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.

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