been busy repairing the effects of recent floods along stretches of the road. They needed help at the Upper Mason, Conway, Charwell and Hapuka Rivers, but they crossed the rest by themselves. The Cadillac chugged back into Nelson on 8 April after a round trip to Christchurch of 11 days travelling.

It is recorded that the motorists were assisted in their trip by many well known Marlborough people and received hospitality from Mrs C Murray, Wharanui; Mr Rutherford, Kekerangu; Mr Trolove and family of The Shades, and Mrs Lynton of Lynton Downs.

The usual method of travel from Nelson to Christchurch continued to be by ship via Wellington and Lyttelton until some years after the First World War. Motor vehicle travel on the East Coast route increased steadily from 1908, however, with the services of WG Vining, the trail blazer, being most in demand in the early years. The Lewis Pass road opened 30 years later.