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July 2011 Issue
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Rich pickings in Nelson’s backyard

Crossing a swingbridge over the Pelorus River. Photo: Shaun Barnett
Matai Dam to Pelorus Track via Maungatapu Track 4hr; To Captain Creek Hut (6 bunks) 3-4hr; To Middy Hut (6 bunks) 2.5hr; To Rocks Hut (20 bunks) 3hr; Rocks Hut to Brook Street via Dun Mountain Walkway 5.5 hr; Side-trip from Dun Saddle to Dun Mountain 1.5-2 hr return.
Murderers Rock is reached on the Maungatapu Track, on Maungatapu Rd. The Pelorus Track can be reached from Mt Richmond Rd, which is joined to Maungatapu Rd.
O27 Nelson, O28 Golden Downs
Maungatapu and Pelorus Tracks, Mt Richmond Forest Park

Murderers Rocks. I’d imagined prominent triangular boulders, a place of malice and treachery.

In reality the rocks are small with just enough room for a person to crouch behind. There’s a battered plaque, partly vandalised, and a setting of straggly gorse.

Not much to signal one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder sites.

The Maungatapu Track, a 4WD road that crosses the Bryant Range behind Nelson, was in the 1860s, the principal route between Nelson and Marlborough, and it was here in June 1866 that the notorious Burgess-Kelly gang murdered five men in the space of two days.

The Burgess-Kelly gang comprised four men of dubious backgrounds, men who’d already murdered and stolen from innocents around New Zealand’s goldfields. They’d hoped to find rich pickings amongst the miners on the Wakamarina, but were disappointed to discover the short-lived goldfield in decline.

The gang killed one man, James Battle, simply because he’d had the misfortune of being a possible witness. Then later that day, two of the gang hid behind the rocks to ambush three storeowners and a miner who were returning to Nelson from the Wakamarina. The gang robbed and brutally executed the men and then flagrantly spent some of the proceeds in Nelson. They were soon arrested on suspicion.

What became known as the ‘Maungatapu Murders’ caused a sensation in New Zealand and even made international headlines. All except one of the Burgess-Kelly gang were hanged for their crimes.

These days, Kohuru Creek, near the murder scene, is a tranquil enough place – a quiet stream flowing beneath regenerating forest. I took a few photos of the plaque, had a moment’s silence for the murder victims, then marched off downhill in order to make Captain Creek Hut before nightfall. After a high sidle, the track zigzags down to the riverside again, where a short sidetrack leads to Captain Creek Hut

It had been 16 years since I was here last, back when Mt Richmond Forest Park was very much the domain of New Zealanders. In the hut book, I was surprised to find names from places as far a field as Israel, England, Australia, USA, Korea, Czech Republic, Japan, New Caledonia and Ireland. It seems the park is now on the international map.

The winter morning proved cold and damp in the valley, but after hot oats and scalding tea I was sufficiently warmed to embark for Middy Hut. The track largely sidles, and here the Pelorus is delightful, its emerald hue flowing slowly through steep rocky banks.

Fantails flitted, grey warblers trilled, and the sun burst through the canopy. In the Middy Hut book there’s a plea from one tramper: ‘Please don’t be an idiot and don’t leave your rubbish around this nice hut…’ to which a reply goes: ‘Ahhh, Grasshopper, so much Anger.’

Further up the Pelorus Track, the Rocks Hut track branches off. I took it and climbed a broad, fairly gentle spur, for 680m to reach the hut, the largest in the park.

Towards evening, I headed up to The Lookout, a rocky outcrop with an expansive view of the whole Richmond Range. A few of the higher peaks, Mt Richmond, Rintoul and Starveall had residual winter snow caps.

In the morning, beside a smouldering fire in the darkness, I ate more oats, then packed up and headed for a Dun Mountain sunrise.

Beyond Dun Saddle, I reached the flatter part of the mountain as the sun began to strike. There’s more vegetation here than the Red Hills (another expanse of ultramafic rock which lies in the south-west of the park) but the same curious outcrops. Due to the concentration of certain metals, the partially toxic soils derived from this rock ensure only stunted or specially-adapted plants can survive.

Puddles had frozen solid, but it was warm enough in the sun. Dun Mountain Hut is barely more than a green, tin shelter, with a water tank and toilet. No bunks, but it’d save your life in a storm.

The actual summit of Dun Mountain, 1129m, offers views towards Pelorus Sound on one side, and Abel Tasman on the other. I had the whole summit to myself.

After a leisurely stroll back over the mountain, I regained Dun Saddle and started heading towards Nelson.

The track drops steeply towards a gully, then through forest for a short spell before breaking out on to Coppermine Saddle, scene of not very successful mining in the past. Shortly before Coads Creek, the track becomes wide and well-benched, a sure indication that this was once a railway – New Zealand’s first.

It’s easy walking through the occasional rock cutting, wending around forested spurs, to reach the open grassy clearing occupied by Third House Shelter. This was originally a hut (the Atmore Memorial Hut), but has been divided into a two-part shelter, each with half of the original chimney.

The sun enticed me to make a leisurely lunch stop, and a bellbird chimed invitingly. A mountain biker arrived, paused briefly, then headed off for the fun bit of his ride – the downhill. I envied him; for me it was a slow plod back to the Brook Street motor camp.