If you’re driving from Nelson to Westport, you’ll first pick up the Buller just past Glenhope, about 30km as the kererū flies from where the mighty river arises from Lake Rotoiti.
The spot in the road is called Kawatiri, which is thought to mean ‘deep and swift’. There’s no prizes for guessing why Māori gave this name to the river the European settlers subsequently named after pioneer Charles Buller.
The Buller will be your guide for the next 150-odd kilometres of some of the most scenic driving anywhere. It draws you into its steep, bushclad gorge and heads for the coast.
It’s always been a mixed blessing being a passenger through here. On the one hand, you get to admire the scenery – the sheer walls of the gorge rising bush-clad and mist-veiled from the river in its stony course. On the other, your fate is in your driver’s hands, and you spend much of your time fervently hoping their eyes are glued to the road.
Spare a thought, then, as you negotiate the various hair-raising bends in the road, for those who travelled with the Newman brothers, who ran a coach service through the Gorge at the beginning of the last century. And when you’re done shuddering at the prospect of riding in a rattling, lurching, swaying four-in-hand through here before the road was sealed, think about the Newman boys’ next venture – flogging the Cadillac service cars that replaced their horses along the same tortuous stretch.
After a brief respite on the gravel flat where the little settlement of Inangahua Junction sits, you’re back in the Gorge, the Lower Buller Gorge, this time.
You might have thought the road was hairy back up the way – there’s certainly no shortage of sharp bends in the narrow road – but the Lower Buller features the sharpest of the lot.
At Hawke’s Crag, where the roadway has literally been carved out of a stony bluff, the remnant still overhangs the tight, blind corner, allowing very little headway for tall vehicles and there’s a thrilling drop to the river on your right.
In spite of it all, though, by the time you’ve issued forth with the river onto Addison’s Flat, the broad, swampy hinterland of Westport, it all seems too soon. When you reach the turnoff (north on State Highway 67 to Westport and, beyond it, Karamea, or south on State Highway 6 to Greymouth and south Westland), you’ll just about be ready to turn around and do the Gorge again.