New & Old Ghosts of the Coast
There have been a lot of words written and said about the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Though commonly just referred to as ‘the Coast’ by South Islanders, such is the legendary status of this area, that mention the words “West Coast” and folk from anywhere in New Zealand will most likely know exactly which island you are talking about.
NZTODAY are frequent visitors to the Coast, and our next Coast related story is never far away. But why is this?
Where did this fascination come from and why is the Coast so fondly remembered by most Kiwis? Let’s have a look at the face of it for a start.
The Coast is pretty much that bit between the lush tropics of Karamea in the north and the damp isolation of Haast in the south. A population between these two points is about 30,000 souls.
The Coast is a frequent bone of contention for environmental and business interests, known for dairy farming, prodigious rainfall, a chequered history of coal and gold mining, limited employment opportunities, the most rugged and challenging of natural features, incredible scenic beauty and variety, proper sized whitebait in decent quantities, good fishing and hunting, and always, of course, the people.
The ‘Coaster’ is arguably our most famous and identifiable Kiwi stereotype and definable personality: whether the hard working, hard playing, resilient, fiercely independent, resourceful, loyal and laid back Coaster of the past still really exists in any number is probably debateable.
Perhaps as a species the traditional Coaster is as endangered as some of the native wildlife that inhabits the area.
I recently spoke to a chap who was born and raised in Millerton, north of Westport. He now lives in
Nelson, and when I asked him about the Coast, his response was a familiar one. While his language was stronger than I will use here, he snorted and said, “Ahh the Coast’s stuffed now, too many bloody greenies from Auckland telling them how to run the place, and most of them have probably never been there”, he then sighed and shook his head and said “my parents worked bloody hard down there…”
He clearly lamented what had become of the Coast and I appreciated his perspective. With this in mind, I decided to nip down the Coast for a couple of days and have a look at a small part of it for myself.
I have chosen to focus my attention on a couple of spots in the northern parts of the Coast or, more accurately the Buller district. I have heard of a fair bit of rivalry between the two ends of the Coast, and some Buller folk prefer not to be lumped in with the rest of the West Coast. There’s a bit of that independence I mentioned earlier, good to see, (though West Coast won the much anticipated annual rugby match 23-17 this year. Just saying…).
I wanted to have another look at Denniston which has been in the news a lot lately, with a proposed open cast mine on the Denniston Plateau stirring the usual emotional responses from supporters of both mining and environmental interests. I had also heard that there has been a lot of development of the old mines there into a genuine visitor destination. I wanted to find out more about something intriguingly called ‘The Old Ghost Road’ and I also wanted to visit the Gentle Annie accommodation and camping ground, run by the same family for 20 odd years.
SO, IT IS WITH A FULL TANK of petrol, a packet of biscuits and a clatter of old cassettes to accompany me that I set off for the Coast, an area which I have spent a bit of time in previously, having lived for brief periods in Reefton, Karamea, and Ikamatua. All the beauty spots!
I am emerging from another sensational drive through the Buller Gorge when I notice a sign saying, “Denniston; Old Mine, New Tours”. This is welcome news to me, as I was unaware of mine tours being part of the revamp of old Denniston and it is just the sort of thing I’m looking for.
As I approach Westport I have to get used to waving to other drivers again, a habit still common here but no doubt foreign to many other parts of New Zealand. It’s not a full wave, like the Queen might flap at you, but merely a raising of the first finger of your right hand from the steering wheel for a moment. I remember learning this wave from my truck driving father when travelling around Christchurch with him as a child during school holidays and I never forgot it. Valuable learning that…
I am heading to the Westport i-Site to hopefully join one of the mine tours but first, a petrol stop at the local Caltex. Here I have another experience that I had almost forgotten about.
Before I can even get out of my car, Lloyd, one of the staff, is waiting by the corner of my car, with a smile and a simple question: “How much you after?” I honestly can’t remember the last time this happened to me. He isn’t wearing a neon vest, there are no big signs promising instant service or a ‘concierge’ (what a stupid word that is at a petrol station), it is just the normal way of doing things here. Welcome to the West Coast.
The very helpful ladies at the i-Site provide me with an 0800 number and within minutes I am heading to Denniston, where, if I am quick, I can join the 2pm Denniston Experience mine tour.
I follow the advice of the mine tour brochure and grab a steak pie from the rather unassuming little dairy in
Waimangaroa, at the bottom of the hill. They certainly don’t look like your usual pie, but they really are sensational. Don’t go past these…
My first visit to Denniston was about 20 years ago when it was mostly thought of as a rough and untidy ghost of a town, located on a grim and mist shrouded peak, and of passing historical interest, mainly for the infamous Denniston Incline.
Since then, the gaze of more New Zealanders has turned towards Denniston, thanks largely to the two excellent Jenny Pattrick novels; The Denniston Rose and Heart of Coal, both set in the town and full of references to places that you can visit today, thanks to some handy signage identifying links with the books. THERE HAS ALSO BEEN a lot of attention to a proposed mine on the Denniston Plateau, just behind the town. The plateau is a vast, open, rolling plain, completely different from the usual endless rainforest normally associated with the Coast. There are tarns, rocky shelves and outcrops and an interesting variety of stunted plant life. I have spoken to an assortment of people who feel strongly both for and against the intended 200 hectare open cast mine, and as I stand in the middle of the wind and shifting mists, I try and form my own opinion.
The plateau is certainly an astonishing landscape, beautifully stark and sparse, and so exposed to all elements. There is a mood and feel here I have seldom experienced elsewhere in New Zealand, perhaps a bit like the McKenzie Country, yet undeniably West Coast.
It is easy for me and many other New Zealanders to want to save and protect this unique environment, but of course we don’t live here. It’s hard for us to understand the challenges of life on the West Coast, which is not always easy given limited work opportunities, geographical location and as always, the weather.
I decide that the Denniston Plateau feels like a place that people shouldn’t be. The conditions are certainly telling me that we aren’t really welcome, and it just seems like we should leave the whole place alone. Maybe next time we will create a world where this absurd thing called ‘the economy’ doesn’t come first…
This is a big feature of the tour for me to have a genuine local joker leading us into the mine to add authenticity and also a feeling of security, like we are in good hands as we head underground.
There are some other folk from the North Island on the tour and Don provides us with helmets, lights and reflective vests before walking us to a little train station near the entrance to one of the old mine shafts. Along the way, Don is constantly educating and entertaining us with interesting facts, colourful stories and a good dose of West Coast humour.
We are made members of the Mine Workers Union, we clock in for the day, then hop onto the wee train and head into the darkness of the mine.
When you visit Denniston you will notice the amount of mining relics and evidence that still exists all over the place up here. It’s quite amazing, and it makes it very easy to visualise life here for a miner and his family in a mine that only closed in the late sixties.
What I love are those old photos mounted on boards with a little ‘you are here’ arrow, so you see exactly where you are in the picture.
The mine tour is a genuine and authentic experience, with all the sights, sounds and smells that would have been part of a miner’s working life all those years ago. I am impressed with the professionalism and attention to detail in every aspect of the trip, and we visitors are not just spectators.
There is work to be done too, as Don assigns tasks and cracks the whip like some of his employers may once have done, giving us the chance to take on some of the jobs that were routine for a 1880s coal miner.
The tour takes close to two hours and is a fantastic experience. There are a few surprises that I won’t divulge here, but you will come away educated and enlightened.
Not only is it a mining experience, I think it will also enhance your appreciation and understanding of the West Coast in general. Take some time to have a look around Denniston, marvel at the world famous incline (which they should really turn into a roller coaster ride) and definitely have a wander round the plateau before the diggers arrive to stimulate the economy…
Yesterdays mine shaft lit by todays modern torches. Left The interior of a real 1880s coal mine. Below The working life is over for this coal truck at the top of the incline, waiting for a descent it will never make.
A FEW MONTHS AGO I heard mention of something called “The Old Ghost Road” which was being set up on the Coast somewhere. I didn’t know what it was, but with a name like that, it had to be interesting.
Turns out that an 80 kilometre walking and mountain biking trail is being established between the old gold mining town of Lyall in the upper Buller Gorge, and Seddonville, on the Coast about 45 kilometres north of Westport. The trail will link a series of ghost towns and other historic spots in the hills above the Mokihinui River, and when completed, will be open to both trampers and bikers.
I have a very enlightening conversation with Susan Cook, once a trustee of the Mokihinui-Lyall Back Country Trust, and now a volunteer for the same. Susan tells me that the idea for this trail has been around since the 90s and it is one of the 21 official New Zealand Cycle Trails being established all over the country.
It seems like an awfully ambitious project to me, a trail of that length in such a remote location but it’s going to be amazing. I have seen some photos of the area and the scenery is just incredible.
Susan says that at the moment there is a 21km section in the middle yet to be completed, but both ends are open for walkers only at this stage.
One of the most striking features of the trail is the construction of some brand new huts, funded by Solid Energy, but built entirely by volunteer labour.
The more I hear the more I am impressed with the ambition and energy of people to get these things done. I can’t help thinking that this could be New Zealand’s next Great Walk in the making.
It will probably appeal to experienced trampers looking for a new challenge in a relatively unknown destination, and for mountain bikers, it will a grade four journey, which means advanced, with some challenging aspects.
The Mokihinui-Lyall Back Country Trust recently had its efforts recognised by winning second place in the national Trustpower Community Awards. It is a non-profit community trust, with a big emphasis on promoting local businesses, many of whom will hopefully benefit from the formation of the Old Ghost Road. This is West Coast resourcefulness at its best.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER Helen Clark upset a few people a while ago by using the word “feral” when talking about the West Coast. This was swooped upon by her critics and anyone else looking for an excuse to dislike her, (though I have a sneaky feeling some took it as a compliment) and the whole thing dragged on for far too long. If I read the quote correctly she called some attitudes on the Coast feral, which sounds pretty harmless, but either way, she may have had a point.
I might have to be a bit careful how I say this but I’ll tell you what, take a drive around some of the small towns around parts of the Coast and you could be forgiven for coming up with a similar description. The state of some of the houses and properties, with unfinished renovations and 90-year-old paint jobs, rotting car bodies, rampant gorse, derelict fencing is completely at odds with the natural and scenic beauty of the region.
I think a lot of people were attracted to the super low property prices on the Coast up until about 15 years ago and couldn’t resist the apparent bargain. I know there are those who came because of the lack of work, but the rest are probably genuinely struggling to stay afloat as they scratch out their West Coast dream. Honestly, I love the Coast and enjoyed living there, but some places look like a big teenager’s bedroom that just needs a major clean up.
THE AFTERNOON IS RAPIDLY becoming evening, so in search of some man-made West Coast beauty, I head for the Gentle Annie Accommodation and Camping ground, where I will be spending the night as a guest of Ellen, Phil, Jesse and Jessica.
I have always wanted to stop here, on the banks of the Mokihinui River, (which recently won protection from a major hydroelectric scheme) and sample a bit of what has kept people returning here, year after year to what must be one of New Zealand’s best seaside camping spots.
Ellen from New York, and Phil from Auckland, first visited this part of the Coast in the freedom camping heaven of 1975, when they parked their VW Kombi van on the beach on the other side of the river, only to be woken in the middle of the night by the incoming tide which had completely surrounded their van.
Taking heed of this serendipitous omen, they have remained happily ensnared by the Tasman Sea ever since,
where after the purchase of 1000 acres of land just north of the river, they set about making a life and raising a family on the West Coast.
An American accent was something of a novelty on the Coast in the late seventies, and Ellen appears to be serious when she says that Phil used to accompany her as a necessary translator on shopping trips into Westport.
While Phil comes across as an understated sort of chap, he must have some other skills and knowledge as he and Ellen set about making a living on their little patch of paradise. After the acquisition of the neighbouring 160 acre dairy farm, they set about trying their hand at just that.
At the time tuberculosis was rife, and prices for dairy products were low, so after a couple of years they came up with a new idea. Tomatoes. The construction of 1200 square feet of greenhouses made from a wonderful 80s substance called Duralite (is that still around?) led to the production of probably the country’s finest soil grown tomatoes, which they would sell commercially and door to door around the townships north of Westport.
After a ‘twister’ (which is not an uncommon occurrence around here) wrote off the glasshouses in 1986, Phil’s next stroke of genius was to create a nine-hole seaside golf course complimented by the Cow Shed Café.
They all laugh when I ask if the golf course was a financial decision, and it sounds as though Ellen’s income as a teacher was invaluable at times. The popular golf course was brushed aside by another weather event in the early 90s and it was after that, the accommodation and camping ground became the main priority.
After a much needed sleep lulled by the constant sigh and surge of the sea, I am being shown around the various holiday homes on the property by Jesse.
Some of you may remember Jesse Paley-Atkins from an article I wrote on Karamea a few years ago when I met him and his 87 year old grandfather walking up the Karamea Bluff in training for the Buller Gorge marathon.
As well as the beachside camping ground, Gentle Annie offers four high quality, selfcontained houses as well as a backpackers’ style of lodge. All of these are set among Nikau Palms, cabbage trees and mature Rata forest, with sterling views of the river or ocean.
I have said it before, but there is a real feeling of luxuriant lushness on the West Coast, especially where there are Nikau Palms, and Gentle Annie is one of the best examples of all that is good about life by the sea in the northern West Coast.
Many of you will be aware that the name ‘Gentle Annie’ pops up in quite a few different places around New Zealand and there is an interesting explanation of the possibilities of why this is so in the guest book of each house on the property, but you will have to go and stay there to find it out.
The Atkins family have been on the Coast now for nearly 40 years and while they have had offers on this unique and special property, they aren’t going anywhere. Jesse himself was the original waiter at The Cow Shed at the age of five, and he and his fiancée Jessica have recently built their own house on the property so he is obviously happy here too. He makes a very valid point when he says that it is much easier to find long term happiness and solidity on the Coast when you are working for and on something of your own. Jesse has done a fair bit of international travel, but Gentle Annie is, and always has been his home. I CAME TO THE COAST on this short journey looking to see what is new and also what is reassuringly the same. The West Coast spirit of old is clearly alive and well in promising new ideas such as the excellent Denniston Mine Experience and the Old Ghost Road, and I felt right at home at Gentle Annie.
I have more to do down here, with plenty of places I haven’t even mentioned that are worth another story or two.
I have an insightful conversation with Ellen about what it is that attracts people to the Coast, and she says that some of her guests have used the word ‘spiritual’ to describe the feeling they get here.
I think that there is something humbling and strangely comforting about a place where nature is the majority stakeholder and is quick to reclaim neglect and the endeavour of mankind.
There is no need for pretence on the Coast, which can be quite liberating, and the closeness and power of nature’s forces is both exhilarating and a reminder of who’s really in charge on this earth of ours. Or should be…
The view south towards Westport from Denniston.
The face of a genuine West Coast coal miner, our guide Don Tikey. He’s actually very friendly...
The top of the Denniston Incline.This was once a very busy spot with massive winch houses and other large buildings.
The eerie Denniston Plateau, nicely complimented by pylons.
The entrance to Banbury Mine.
THE DENNISTON EXPERIENCE is a guided mine tour that takes you into the mountains and into the past to experience life as a Denniston coal miner in the late 1880s.
I meet guide Don Tikey who, amazingly, was born in Denniston and worked in the coal mines here in the sixties.
Don the storyteller at work. Right A whale oil lamp used for lighting the mine. Below Don has had hands on experience of everything he shows us. Hows that for authentic.
Cyclist approaching Specimen Point hut.
The start of the old new trail at Lyall.
Ghost Lake hut sunrise. Right The silent remains of what was once a family home in Denniston.
High above the Mokihinui South Branch.
Dairy cows and Nikau Palms.
Gentle Annie cabbage trees.