More than a “pie and a piss”!
I will start off by fessing up to my personal connection to Murchison. I was the fifth generation on the maternal side of my family to be born in Murch. Now, according to my Mum, only people born in Murchison are allowed to call the place Murch. The rest of you get to call it Murchison, and that’s just the way it is. If you’ve met my Mum then you’ll respect this too as you will already know that the dressing down you will receive if you disobey this little edict will melt the skin clean off your face.
Anyway, as I was saying, my great great grandmother, Emily Oxham, was the first pākehā girl born in the Buller in 1873. Even if I did move away from Murchison with my immediate family in 1979, I still have an enduring bond with the place. For many years when my kids were young we would pass through the town on our way south and I would insist on driving up George Street to show them my former family home. I must have overdone the whole tour of memories as the kids started mocking me every time we approached Murchison and would beg NOT to do the tour. They would also say many unkind things about the place being a grey little hole of a place and that if it was not the a$$ of the universe, then it must be within farting distance of it. My wife’s voice would be loudest among the detractors too. I was therefore greatly surprised when she returned from a three day school camp with her class from Riwaka Primary School last year and said: “Murchison is wonderful. It’s an undiscovered gem and I would really like to go back for a longer visit there soon.” Although I was shocked, I managed to keep the words “I told you so” from passing my lips.
Whoever thought up Murchison’s unofficial promotional slogan; ‘more than a pie and piss’ hit the nail right on the head. While it is unmistakably a perfect place for those things, it has so much more to offer, particularly if you are up for some outdoor adventuring. Although most people only stop for a quick break on their way somewhere else it is also a visitor destination in its own right, and a friendly, quintessential small Kiwi town. The hospitality, friendliness and genuine warmth of the Murch locals is another of its most endearing features. The adventure tourism scene has also brought newcomers to the town adding energy and vibrancy to the place.
Murch also has two traditional Kiwi pubs, the Commercial and Hampden, located right across the road from each other. Back in the day my late Grandfather would often engage in a little more re-hydration than was strictly necessary at whichever of these establishments was still giving him credit. Frank, or officially Francis Lyvian Gould, was a great example of a dyed-in-wool local, a fantastic teller of stories and something of a local character. Many years ago my aunty, who lives in Auckland, was talking to a friend of hers who had just driven through Murchison on his way north. This friend of my aunty’s was telling her how he had happened across this funny old fella propping up the bar who was really friendly and told him a number of amazing yarns. “And how is Frank?” my aunty asked to which her friend asked in return: “Oh, do you know Frank already?”
The backcountry is never far away when you’re in Murchison and the area bordering Nelson Lakes National Park is an excellent example. Anybody who attended Nelson College will be able to tell you stories about the adventures they had at the College’s outdoor education located up the Matakitaki Valley. Downies Hut, located about 17km from the carpark at Mount Ella Station, is a quintessential backcountry hut and is accessible to anybody with a jot of wilderness experience. Lake Matiri in the Kahurangi National Park is another incredibly accessible tramping track and the hut at the head of the lake is modern and a short walk along the trail. I took my kids on one of their first tramps to that hut a few years back and despite much complaining when we first started out, that tramp has become a much talked about and cherished memory. This includes the unholy dispatching of a huge black possum to the afterlife and wonderful times sitting around the campfire each evening.
Murchison is within spitting distance of some of the finest trout fishing rivers in the known universe including the Buller, Matakitaki, Mangles and Matriri. Any pig or deer hunter out there won’t need me to tell them Murch is ground zero for these hobbies.
Murch is also something of an adventurer’s mecca, but unlike some of the more commercialised places, you won’t find yourself wondering how you managed to spend $15 for a glass of beer at the end of the day’s adventures. Buller Canyon Jet will take you out on what is arguably one of the most picturesque rivers in the whole country. Ultimate Descents offer a really good range of white-water experiences suitable for family groups and thrill seekers. The Buller Gorge Adventure and Heritage Park also has a bunch of activities including gold panning, a zipline across the Buller and New Zealand’s longest swing bridge. For something totally unique, Natural Flames Murchison offers a half day tour to a perpetually burning fire in a nearby beech forest. Murchison is also the access point for the legendary Old Ghost Road mountain biking and tramping track with the trailhead located along the Buller Gorge at Lyell. To see just how remote and surrounded by untamed wilderness the area is, Murchison Heli Tours offer tours and transport for hunters, fishers, trampers and mountain bikers.
If shopping is more your thing then it may surprise you to hear that Murchison also has a couple of outstanding second hand stores. For anybody with even a remote interest in classic Kiwi memorabilia, Somebody’s Treasure and Rust and Dust are both worth a visit.
As a service town and place where a lot of travellers take a break, Murchison has a number of places to eat. Along with Zen’s Kitchen the Tutaki Bakery a short way along Fairfax Street is another container eatery with a good reputation. Across the road in what used to be Fred’s Garage when I was nipper is now Rivers Cafe where you can score an outstanding lamb shank pie. Back on State Highway 6 you’ll find the Murchison Tearooms and Beachwoods; the place to head if you like classic Kiwi style hamburgers. The array of accommodation options may also surprise with three camping grounds and a bunch of motel options including a brand new place on the main drag next to the school.
Words & Photography by Brendan Alborn
Brendan has a long association with the Abel Tasman, visiting it for the first time when his parents moved to Marahau in 1997. After spending much of his life overseas, Brendan and his family moved to the area at the end of 2010. When Brendan is not spending his time in the outdoors he seems to spend much of his time creating even flimsier justifications for spending more time in the outdoors.