“What happened at these places helped shape our culture, their stories are part of all of us. And they’re right here for all of us to explore.”
It’s funny how things change
I’ve usually visited the West Coast to fossick around on its rugged beaches, to hike into a remote hut somewhere in the wilderness, to spot unique wildlife like whio or kākā , or simply to relax with a local brew and mussels collected off the rocks. Being in the outdoors provides balance to my more hectic life in the city, and there’s no better place than the West Coast to achieve that.
About three years ago I was offered a part time job with Tohu Whenua , a national visitor programme that works with regional communities (including on the West Coast) to identify and promote some of New Zealand’s most significant heritage sites. It’s safe to say that I was hired for my marketing skills rather than my knowledge of history. History to me always seemed a bit, well, stuffy, and I didn’t connect it with spending time out in nature. Turns out I was wrong. As I learned the stories behind the Tohu Whenua I was promoting on social media, visited the sites in person, and met the salt of the earth locals who care for them, I began seeing history in a completely different light. It’s hard to explain, but it kind of started coming alive.
On the West Coast, you can stand among the ruins of once huge industrial gold mining complexes that are being reclaimed by forest, see where scores of coal miners washed themselves in concrete bath houses overlooking the ocean, or shop, dine and do gin tastings in charming ‘Wild West’ style towns that proud locals have breathed new life into. What’s more, this history is ours.
Waiuta - a gold mining ghost town
Waiuta, the West Coast's best ghost town, is officially recognised as a Tohu Whenua. From 1906 to 1951 Waiuta was a bustling company town for the South Island's largest gold mine, and home to 600 people. Located between mountain ranges, Waiuta’s mines produced nearly 750,000 ounces of gold, worth $1.6 billion in today's currency!
Although many of the houses were removed after the mine shut down in 1951, the layout of the town is still very clear. This includes an Olympic size swimming pool, a rugby field with posts still standing, Waiuta Lodge (faithfully modelled after the hospital that stood on this site), several cottages and of course an extensive assortment of gold mining ruins. The most impressive of these, Prohibition Mine, is located on the hill above Waiuta. The mine was 879m deep, the last 200m of which were below sea level!
The steep 2.5 hour return track down to Snowy Battery was also worth the effort. This is where gold was pounded out of quartz rock using the water powered ‘battery’ of iron stampers, before being further processed in colossal cyanide tanks that still stand by the river. You can explore the highlights of Waiuta in a day, but we stayed in our self contained campervan for four (this included an overnight hike to historic Big River Hut, another well preserved gold mining site).
Reefton New Zealand’s first commercial electric lighting
About an hour’s drive north of Waiuta is Reefton. Reefton was selected as a Tohu Whenua because it was the first place in the southern hemisphere to have commercial power and electric lighting. It has a rich gold mining history and once went by the name of Quartzopolis. Realising the value of their heritage, passionate locals have spent the past few years lovingly restoring and repurposing countless heritage buildings, especially along iconic main street Broadway.
One of these buildings' house Reefton Distilling Co. where Pete and I stopped to do a tasting of high end gin made from local botanicals. It’s aptly named Little Biddy, after a ‘pipe smoking, gin toting, 4foot gold miner’ who used to live in Reefton.
What stands out for me about Reefton is its locals. They must be the friendliest people in the entire country. They stop and chat with you in the street (like, the middle of the street), and the overall pace of life reminds me of the small town New Zealand that I grew up in complete with lazy afternoons swimming in the river, mountain biking and popping up the road to catch a trout for dinner.
We’ll be back to explore more of Reefton’s backcountry, with its hiking tracks, stamper batteries hidden in the bush, and cosy looking DOC huts.
Denniston coal mining in extreme conditions
Denniston is known for its incredibly steep, 1670 m long incline railway, an engineering marvel that used gravity and West Coast grit to transport wagons of very high grade of coal to the coast. Reading the stories on the interpretation panels you soon realise how hard life was for the 1400 people who once lived on this hauntingly barren plateau a place so rocky that they couldn’t dig long drops, grow their own food or even bury their dead. I’d visited the Brakehead with its Q wagons, countless ruins and endless views of the coast in a previous trip and was keen to see what else the plateau had to offer. We decided to walk the one hour return track at Coalbrookdale further along the road what a little gem! We followed an old cable car rope road through tunnels, past several mine entrances, foundations, a haulage winch and the country’s best remaining example of a mine fanhouse (which is something I get quite excited about these days!). Reluctant to leave, we decided to sit for a while by the reservoir and enjoy the big open views of the surrounding mountains.
Brunner Mine - NZ's worst mining disaster
It’s hard not to visit Brunner Mine near Greymouth and feel a little sad. New Zealand’s biggest coal producer in the 1880s, this historic site is most remembered for its 1896 accident that killed 65 men in one coal gas explosion. It’s still the country’s deadliest workplace disaster. But ultimately it also sparked West Coast unionism and better safety legislation, which is why it’s recognised as a Tohu Whenua.
It’s hard not to marvel at what used to be there. What is now lush regenerating bush was once covered in countless houses and multi storied industrial buildings that clung to the side of the hill. The site straddles both banks of the Grey River, connected with a replica suspension bridge. I love the beautiful brickwork used to construct the beehive coke ovens, as well as the tall stone chimney that stands like a sentinel overlooking the site. The average person might get around the site in about an hour, but we took our time to follow the sidetracks leading to hidden little gems such as boilers and mine entrances and read some of the stories of the 300 families who once lived here.
Hokitika - Shipwrecks galore
Hokitika: A place our ancestors determinedly entered in search of pounamu and gold.
I’ve visited Hokitika several times and thought I’d seen most of the attractions (including staying at the former BNZ building which is owned by friends). But two things had happened since my last visit. I watched the TV adaptation of The Luminaries, and now I was also wearing my Tohu Whenua goggles. To be completely honest, despite my better understanding of Hokitika’s history, I still find it a bit hard to imagine Hokitika as it was in the 1864-67 gold rush days. Revell Street, with its cafes and shops, is still known as the ‘Crooked Mile’ a name it acquired when it sported no less than 86 raucous pubs. That would have been an experience! The other thing I would have loved to see is its bustling river port and all the drama that went with it. These days most visitors come to Hokitika by car or plane, but back in the 1860s when the coast was still wholly untamed wilderness the ‘easiest’ way was by ship. 37,000 gold seekers arrived at Hokitika Port in just three years but to get into port they first had to negotiate the treacherous and ever changing river bar. A local told me that there was a stranding or shipwreck every 10 days.
You can now watch the breakers roll in while seated in the safety of the Tambo (a replica ship memorial overlooking the river mouth) and if you time it right, one of those magical red sunsets that the West Coast is so famous for.
These are by no means the only heritage sites we visited. Other highlights included the miner’s bath house at Millerton, walking up Ten Mile Creek to explore mining tunnels, Nelson Creek with its cross network of deep trenches dug to assist in the sluicing of gold, Charming Creek , and Kumara Pools which was once New Zealand’s largest swimming complex. And I’ve already ear marked at least a dozen other places for next time.