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Touring New Zealand 2008 - Part 3

Waikawa and Wineries

We stayed at the Waikawa Bay Holiday Park, one of the Kiwi Holiday Parks for two days before sailing so we could sort out stores and get ready. The camp site was good and had excellent facilities and they provided us with a huge cabin down by the pool and kiddy area. We went across to our favourite Marlborough Wineries including Cloudy Bay of course and Allan Scott where we had lunch and bought some excellent value sparkling wine, it was on special from $25 a bottle to $60 for a half case as the labeling was changing. We also bought 4 bottles with special labels which are normally only on sale at the Omaka Aviation Museum which we visited for the first time. We have covered the wineries well in the past and there is a dedicated New Zealand Wineries and Winery Restaurants page so we will say no more. We decided to come back after sailing for another day to get ourselves sorted out.

The 'Knights of the Sky' Aviation Museum at Omaka

The highlight in Marlborough was the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre situated at Omaka Airfield. They have an impressive collection of primarily World War 1 aircraft. The collection is managed by the 14-18 Aviation Heritage Trust, which is chaired by famous film director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) who has been a prime mover in setting up the museum and providing aircraft. Many of the aircraft are flyable replicas and several have been built and used for film work.

The intention is to have a series of exhibitions as well as more normal displays - the opening exhibition is titled Knights of The Sky and occupies some 3,000 sqm of purpose-built display area. It is of the world's largest collections of World War 1 aircraft and rare memorabilia. The presentation mixes dramatically staged static displays alongside flyable planes and shows the input of professional film set makers. The stated intention is to "take you back to a time long gone and almost forgotten when the harshness and cruelty of the war in the trenches contrasted with the chivalry and bravado of the war in the air. When SE5as and Fokker Triplanes went head to head; the steeds of these latter day knights of the air jousting for survival."

It all started in the late 1990's when a group of enthusiasts imported two Chinese Nanchang trainers and established the Marlborough Warbirds Association. Other heritage aircraft started to come to Omaka - its large square grass airfield is very attractive to operators of early aircraft types such as the Spitfire, and the WWI machines that were never designed to fly from runways. As word of the range and rarity of aircraft stored at Omaka spread, tourists also began knocking on the hangar doors. This interest led to the formation of the New Zealand Aviation Museum Trust. Omaka has become a centre of aviation excellence providing: vintage & warbird experience flights, aircraft restoration and even aircraft manufacture of replica of early aircraft. There is now a biennial Classic Fighters Airshow which now has an international following and is a major source of funding for the Centre

There is an impressive collection including many unique exhibits. Whilst we were there the aircraft display comprised the last Caproni CA.22, an Etrich Taube, a Fokker E.III 'Eindekker', an Airco DH-2, a Morane-Saulnier TYPE BB, a Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8, a Bristol F2b, a Halberstadt D.IV, an Albatros B.II, a Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a, a Nieuport 27, a Siemens Schukert D.IV, four Fokker Dr.1 'Triplanes', the 'Bluemax' Pfalz D.III, Nieuport 24, an Airco DH-5, and an Airco DH-4 as well as several 'set piece' exhibits such as the "Baron's Last Flight" and "Grid's great Escape".

Manfred von Richthofen, 'the Red Baron' was highest scoring Ace of the War with 80 victories, his name has been remembered by successive generations on both sides of the conflict. Grid Caldwell was New Zealand's highest scoring ace with 25 aerial victories to his credit. The display shows an amazing episode in Caldwell's career in which he managed to regain control of his SE5a fighter after it was crippled in a mid-air collision, managing to stabilise it by placing himself half in and half out of his cockpit for just long enough to nurse it back to the lines and jump clear just as it was about to crash. Caldwell survived his fall, and the war, and was C.O. Of RNZAF Base Woodbourne for the first half of the Second World War!

There are full details of the current displays Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. We spent several pleasant hours roaming the exhibits and can thoroughly recommend a visit. Several of the aircraft including two of the four Fokker Triplanes and the 'Bluemax' Pfalz D.III were due to fly at Warbirds over Wanaka 2008 adding additional interest to us.

The following day we crossed to the West Coast over the fairly low Hope Saddle and down the Buller Gorge and stayed on the coast at The Westport Holiday Park in an A Frame Cabin for two days so we could visit Denniston which was about 15 kms up the coast. A pleasant site but memorable mostly for the number of times their Wifi crashed whilst we were using Ubuntu and trying to do FTP uploads to our web site.


One of Pete's 60th Birthday presents was a book namely The Illustrated Denniston Rose And Heart Of Coal by Jenny Pattrick (ISBN-13: 9781869417994, published by Black Swan). The two Denniston novels have become best-sellers in New Zealand and we had seen them on some 'must read' book lists. As well as the stories they have a dramatic but historically correct description of how the miners and families at Denniston braved a 2000-feet-high and terrifyingly steep incline, a severe climate and scarce resources to eke out a living from the seams of coal on the Hill. This special edition not only contains the two novels but has a rich collection of historic photographs to illustrate and bring alive the unique lifestyle at Denniston. The two stories take one from the 1880s, through into the twentieth century and are set against the bleak landscape of the Hill. The historic images of past times are paired with those of today to highlight the change from crowded settlements to ghost town.

After we had both read the book we decided, on the spur of the moment, to change our routing and visit Denniston and learn something of an area we knew little about and West Coast coal mining. By coincidence the area had also featured in the recent Historic Places magazine. The Historic Places web site currently carries the 'Winter Peak' article. What follows has drawn on that excellent article as well as the interpretation boards, the book and other articles we have found.

A deep rich coal seam was discovered in 1860 by Julius Haast who discovered a 2.5 meter thick coal seam under a waterfall. He named the cliff Burnett’s Face, after James Burnett, an engineer who accompanied him and then named the valley Coalbrookdale. Burnett estimated there were 72 million tonnes of coal in the valley, a rich find but difficult to access as it was 2000 feet up a steep hillside. Burnett therefore suggested an incline railway system, run by gravity, to bring the coal down onto the coastal plain below, with the descending full trucks bringing the empties back up. Work began on the incline in 1879, and the first coal traveled on it a year later. The incline made Denniston unique among New Zealand coal towns and was described by proud locals as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”.

The incline transported coal from the Mount Rochfort Plateau to the plain, a fall of 518m in a track distance of 1670m, The incline had to be in two parts as the lie of the land ruled out a single straight run and had a gradient at the upper end of 1 in 1.34.The incline was a massive engineering work with a novel bridge over Conn’s Creek near the foot of the incline constructed with two laminated arches with a span of 115 feet with the decking 13 meters above the water level. The incline delivered coal from the bins and screens at Denniston to the Conn's Creek yards, where the coal was then railed to Westport. Coal continued down the incline for a further 87 years until a vehicle road was built. At one time Denniston was New Zealand’s most productive coal mine and between 1879 and 1967 the incline carried over 12 million tonnes of coal down from the Rochfort Plateau to Waimangaroa for the ships at Westport.

The descents of the 12 ton standard rail wagons traveling at speeds of up to 80 kph were controlled by two huge hydraulic brakes at Brakehead, and Middle Brake. The braking system adopted resembled a direct-acting horizontal winding engine, but the action was directly opposite. Water was used to check the action of pistons, instead of steam to give them motion. The water was drawn off at each stroke and replaced by a fresh supply, as the severe pressure would raise it to boiling point! . Four-inch diameter steel wire rope was used, and the rails were laid so that the wagon ascending on the right or “company” side of the line was wound around its side of the drum while the rope on the other or “donkey” side unwound and let the descending wagon down the incline. For the next load the procedure was reversed. There were three rails which separated into four where the wagons passed half way on each incline. At Middle Brake they were unhitched from the top ropes and attached to the lower ropes by hand. Up to 15 wagons an hour passed through the incline.

In the early years the only way up or down the plateau was by riding the coal wagons. The empty wagons heading up the incline threw their passengers and belongings around inside, particularly during the steepest part. To descend, passengers had to lie flat on top of the coal and hold onto the edge or ride on the narrow ends with bent knees to avoid the shocks breaking legs. Many women and children were so traumatised by the journey up that they refused to go down again. One lady refused to leave Denniston for over a decade.

Horses were used within the Denniston mines and they were part Shire, and much larger than the Welsh cobs used overseas. This was possible because the mine had high ceilings as the coal seam was deep and easy to mine. Individual horses could haul seven tonnes of coal. They were stabled underground and only came to the surface a couple of times a year. However, they were well fed and looked after by dedicated workers. Wire rope-ways and finally an aerial mono-cable were installed to bring the coal to the Bins and screeds at the Denniston Breakhead.

Denniston is 600 meters high, as elevated as many mountain passes in the South Island. It gets two and a half meters of rain each year and a vicious wind. In the early days, miners, mostly single men, were housed in tents perched on the cliff-top in an area just called “The Camp”. Hostels and rough huts were built but, when families arrived, the men often moved back into tents where children were raised in more private but primitive conditions as houses were erected. After a death on the Incline in 1883 and another in 1884 the miners started to cut and blast a bridle way which was initially so steep and narrow that it was almost as dangerous as the wagons. The land was too hard to dig graves and burials were at Waimangaroa cemetery, in the small town below, and many of the women and children refused to attend even their families funerals because of their fear of traveling down and back on the coal wagons.

This was the harsh reality of the area which has been brought back to life in Jenny Pattrick's two books

The population of the area continued to grow despite the harsh life, such was the call for coal and ten years after the incline was built, Denniston had grown rapidly and boasted a high school of 190 children, shops, hotels, a brass band, cricket club and bowling green. Other villages sprung up such as Burnett's Face and the smaller Coalbrookdale, although Denniston always had the edge in facilities. The combined population peaked at 1500 in 1911, and 500 people still lived in Denniston in 1950.

The last coal was mined in 1967 and since then the population quickly declined, and many houses were dismantled and relocated. The old school house still stands, and is in good repair having been recently restored. It housed the museum and information centre but was closed when we visited. It is obviously still in use, but not as a school. Peeping inside we saw good kitchen facilities and lots of tables and chairs.

There was a strong loyalty between those who lived and worked on the plateau and a trust was formed in 1993 to protect the remaining heritage in the area. A number of areas have been opened up with interpretation boards. The first we visited was at the Brakehead at the top of the incline. It is dominated by the remains of the huge wheels used to control the wagons on the incline. There are also concrete foundations, walls and chimneys and part of a tower used for the aerial cable-way in the 1950s. There are a number of interpretative displays, and a short walk took us to a viewpoint overlooking the steepest part of the incline.

Three walks around the plateau have been established by the trust. We took a 20-minute walk from the Brakehead to Banbury Arch to see the stone arch that gave access to the first mine’s entrance high above us. The walk downhill from Denniston following the original bridle path and finishing at Conn's Creek Road was temporarily closed due to a landslip so we drove to Burnett's Face and took the one-hour Coalbrookdale walk which took in sections of the rope road, which originally brought the coal from the mines to the incline. Being along a rope road it was flat, with the added interest of a short tunnel. The path passed a number of mine entrances, and everywhere there were relics and rusting piles of cables with stone walls showing where more substantial buildings had been. The path ends at a brick fan house and then the route back can be along the old road, on the other side of the river.

We then drove down to the bottom of the incline at the Conn's Creek yards, where the lower section of the incline can be seen as well as a few artifacts including one of the railway wagons used on the incline and a loading crane. The line of the incline with the change in direction can be seen although parts are rather overgrown.

The Institution of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ) has given special recognition to a number of engineering works which are considered to be an important part of New Zealand's engineering heritage. The Denniston Incline is considered to be one of these and a plaque on the site of the Incline records this honour.

The next day we had a look in the Coalmining Museum in Westport. Ideally we should have visited it before driving to Denniston. They have a good video about Denniston with some old black and white film, as well as displays of coal mining equipment. They have one of the wagons used on the incline and also one of the brake drums on display. It can take several hours to see everything.


On the way along the coast road from Greymouth to Westport we, quite by chance, came upon a sign advertising a Goldfield. It turned out to some of the old workings at Charleston, one of the most successful Goldfields of the West Coast which produced 4,000,000 oz of gold between 1866 and 1914. More recently, in the 1970s, it was reopened on a small scale and worked for 14 years. It scarcely paid the couple who were operating it and they stopped operations but you can look round their workings and walk through some of the old adits.

They have a water wheel operated Stamper battery which was undergoing maintenance whilst we were there. It only takes about 30 minutes to walk round - we were guided by a small but very vociferous goat called Maggie. We gained a very good impression of what was, and still is, involved in a small scale mining activity. The only major difference in what they were doing was that originally the ore was mined from adits into the hillside whilst the later operation used diggers to remove the soil and rock above to reach the remaining 'cement' which was left between the tunnels in the area.

The ore being processed is unusual in that the gold is trapped in a cement so is not strictly alluvial and has to be separated by Stampers as with quartz ore. During the ice ages quartz carrying gold was washed into the sea where it was ground into minute particles. The currents along the coast built it into terraces, in this case with sand having a high (20%) iron content. The rusting of the iron cemented the gold and sand together. These gold bearing terraces have been further compressed and are now left well above the current sea level and covered by layers of sediment and soil.

The 'cement' was dug out by hand, loaded into trolleys and wheeled to Stamper batteries in the same way quartz was treated. The crushed sand and gold that was released was washed through very fine screens and the gold collected on mercury coated copper plates, just as with many quartz batteries and any remaining gold collected on blankets. The extraction in the recent period was one oz per 20 tons through the Stampers and the original method of separation of the gold from the amalgam in a retort was used. The Stamper could only treat 20 tons per week so a home made roller mill was used to increase the throughput to 20 tons per day which was still scarcely economic due to the high wear on the diggers hence the closure after 14 years - however the licences still remains in force and production could be restarted if more economic techniques are developed.

We have seen a book on Charlston which is now on our list of books to buy if a suitable opportunity arises namely; "Charleston. Its Rise and Decline." Irwin Faris., A.W. Reed., 1941 - A History of gold mining town from 1866 with photos, street plans, electors, graveyards etc.


We continued down the coast stopping at Hokitika, a small town which used to be the major port for goldmining activities on the Northwest coast. It was however not an easy port to access with a treacherous bar on the entry and over 42 ships were wrecked in a short number of years. Despite its reputation there were 41 ships tied up at the wharf on 16 September 1867, only two years after it was officially declared a port.

In the afternoon we took a drive round the Blue Spur loop and did a one hour walk which took us through the remains of a good range of mining activities including tunnels, past adits, through paddocks, stacked stones, past shafts and through some narrow sections through old drainage channels ten or more feet deep and short tunnels.

The following morning we sought out the bookshop which had moved from a private house to within the old Town Hall where it is in the rooms used for the registry - they have a door more suitable for a bank vault.


Our next pause was at Ross, a short distance down the coast from Hokitika. The first major Gold discoveries on the West coast were in the area round Ross. The first indications were in 1864 a little South at Totara but the main discoveries, including Jones Creek, which led to the Rush were in 1865 and August saw the number of miners grow tenfold to 2,500 and Ross was quickly laid out with shops and hotels. Gold was found all around and the town grew further. Initially the Gold, alluvial gold, was extracted by panning and cradling in the many stream beds, in fact one of the largest nuggets ever found in New Zealand was found 50 years latter on the banks of Jones Creek - it weighed 99oz and was named the Honourable Roddy after Rod McKenzie, the Minister of Mines.

We spent a little time at the Goldfields heritage area which has a small museum and area set out with displays as well as miners cottage with a lot more displays and old pictures. The heritage area is right alongside a modern mining activity, the largest alluvial open cast mining operation in the Southern Hemisphere. You can look right into it from the Heritage Centre, it is about 400 meters across and was 90 meters deep (45 below sea level). Even in this age it had proved difficult to pump it. Last visit they were just about to fill it up and this time it was almost full we took some pictures to compare.

We stopped to have a short walk to the newly open Peter's View point to look at the glaciers at Franz Joseph before continuing on the long drive down to Haast where we had a nice cabin with a rather unusual shape. We were glad to find a petrol station open at Haast when we got there.

The Haast Pass

The next day was the trip over the Haast Pass to Wanaka and Luggate. This trip goes through some of the best of New Zealand Scenery and my write up of the Journey from Wanaka over The Haast Pass in 2002 was my first serious attempt to convey something of the beauty of the New Zealand Scenery and I will reproduce some parts here. It is in fact a journey no words can do it justice - it is on too grand a scale and I still struggle to convey the majesty of the mountains and the ever changing colours of the lakes or the barely suppressed power of the rivers.

The journey we are about to make will cross a tortured land from the sea to the central lakes - it is only 100 miles over the Haast pass but it took over 30 years to carve out the road and another 30 before it was metalled in 1995. It skirts undulating forests afloat in tea-stained swamps as we leave the wind and foaming Tasman surf. It winds amongst steep mountains cloaked in a lush rainforest blanket across tumbling rivers. It continues to the wind-whipped lakes of Wanaka and Hawea through golden tussock-covered hills.

It started as a Maori Greenstone trail and there is still dispute who was the first Pakeha to cross. Charles Cameron probably discovered it 2 days before Haast, but Haast made the first crossing. It took him and his party over four weeks, after being shown the start of the trail by Maori. He gained all the publicity whilst Cameron, traveling alone, continued his explorations but left a dated marker in the form of a hip flask in a cairn in the pass to be found 20 years latter - it is on display in an information centre at Makarora .

By 1876 a pack trail existed for gold prospectors, stock movement and latter even some intrepid tourists. The Haast Pass road proper was not started until 1930, much of it created by hand labour with picks shovels and horse drawn carts as it was inaccessible to serious machinery. The pass is, at 563 meters, the lowest of the only three passes which link Westland to the east coast and now it is sealed a virtually all-weather road.

At the far end the lakes have been gouged out of solid rock by the actions of glaciers and lie parallel, almost connected by a narrow isthmus part way down. To give a scale Lake Wanaka is 45 kms long and Lake Hawea 35 kms. Lake Wanaka is a thousand feet deep and Hawea even deeper and glaciers have smoothed the sides down to the water from their maximum height of 3000 feet above lake level. The bottoms of the lakes are below the present sea level.

The lakes are fed by Glacier melt water and have the most incredible colours, usually a light blue, sometimes almost white, from all the fine rock, ground to a powder by the Glaciers. The colours and the surface are ever changing - we have seen them so still that it is almost impossible to tell the reflection from the mountains behind when you turn a picture upside down and we have seen the with wave crashing on to the beaches. They can be so still and clear we have looked down and watched cormorants hunting underwater over a bottom perhaps 50' below. There are a few boats, mostly tinnies or glass fibre boats trailed in for fishing so they are virtually still on the surface, dots in the vastness of the lakes.

The mountains tower above the lakes - the mountains beside the lakes rise to over 7000 feet, some with a powdering of snow or ice at the top but mostly sheer rock faces angled upwards - we are sitting along the joins between the Australian and Pacific plates which are still tearing the fabric of this land and throwing it up at crazy angles to be smoothed by glaciers in successive ice ages.

A huge tract of this land of lakes, mountains, rivers and fjords ranging from alpine dessert to thick rainforest has become a World Heritage Area called Te Wahipounamu from the original Maori for the area, The Place of the Greenstone. This World Heritage Area covers the whole South West region of South Island and alone covers 10% on the surface of New Zealand and integrates and fills in between the National Parks of Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, Westland and Mount Cook, all vast in their own rights. Te Wahipounamu is one of the great temperate wildernesses of the world, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, tussock grasslands, lakes, rivers, fjords, wetlands and 1000 km of wild coastline.

We had a brief stop to check out Luggate and then drove across to Naseby. The saga continues in Part 4, - the Otago Gold Fields, Burt Munro's museum in Invercargill, Tapanui and Manapouri.

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