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New Zealand Gold part 4
Travels in the West Coast Goldfields

The West Coast Goldfields

It was then time to head towards Gold Mining country. We have spent a lot of time camping in the Coromandel Goldfields and last year spent several weeks in Otago. This year we intend to learn a bit more about the West Coast Gold rushes for alluvial gold which followed those in Otago and the subsequent exploitation of the Gold in Quartz reefs by mining. The Goldmining years were formative ones in New Zealand history, especially in South Island and for many years Gold was even more important as an export than Wool or Kauri.


We entered Gold Country, and that of the sandfly, on our way to Reefton down the Buller Gorge. This is a lovely drive which can be continued to the coast - I have yet to write it up as one of the scenic roads in New Zealand for the web site although it clearly deserves it. Even in the upper section we were traveling with high tree covered mountains towering over us whilst we clung at to the faces looking down on the river and its rapids. We stopped to watch a group rafting the river in very laid back manner letting the currents take them where they wanted and occasionally held gentling spinning in the eddies until a brief paddle allowed them to continue.

We stopped briefly at Lyell where there is a DOC campsite and many Goldfield tramps to read the information boards. We have never dared to camp there as the sandflies gather in clouds until their leader starts a coordinated attack - it is difficult to even get to read a complete board before the onslaught forces you to move quickly to another. Lyell was a moderate sized town in the days of the rushes in 1870 but now there is nothing but the odd lump of concrete remaining to show it existed. Several huge nuggets were found in the stream with sight of the camp site one of nearly 30 ounces started the rush and the largest nugget, shaped like a dumbbell, found in New Zealand of 120 oz was found nearby. One day we will have the weather and courage to stay and do the walks.


Instead we continued to Reefton, 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 walk over a swing bridge and along the water race to the old generator house where a Pelton Wheel was installed to drive a small generator providing lighting to 500 houses. We stayed in a simple cabin in the camp site on the local domain. The facilities were adequate but old, but new blocks are now under construction - the price was very good and we only paid $25 for the cabin for the two of us for the night, they will probably rise when the updates are complete. We were glad we made the choice not to camp as it rained all night and the kitchen was full of wet people in the morning.

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 it 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.

We started our investigation with a visit to the old school of mines at Reefton. It is opened on demand - you ask in the information centre, pay $2 a head and local volunteers are rung up and, if available, open it up for you and show you round. 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. We were shown round by Bill Saywer who had a wealth of local knowledge. He recommended a book, written by a local pharmacist, on Gold Mining in the area - it is fortunately still in print and we obtained a copy from the information centre but not yet had time to read it. "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.

We continued in the morning a 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 is full of every manner of exhibit covering the Reefton area including Gold Mining 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. This was all run up for us after we had looked round the museum. It is well worth a visit and one of only a small number of places where original equipment can still be seen in operation. The leaflet says it is only operated Sunday afternoons but it seems as if the volunteers 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. 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 made a visit to Waiuta, now a ghost town but 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 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 model 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, Snowy Battery and Prohibition.

The remains of the Waiuta township, Blackwater Mine and the Prohibition Mine are all adjacent and easily reached from Reefton - it is about 40 kms, half on main roads and half on a narrow minor road mostly single track of which half is unsealed. There are many walking tracks in the area. It took us four hours (Reefton to Reefton) during which we 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 most of the buildings.

Having walked round Waiuta township we drove on out to the Prohibition mine where there are many more artifacts and more boards revealing fascinating insights into the operations. For example 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. 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. We have saved the tramp to the Snowy Battery for a future trip but it is reputed to have even more artifacts and in a better condition.

Overall there is probably enough interest in the Reefton area to spend several days, more if have a 4x4 or are prepared for a 5 hour tramp into the Big River area which was a self contained mining area with its own coal mines and saw mill for the red beech which was preferred for pit props as it talks with squeaks and groans before giving way finally under load - a desirable feature in a mine pit props. The museum in Reefton has a big display covering all the 5 types of beech found in New Zealand - there are examples of then all in the Reefton area

The other local areas of interest not so far mentioned include the Inangahua Swing Bridge track (SH7 SE) to Big river which can be followed part way to view the see the old water races, we only saw the start as heavy rain came in. Slab Hut Creek (SH7 SW) has a DOC camp site and is authorised for recreational gold panning as well as having a walking track - we came close to staying last year. To the North (SH69) of Reefton at about 16 km is the Larry's creek walk, about 3km return with a ford if you complete the final loop. Further still North still (40km from Reefton) is the Lyell walkway starting at the Lyell DOC camp site Reefton is a three hour walk but take lots of sandfly deterrent, we have found those by Repel very effective as sticks and roll-ons but you need to remember to do ones feet under the sandal straps a favourite site.


It was late when we got to the Coast and we stopped 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.


We first went to 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 some time at the Ross 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. Perhaps the most unusual item was a beautifully made vertical section of the rock formation through which the mine was sunk with the information on the mining shafts and levels alongside - it was all in a 6 foot high ornate wooden frame. It is difficult to describe without a photograph but was very effective in understanding the geology so we tried to get some pictures. Marion and Celia most helpful, copied some similar information from Goldtown by Philip Ross May (1962) and allowed us to freely photograph exhibits. The book is now on our list to purchase.

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 metres across and 90 metres deep (45 below sea level). Even in this age it has proved difficult to pump it. Unfortunately the mining activities have, hopefully temporarily severed one of the historically significant walks in the area over Jones Flat. We did much of the other walk in the area, the water race walk which took one up and along some of the old water races past a miners hut and should have taken one over the face where sluicing activities took place and past the water race fluming. It was closed for maintenance but we found the far end was still open and we completed most of it. It also passes an area on Jones Creek which is available for gold panning and past the place where the gold was first discover on Jones Creek. A worthwhile hour.

On our way back to Hokitika we took a back road past some of the streams where gold was found and a further diversion onto a loop round Kanieri lake. We stopped at The Landing and did a little of the Water Race Walk, the full walk is 3.5 - 4 hours one way so we could only get a sample. The Water race was originally constructed to provide power for gold mining operations and is still in use for an electric generating plant. The walk looks a good flat amble for the future and the Lake Kaniere is described as one of the most beautiful in New Zealand - that is perhaps an exaggeration compared to the great Lakes to the South but is certainly very attractive and the diversion was worthwhile. On the way round the lake we stopped for a 'short' walk to Dorothy Falls which turned out to only 64m to a very deep and pretty waterfall into what looked a perfect swimming hole on a hot day, unfortunately we were short of time otherwise Pete would have been in there!

Hokitika Museum

We got back to Hokitika just in time to get into the West Coast Historical Museum which is in the Carnegie Building, an impressive and recently restored building which used to hold the free public library - huge columns and tall windows. It is an interesting building in its own right as it was one of 18 libraries built in NZ with the assistance of the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It now holds the information office and museum. We were particularly interested in the gold exhibits which include a huge dredge bucket and a set of superb photographs taken by Jos Divis of Waiuta, the ghost town which we visited earlier this trip. They are incredibly sharp and high resolution, many were taken with a box camera as much of his equipment had been impounded when he was interned as a foreigner and suspected communist during the war. He continued to live at Waiuta until his death. The museum has some of his plates and negatives.

We spent 45 minutes that afternoon in the museum and had a fascinating and wide ranging discussion with John Davidson who runs the information office as well as having a finger in many pies, both local and national and gave us a number of additional insights into matters of interest to us and for our research. It was one of those discussions which progressively moved up levels as both reassessed each other! He also has an interest in collecting old books on the West Coast and Gold. Some of the books he and others have collected are available in the reference section of the museum - email contact via information office hkkvin@xtra.co.nz.

We did not have time to see the audio-video show of Greenstone and Gold on the West Coast so we were let in again the following morning. It is perhaps the best AV of its kind we have seen and we would have bought a copy if it had been available to show friends so they could understand our enthusiasm. It is largely a clever use of old pictures with quotes and poetry from contemporary books. John is investigating if it can be copied from DVD for sale or onto video at sufficient quality.

We also spent time in the Research Section which was not open at the weekend. We looked at "Goldtown" by Philip Ross May published by Pegasus 1962 (guide price $45 according to John) but the other one we had been recommended "The West Coast Goldfields" by Phillip Ross May pub Pegasus 62 rev 67 (GP $125) had gone for rebinding. We also bought a copy of "Banking Under Difficulties or Life on the Goldfields" by G O Preshaw published first in 1888 and reprinted by Capper Reprints in 1971.

The archives were very interesting, like many they are primarily oriented to the lucrative genealogy market, but has one of the best indexed set of old pictures we have found, 10,000 in total with photocopies of every one and a cross reference index by heading such as 'Gold Mining' and 'Dredges'. The indexing has largely blocked the photocopies into headings which should make it possible to locate the sources of pictures when we require them for further research and reference (hokimuseum@xtra.co.nz). The archivist whose name we failed to get was most helpful.

As an aside we found a brochure outside the reference section title Uniquely New Zealand and discovered that our web site title has been hijacked by the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, for her latest newsletter celebrating cultural recovery in Aotearoa. It is fortunate we have www.uniquelynz.com registered as proof of prior use. It is also fortunate that it has only been used as a 'sound bite' and the contents bear little relation to the title hopefully avoiding any future overlaps.

We then had a quick look down at the Hokitika quay, lookout station and custom house to try to visualise how it had been in the heyday as the port of entry to Westland for most of the miners. We looked out at the surf breaking over the bar and easily visualise how 42 ships were completely wrecked. Many more went aground and were left high and dry - most were raised on jacks and winched and hauled over the sandbar to be re-floated undamaged in the harbour. It was jokingly referred to as 'taking the land route' (check exact wording on video).

We had a look at a book shop which John recommended for buying a copy of Goldtown but the copy was in better condition than we needed and a higher price than we were prepared to pay until we had done some checks - it was nearly twice his guide price. The book shop (Take Note) is run by the well known Bruce Watson who operates a service for locating old books of the West Coast (takenote.hokitika@xtra.co.nz).

By now we were running late so we rang ahead to the campsite at Murchison and secured a cabin so we could take our time on route. We stopped in Greymouth for an Internet cafe, food and to check out the bookshops where we found a copy of Goldtown at $60 in Q books which we rejected as it was in very bad condition - pages and the cover torn and repaired with selotape.


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.

Nelson Creek

We next picked up on mining at Nelson Creek (between Greymouth and Reefton) where there is a DOC and local council site with free camping and a number of short and long walks. We did two of shorter round trips, the Tailrace Walk and the Collins Dam walk. You start through a short tunnel giving access to a historic suspension bridge, built first in 1872 and maintained to the original plans. Both walks take one past a number of most impressive tailraces left from the mining days - 18' wide and up to 50' deep we estimate where they exit to the river. During the Rush some 1200 gold miners worked the area. The Nelson Creek area is formed from layers of sandstone overlaid by glacial outwash gravel. Gold was concentrated in trough like hollows on the surface of the sandstone. The area was mostly worked by ground sluicing and the riffle boxes were mounted in these tailraces. The tunnels in the area were used for prospecting and also used as tailraces to channel water away from the working faces.

The day was hot and the river looked appealing and was supposed to contain swimming holes and Pete quickly located one right under the entry/exit to a large tunnel. It was most refreshing swimming against the gentle stream and you come out feeling much cleaner than from a shower and uncontaminated by chlorine etc. From the other side of the river one could see some of the tailraces appearing as thin vertical slits from top to bottom of the vertical cliff face - they must have taken a huge number of men to cut with only hand tools even in sandstone. Overall a very interesting area and good place to camp - marked down for the future especially as the sandfly count was low for the area.

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Content revised: 18th July, 2020