Everyone loves the northeast corner of New Zealand’s South Island, and when you head to Kahurangi National Park for a weekend of exploration it will immediately become apparent why. The Māori word Kahurangi translates to ‘treasured possession’ and this park, the second largest in the country, has treasures aplenty – caves, wildlife and an incredible landscape –waiting to be discovered.
To make the most of the area in a weekend, start in Murchison, the white-water capital of New Zealand, or arrive in your rental car the night before so you can be an early bird. If you’ve got a long weekend, you might spend some time here either splashing out on a white-water rafting adventure or getting quick thrills on a jet boat before leaving on your Kahurangi exploration.
Here’s what to do on a weekend road trip around Kahurangi National Park.
On the Way to Motueka
Just north of Murchison, leave the rental in the Matiri car park. From here, there’s a two-hour return walk to Lake Matiri Hut. The track follows a former road that serviced the hydro plant and leads all the way to the hut that offers shelter for those on multi-day hikes. There, you’ll find yourself with a view of Lake Matiri water fringed by mountains.
If you’re a strong hiker, you might want to continue towards Poor Pete’s Hut. After a 40-minute climb, you’ll come to a spot where you can rest and check out the panorama of the lake and valley below. The track keeps climbing through forest to the rim of 1000 Acre Plateau, with its tussocked landscape. By now, you’ll be about two hours from Lake Matiri Hut, so it’s a good spot to turn around and head back to the car. At least it’s all a downhill walk from here.
If you’ve ever wanted to fossick for gold, stop at Glenhope Scenic Reserve. Here you’ll find Louis Creek, the site of a gold rush in 1915. When you look down at it, you’ll still see all the old workings from that time. During the Depression, fortune seekers moved to New Creek. Bring your own hand tools because there are two places along Louis Creek where you can try your luck. Follow the old gold mining track to hunker down in a lucky spot or keep following it to find a monument to the miners and Booth’s Hut, a historical relic.
What to Do in Motueka
This vibrant town is located on Tasman Bay. And lucky you’re arriving in Motueka on the weekend because its Sunday Market celebrates the local produce and artisans. There are stalls selling craft, fashion, art and delicious food, while musicians entertain the crowd.
Along the waterfront, stroll past the shipwreck of the Janie Seddon, a former navy submarine mining vessel. In the 1950s, in its retirement after a brief stint as a fishing vessel, the ship pierced its own hull on the anchor during low tide and its rusted carcass remains. During summer, bring your swimsuit because you can take a dip in the Motueka Saltwater Baths.
Jump in the rental car and head to Riuwaka Resurgence in Kahurangi National Park, about 20 minutes’ drive from Motueka. This sacred site for local Māori, Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Rārua, sees the Riuwaka River re-emerging from Tākaka Hill through passages and cracks in the limestone into the Crystal Pool. There’s a short walk through native bush to the pool, where the water is a very chilly 9ºC. Not that you’d want to, but there’s no swimming here, as the Māori believe the waters have healing properties.
Head West Instead
If checking out rainforests and caves is on your agenda, you’ll need to head in the opposite direction from Murchison towards the west. From there, follow the highway to the town of Karamea. In total, you’ll be travelling for about two hours and 45 minutes.
Karamea is wedged between rainforest and coast in a part of Kahurangi National Park known as the Ōpārara. For thousands of years, this part of New Zealand has been totally undisturbed and to this day remains remote. Here, you can hike through unspoiled rainforests and explore complex cave systems.
For wildlife lovers, this is an extraordinary place to explore. As you walk to Ōpārara Arch, which curves above the Ōpārara River, listen for the call of bellbirds. This is home to the great spotted kiwi, one of New Zealand’s biggest birds, as well as other species like tui, kaka, rare blue ducks and kea. Look, too, for giant land snails.
One of the big attractions here is the network of caves formed by water dissolving the limestone beneath the surrounding mountains. The only way to access them is to join a guided tour, which will take you to Honeycomb Hill Cave. Glow worms light up the cave and you might see tiny luminescent troglobites scurrying across the walls. There are also cave spiders – with their long legs, they can grow up to 15cm across – that while appearing scary are completely harmless. The tour company also has itineraries that include visits to the area’s arches.
To explore Kahurangi National Park and the north of the South Island, hire a rental car to get going.