|Touring New Zealand 2016 - part 6
The last part left us in Kaiteriteri in Tasman Bay with a long drive across in the morning across to Reefton on the West Coast. We stopped at a New World Supermarket in Motueka to buy some more of the Raupara Springs Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and generally stock up with food for the next couple of days. On the way out of Motueka we saw the first sign at the roadside for a stall with Nashi Pears, a favourite. They are round and not shaped like a Pear and have a much longer time between unripe and ripe - excellent. We crossed over the Brunner Pass and into the Goldfield areas passing through Lyell not only famous for its quartz goldmines but also for its sandflies, on one occassion we could not even get out of the van to read the information boards. We followed the the Buller River which was in spate following the recent heavy rains toReefton
Reefton is a town steeped in Gold Mining History as well as being the first town in New Zealand to have electric lighting. We have previously done the short Power Station loop walk over a swing bridge and along the water race and examined the site of the power generation station - this was one of the earliest use of hydroelectric power. Initially a Pelton Wheel was installed to drive a 70 hp turbine fed from a water race from upstream driving a 20 Kwatt generator supplying 500 lights during the evenings with an extension to the supply on Tuesday mornings to allow electric irons to be used.
We stayed in a simple cabin in the camp site on the local domain. The facilities were adequate but old and we only paid $45 for the cabin for the two of us for the night, they will probably rise when the updates are complete. Once we were installed we went down to the information centre and picked up a few extra leaflets to supplement our already large collection from previous visits. Reefton and its information centre is a good place to start a look at the Goldmining activities in the West Coast area. They have a collection of books, maps on information boards showing the walking tracks, a simulated Quartz mining operation and a restored and Holman Steam Winding Engine circa 1895 which served in several local mines including the Wealth of Nations Gold Mine ended its working life in the Surprise Coal Mine. The winding engines were used to lower and raise men and equipment and raise the quartz ore and 'mullock' the waste rock.
The Goldmining activities which surround Reefton were largely quartz mining and extraction of gold from the quartz ore. Some initial alluvial (free) gold started rushes to the area but mostly the gold was found in veins of quartz, some very long lived and deep. These could clearly not be extracted by single miners or even small teams and the development was later than that in alluvial fields and continued much longer. It is worth noting that the West Coast also has many coal mines allowing plentiful fuel for steam engines to power the Stamper batteries whilst other Gold Fields depended more on water powered equipment using Pelton wheels or simple water wheels.
Reefton was one of the first towns in new Zealand to have a School of Mines. It is only opened on demand by a local volunteer who will, if available, open it up for you and show you round. Last time we were sent to the Bakery by the Information Office and after an hour round town met up with our guide who owns the bakery and also had an impressive knowledge of the contents It is much as it was when finally closed down, the classrooms where supervising staff were taught in night school, the books still on the shelves and the papers on the shelves in the supervisors office. As was normal there was also a small assay laboratory. There is an excellent book, written by a local pharmacist, on Gold Mining in the area - "The Golden Reefs" by Darrell Laytham, Nikau Press ISBN-908568-12-6 - An account of the great days of Quartz-mining at Reefton, Waiuta and the Lyell. Unfortunately our copy is now back in the UK.
The other interesting source of information is the Black Point Museum a couple of kilometres outside Reefton - this is open Wednesday to Sunday 1300-1600 and 0900-1200 the same days excepting Saturday and again is run by volunteers. It has recently been emptied for repainting and has been a little reorganised. It also now has a research room and an excellent air conditioned archive for the more valuable information.It is full of every manner of exhibit covering the Reefton area including Goldmining and there are a lot of panels of original pictures from the mining era as well as folders of additional information. Well worthy of a visit for the museum alone but there is also an adjacent five head Quartz crushing battery and Berdan on the site of the former Golden Fleece Battery.
It is all working and powered by a Pelton Wheel recovered from the Golden Lead Mine site in Deep Creek. Last visit Bill Wells whose father Colin Wells who had constructed the battery was only too happy to take us round and run it up after we had looked round the museum. It is one of a very small number of places where original equipment can still be seen in operation. The leaflet says it is only operated Wednesday and Sunday afternoons but it seems as if the volunteers who can operate the battery are happy to open it up and run it if they are quiet and you are interested.
The site is also the start of a number of walks into the Murray Creek Gold Field area. The look very interesting but the best is circa five hours and we will have to come back to do it. We have only done a short stroll up to the dam which provides water for the pelton wheels which drive the stamper battery and provide power at 45v DC for the building. The information sheets on the various walks are available in the information centre for a dollar and contain a great deal of background information so are worth buying even if you do not have the time for the walks.
We left Reefton as early as possible as we wanted to make a number of visits to old Gold Mining areas on our way to Greymouth. We first made the side trip (18km each way) to visit Waiuta stopping on route to look at the old Blackwater Schoolhouse now in need of considerable maintenance.
Waiuta, now a ghost town but was the site of the last and richest gold discovery in South Island. 4 prospectors found the 'Birthday Reef' on Edward VII's birthday in November 1905 and sold it to a speculator for 2000 pounds, he spent a little more proving its potential and sold it to the London based Consolidated Goldfield Company for 30,000 pounds and it took three years until it was fully operational - a big difference to the rushes in Otago where thousands of people would arrive in days of a new discovery and move on within months, or even weeks, to the next find. It was a huge operation continuing till 1951 and over 730,000 oz of gold was extracted from about 1,500,000 tons of quartz ore.
A complete model mining village was set up at Waiuta (Maori for Blackwater) to support the operation with a population of 600, hospital, school, post office, churches, bowling green, library, hotel, clubs and police station in addition to a wide range of shops. Even so it could be a boring life and the row of houses between the hospital and the school containing many of the young families became know as Incubator Alley - at one point five families living there had 54 children between them. Many of the roads were made from mullock and if not paved with gold are at least flecked with it.
The mine became the deepest in New Zealand and 17 levels were opened up first from The Blackwater shaft and latter operations were switched to the nearby Prohibition shaft. The final depth was 879 metres, more than a third below sea level. For most of the mines life the quartz was taken from the main shaft along an adit to the banks of the Snowy River where a huge water wheel powered battery of stamps extracted the gold. The pulverised ore was washed over copper tables covered with mercury and large vats of cyanide were used to extract gold missed in the initial processing - all very healthy activities as was breathing quartz dust from drilling for the explosives to be inserted. Once the main activity had shifted to the Prohibition shaft a new and modern extraction plant was built at Prohibition, the most advanced at the time in New Zealand. This used Ball Mills to grind the ore instead of Stamper batteries and an oil flotation system to save fine gold. The overall extraction efficiency reached 98%.
In 1951 there was still enough rich quartz to continue operation for many years however production was forced to stop when the Blackwater shaft suddenly collapsed. It was not in use for materials or personel but was a vital part of the ventilation and pumping system and water and poisonous gasses rapidly entered and spread to the Prohibition workings. The closure of the mine also quickly led to the end of the mining town at Waiuta and most of the buildings, as well as the equipment, were rapidly removed. Today only 5 cottages remain along with countless relics at Waiuta, the Snowy Battery and the Prohibition Mine and Ball Mill site.
The remains of the Waiuta township, Blackwater Mine and the Prohibition Mine are all adjacent and easily accessible although currently (2016) the area round the Prohibition mine is closed whilst work to clean up contamination is carried out. There are also many walking tracks in the area and those were all still open. It merits several hours to fully investigated the township which has many display boards showing how it used to. Much has disappeared but there are, for examples a flat patch on the top of the mullock tip where the bowling green used to exist - the private hedge is now high tress and the steps and base of the veranda of the pavilion remain along with the fireplaces and chimney breasts. The remains of the boilers and chimney stand but the engines and Poppet head are no more. It is however possible to find traces of most of the buildings.
This visit was marred by heavy rain so we mostly drove round the main loop and looked at the many old pictures by Jos Divis which are set at the locations where they were taken. Usually we walk or drive on out to the Prohibition Mine and Ball Mill - a 3km narrow and rough road but the site was closed as I said earlier. It was a pity as there are many more artefacts - last time areas had already been fenced as there are traces of all sorts of noxcious chemicals left over from the processing plant and these are now being removed. We hope the many boards revealing fascinating insights into the operations survive although we could not find the ones on, for example the lifting engines which must have been inside the fenced off area. The lifting engines had all sorts of safety features and control on the winding gear when men were being hauled up or down but operation with ore was 4 times faster when they were over-ridden which was done on a regular basis for ore. The power came from an AC-DC converter with a huge flywheel capable of storing sufficient energy for two complete 'lifts'. The generator and flywheel took 40 minutes to come up to speed and 'liquid' rheostats were used during running up - plates were slowly lowered into large underground electrolyte tanks, a technology I have never met before.
All the drilling used compressed air tools and one of the enormous riveted pressure tanks is still present. Before the Ball mill was installed the ore was sent to the Snowy River Stamper Battery using an aerial ropeway and there were pictures of it in operation. We have saved the tramp to the Snowy Battery for a future trip but it is reputed to have even more artefacts and in a better condition.
We continued on and took the side road to see the small village of Blackball. There used to be is a set of information boards sited at the junction with the main road which cover the history of the village and local area back to the goldmining days and they also described some walks and tracks in the immediate area which we have done in the past but they all seem to have disappeared - we tend to take pictures of such boards and I hope we still have our own records. Blackball itself would now qualify as a ghost town if it did not have the well known Blackball sausage, salami and black pudding works - we have often bought at the factory door and this time we stocked up with various 'offcuts' which were all vacuum packed as well as some more of the Black Pudding. There is an old hotel, still known as the Blackball Hilton to most although the Hilton chain forced them to change the name. It is full of interesting pictures of past and present including a lot about the Pike River disaster a couple of years ago. We paid the price of viewing them with a Venison Burger and a Fish and Chips with a much better half of dark ale for the Pauline who was not driving. There is a small exhibition and boards next to the Blackball Hilton set up for the 100th anniversary of the crib strike of 1908 which led to the formation of the Labour party in New Zealand.
As we had been approaching Blackball on the main road we had kept ours eyes open for one of the old Gold Dredges in case it was still sitting in the paddock at the side of the river where we last saw it but this time there was no sign of it. We enquired in the Blackball Hilton and were told it had moved downstream and that it once more had all the permits for operation but that the owner and boss of the operations, Allan Birchfield was now trying to sell now it was a going concern.
The dredge is the 'Kanieri', a 3,500 tonne gold dredger which is one of the few bucket-line gold dredges still operating in the world today and is the last of its kind on the West Coast. The 'Kanieri' has had a distinguished career since being built in 1938 for the Kaniere Gold Dredging Company. It was built on an existing pontoon but the superstructure was built by an Australian company, to the design of a leading American dredge designer. By 1953 the dredger had recovered 175,000 oz of gold from the Hokitika area after which it had been moved to the Taramakau River north of Hokitika where it had extracted a further 202,000 oz by the time it ceased operation in 1978. The 'Kanieri' was then laid up and a major refit was undertaken at a cost of NZ $30 million. Unfortunately after the refit the dredger did not work well and combined with unsatisfactory gold prices it meant that the Australian owners went out of business.
In 1990 the 'Kanieri' was bought by Allan Birchfield and the main mechanical parts were salvaged and rebuilt onto a new 'pontoon using New Zealand expertise and incorporating modern electronic technology. After this major refit it worked successfully for twelve years at Ngahere before once again being laid up in 2004 as it was not economical to operate with the gold prices at the time. As gold prices rose above US$ 1,000 per oz level the viability of dredging for gold was once more positive and the 'Kanieri' was again put to work in 2009 after another refit partially paid for Development West Coast through a business loan to Birchfield Minerals Ltd. The loan of $2.2 million saw the upgrade of the mechanical and electrical systems of the dredge enabling dredging of the wide gold-bearing gravel flats of the Grey River near Ngahere to recommence in 2009. The dredge was then moved to the north western side of the Grey River where it is now mining the area near where the Blackball Creek and Ford Creek join the river. The estimates were a production of 7,800 fine ounces of gold annually. By 2014 the Mining Permit (41933) had been increased in size from 873 hectares to 1032 hectares due to an extension of acreage on the north eastern bank of the Grey River near Blackball and at the southern end of the permit towards Stillwater. The recoverable reserve of the new expanded permit area is about 200,000 oz of gold compared with 170,000 oz for en though it was out of operation for several years the council decided it would be taxed as a building which could also make it prohibitively expensive - a move welcomed by locals as it was very noisy but did seem a bit of a stretch of convention and common sense. Perhaps they will do the same to cruise ships visiting NZ, some of those could be confused with buildings. Although we have not yet cross checked it seems all this nonsense is now behind them and when we eventually found it on our way South it was clearly back in operation and working a paddock the far side of the river just below Blackball.
Our final stop just before Greymouth was at arguably one of New Zealand's most important early industrial sites - the Brunner Mining Site, coal mining I should quickly add! The coal seam was originally found by the famous surveyor Brunner who made trips, sometimes years long into unknown country surveying New Zealand. There is a historic suspension bridge leading to the main site with many remaining artifacts and tunnels including the remains of a large group of coking ovens. The bridge has been restored and is now open, but only for pedestrians. The site is a Historic Places Trust site and well documented and with a short trail round the site and a longer one which takes one to the Pig and Whistle Mine and the St Kilda drive. The Brunner mining area used to produce a high percentage of New Zealand's coal just before the turn of the century. The Brunner mine is however best know for New Zealand's worst mining disaster in 1896 when an explosion and poisonous fumes killed every single worker underground at the time, totalling 58.
Whilst we were there we watched the Transalpine train pass by - this time we had parked on the opposite side to the main site (on highway 7) and had to cross the railway line to reach the suspension bridge. We have done the journey on it from Christchurch to Greymouth over Arthurs Pass and back and some friends will be doing it in a few weeks time. We plan to drive through Arthurs Pass get to Christchurch in due course.
We stopped at Greymouth - a town seeming to offer little other than campsites in the correct place for an overnight stop. The Top10 is relatively expensive for South Island for what it offers but the Kiwi Holiday park we have also used was full as far as cabins went and we did not really want to put up a tent for a single night. We arrived at 1500 and took a couple of chairs down to the beach and sat and read for an hour, the beach is mostly shingle and was almost deserted with perhaps a dozen people as far as the eye could see.