Eternal flames hidden in the bush
It is the kind of story that screams urban myth: flames emanating from the ground deep in the bush near Murchison.
The flames, so one story goes, were first lit in the 1920s, when hunters smelled natural gas seeping from the ground. They returned to the site with a metal pipe, lit the flare, and a fire has burnt more or less continuously ever since.
Merve Bigden, who runs Murchison Lodge with wife Shirley, first heard of the "flames in the forest" when he moved to Murchison eight years ago, after working and travelling around the world.
Locals told him about the phenomenon during a golf tournament, and suggested that he start a business taking tourists to see the flames. The venture would be good for Murchison, they said.
Mr Bigden did not take them too seriously, believing they were having fun with the green newcomer to the area.
"I honestly thought they were taking the mickey. I found out later it did exist," Mr Bigden said. "There really are continually burning flames in the forest."
The couple, who are originally from England, kept hearing stories about the mysterious flames and eventually decided to go and have a look for themselves.
Following sketchy directions, and old tin lids nailed to trees marking the route, they found the flames. They were on the verge of giving up after a two-hour search.
Entranced, they spoke with deer farmer Graeme Hockey for about six years about the opportunity of opening the flames to the public. The flames are on Department of Conservation land which is accessed through Mr Hockey's deer farm.
Mrs Bigden said they eventually reached an agreement with Mr Hockey to take the tours. They also had to get a DOC concession to access the conservation land.
The Bigdens started taking small groups to see the flames at Labour Weekend.
The half-day guided tour starts with a four-wheel-drive trip up the Blackwater Valley, just north of Murchison, and through the deer farm. Tall, rocky, bush-clad hills form a backdrop to the journey, and on the hour-long walk through beech forest that follows the drive, the Nelson Mail spotted wild deer and goats.
Suddenly, at the top of a small rise, in a rocky amphitheatre, there are flames.
It's a cliche, but it is a magical sight stumbling across the gently burning, yet fiercely hot, flames in the middle of the bush.
It is an audio-visual experience, with the flames crackling and the gas hissing through the rock.
Weathered frying pans used by generations of those who have made the short trek to the flames, and celebrated with a pancake or barbecue, hang on hooks on nearby trees.
Those who take the tour with the Bigdens are rewarded with billy tea and pancakes - cooked at a rapid pace using an old metal tripod over the flames.
The Bigdens are natural tour guides, and talk about the rich history of the valley and point out highlights of the native flora.
The Blackwater, and nearby Mangles Valley, has a decades-long history associated with oil and gas exploration.
A Mr L Hill who walked up the valley after the 1929 earthquake recalled natural gas hissing out of the ground in several places. He said he was too scared to light his pipe "for fear of walking into a gas pocket".
The area has been explored by various prospectors over the years - from the mid-1920s to as recently as 2006.
There are two abandoned oil wells in the Blackwater Valley, and the capped Blackwater Well is still visible on the roadside.
Blackwater I was originally drilled in 1968 by the Australian Oil Company of Texas. Oil and gas were discovered but the find was too small to be commercially viable for the company.
A Nelson Mail article in May 1968 said Murchison was poised to become a "boom town" due to the exploration.
The Bounty Oil Company drilled a well in the Mangles to a depth of more than three kilometres. It was abandoned in 1970, at a cost of $813,788.
In 2006, West Coast company Western Exploration Ltd looked at a new well in the Blackwater I, but abandoned it due to hitting problems with an object - probably a electric pump - that had been discarded down the hole.
The Bigdens are passionate about Murchison, and believe the trip to the flames has the potential to offer visitors another option for a day expedition.
The partners of fly fishers who come to the area often have time on their hands, and the trip also offers something for those whose friends or family are going kayaking or rafting on the nearby Buller River.
The couple know of other sites in the world where eternal flames burn, including one on Mt Olympus in Turkey. It is a tourist destination that draws great numbers of people to see the mystical flames.
After visiting the rocky site on Mt Olympus, the Bigdens say the Murchison flames - which burn so close to ferns and vegetation right in the middle of the bush - are unique.
"Just the fact it is in the forest burning away in a place it shouldn't be, really. The whole weirdness," Mrs Bigden said.
They have had great feedback from people who have taken the tour so far, with comments on how awesome and unique the experience is. The only niggle has been people remarking how odd it feels to walk away and leave the flames - still burning - in the solitude of the Murchison bush.
For more information, visit naturalflames.co.nz.
The Nelson Mail