Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Ghost Town of Waiuta- West Coast

Catch-up, and no I haven't forgotten about Ngawi, It's coming along....soon. 

We've been in Hokitika at the NZMCA Park, the last two nights (and the third tonight), we had a catch-up and dinner with son-in-law Cameron who was here on business from Winton the first night. I've done the laundry (in that crappy laundromat I said I'd never use again), done the grocery shopping and David's filled the diesel & petrol(outboard) tanks. 

Then we managed to arrange with some very obliging Coasters to have the 5th-wheeler self-containment certificate checked and renewed for another 4 years and the electrical warrant checked and passed as well- both are due at the end of the year, along with the two WOFs on the rig. A terrible time to have everthing expire. Now it'll be just the warrants which should be easy enough to have done when we get to a bigger town. 

We were heading to another one of our favourite lakes this morning but the rain has finally caught up to us with vengeance, with torrential downpours and thunder and lighting. So we've sat tight, filled the water tanks, I've written this blog and we'll head off tomorrow morning, touch wood.

Waiuta Ghost Town-

Twenty kilometres south of Reefon and 16kms up a side road are the remnants of the 'ghost town' Waiuta, a once bustling settlement that sat atop the South Island's richest gold mine.

The road is sealed for the first 9kms until we reach the tiny forgotten settlement of Blackwater, after which the mine was named. 

Blackwater School 1913 - 1949
There are just a few miner's cottages and farm buildings here, some still with occupants.

I think this guy has enough firewood to last him a few winters, don't you? 

The road then turns to gravel, it's narrow and winds its way through bush as we climb up onto a plateau. It would be suitable for most vehicles-other than very large rigs- as long as you take your time around some of the corners and put your lights on.

We stop at the 'Red Hut' information shelter at the entrance to the township.

When I think of  'ghost town', I think of deserted buildings and houses lining a few streets but Waiuta is not that type of ghost town. Most of the settlement was removed when the town was abandoned and the bush has reclaimed the area over time. In fact there are just 5 cottages left standing out of 100 or so buildings. These remaining cottages are still here because their occupants never left the town until a long time afterwards or in fact when they passed away.

Across the road from the information shelter are picture boards showing what the town looked like behind the photo, in its heyday. This is looking up Top Road, the Empire Hotel is in the bottom left of the photo (click on the photos to enlarge).

Looking in the other direction the photo shows where many of the family homes were located and the hospital up on the ridge. In the background you can see the Waiuta Lodge, built to mark the reunion of former townspeople in 1986, it stands near the remains of the hospital chimneys. The hospital burned down in mysterious circumstances the previous year while being restored as a lodge.

There are many walks around and through the old town with tracks and roadways connecting each other. It's a good idea to pick up a map of the town from the i-Site in Reefton, you can then see where buildings were or find out what the remains are from, as you walk. We drove on along Top Road, stopping to have a look at the the brick oven that was once inside the Baker's Shop.

The soul surviving Top Road building is the old Police Station, one of the town's first buildings.

It was bought in 1952 by Dick Willan (a year after the mine closed), who lived there fossicking for gold in the creeks and mine ruins until his death in 1978. Dick was also the 'ghost town' host, entertaining visitors a quarter century after Waiuta and its mines had been abandoned.

The 'lock-up' can be seen in the photo board, to the right of the Police Station. If time didn't sober the drunks up, the cold sure would have. Look at the thick snow on the ground!

We park beside the most recognisable building left in the town and near, what was, the busiest intersection in settlement.

And check out more information and photos in the remains of the old Post Office which overlooks the intersection and mine.

Waiuta grew from the West Coast's last great gold discovery; four prospectors found the 'Birthday Reef' on King Edward VII's birthday, November 9th 1905 (111 years ago today, I've just realised!). 

By 1908 the Blackwater Mine was fully operational and Waiuta was steadily growing around it. The population peaked at around 600 in the mid-1930s.

In 1936, the reef being worked was a long way north and the mining company switched its operations to the Prohibition shaft on a hill above the town (this can be visited but was closed when we were there). The shaft would eventually become New Zealand's deepest mineshaft at 879m, more than a third of it was below sea level. The 17th level of the shaft was known as the 'Jewellery Shop' such was the quality and quantity of gold available at this level. Gold was extracted from here when quotas needed to be topped up.

In mid 1951, with enough rich quartz left to keep the mine going for years, it closed abruptly. The Blackwater shaft, still needed for pumping and ventilation, collapsed letting water and poisonous gas into the Prohibition workings. It was uneconomical to repair and the mine closed, which of course meant the end of the town too. The close-knit community dispersed as people took jobs elsewhere along the Coast and beyond. Most of the buildings were taken away, the best mining equipment was bought by Australian companies, the rest scraped or left to the scavengers.

The mine produced 3/4 of a million ounces of gold from one & a half million tons of quartz. Of all NZ's mines, only Martha Mine at Waihi produced more during the same era.

The brick-lined steel boiler chimney over the top of the Blackwater Mine site is only a third of its original 33 metre height. The wooden building was built in the 1940s after the original mine buildings were burnt down and housed showers and changing rooms for the miners.

Behind the chimney are the concrete winding plant foundations and the fenced off  Blackwater mineshaft which was 563m deep before it collapsed.

Across from the mine buildings are the old bowling green and the ruins of the pavilion which doubled as a mine office, hence the remains of a strongroom.

We took a short walk from the Post Office to the old swimming pool, built in the 1930s, its 30m long, the standard size for municipal baths in those days.

We drove along Bottom Road where Rimu Cottage, one of the original dwellings left in the town, is located. 

There are signs on the remaining cottages, 'This place is occupied, please keep out'. Before they were abandoned, the last residents often had problems with sightseers thinking they were empty. Apparently the occupants weren't too friendly either. Who'd blame them! 

I still felt a little apprehensive wandering down the side of the cottage... check out the old chook house. Maybe I was hoping nothing was going to jump out of the overgrown grass at me. I loved the splashes of colour around the settlement, the remnants of once well tendered cottage gardens.

Next door to Rimu Cottage is the sole surviving commercial building in the town, the barbershop.

The residents of Waiuta were obviously sports mad, I suppose there wasn't too much else to do out here. Other than the bowling green, there was a rugby field (top left), cricket pitch, croquet lawn and two tennis courts; one for the public(top right) and one for the company staff which was well away, and screened, from the sports fields. There was even a whippet (cross-bred greyhounds) racing track. 

Other notable remnants are the furnace from the sawmill (bottom right).

Up Shinbone Alley and along a side track we located another of the surviving cottages. I was keen to see this particular one as it was the home of Joseph Divis (1885 -1967), Waiuta's keen photographer, and the reason so much is known and recorded about this town during its boom days.

Joseph emigrated to NZ in 1909 from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), he was already an experienced  miner but took photos to supplement his income, photographing social and sports events, weddings and other important occasions. He worked in different mining towns over the years but returned several times to Waiuta where he eventually settled in late 1930.

Many images taken by Joseph can be identified because he appears in most of them. He was an expert user of the shutter time release button and darted out from behind the camera to be in his photos, he also always wore a distinctive hat, so is readily recognisable in photos. I've included this part of this information board to show a) Joseph in his hat, 4th from the right in the photo on the right and b) the size of the Blackwater quartz reef in the left photo- that metre wide white strip running through the grey rock.

Joseph was injured in the Blackwater Mine in 1939 and never worked again. He was interned as an enemy alien during World War 2, where his health deteriorated. When he returned to Waiuta in 1943, he was only able to move around on crutches. Joseph lived in his cottage for the next 24 years including the last 15 mostly by himself as the town was dismantled around him and the people moved away. For a time he acted as the settlements postmaster, he signed a 1957 letter with the words 'Joseph  Divis, Telephonist of this Mystic Ghost Town'. He died in 1967.

I waited for David before having a look in the very messy ramshackle outside shed in the back garden (thinking rats again!)

David found what we believe might have been Joseph's homemade 'walker'; a lawnmower frame with a bike wheel fitted to it. Two smaller pram wheels were on another small frame nearby which looked to have fitted on the back. There was also a pair of canvas work boots with their toes cut out, possibly because Joseph had arthritis or some sort of pain in his toes and feet.

We head back to Bottom Road where I take this shot of the the 'Red Huts' photo panel. The Red Huts (remember the first information shelter look alike) was where workers without families lived, up to four men lived in each hut and their meals were had at the nearby boarding house. If I didn't know any better I'd say the huts look like modern day environmentally friendly townhouses built to suit their bush surroundings.

The last surviving cottage is along Incubator Alley, so named because a high proportion of Waiuta's young families lived here, including 5 with 54 children between them at one stage! Some obviously had too much time on their hands and/or enjoyed sport of a different kind. The alley ran, appropriately enough, from the hospital to the school and now includes the modern day Waiuta Lodge and Gills Cottage. This is the only cottage that is being maintained and restored by the Friends of Waiuta at the moment.

We follow Side Road back to the first information shelter where we stop for a last look back over the regenerating bush and say goodbye to the ghost town of Waiuta. 

I know why they removed the town's buildings but I wish they'd left a few more of them behind. Initially it would have looked scruffy and abandoned, an eyesore perhaps. But by now it would have made for an awesome place to photograph, to explore and to track the history behind many of the buildings. And it also would have been a major tourist attraction. Hmmm....perhaps that wouldn't have been such a good idea afterall.

On the way back down to the highway I spotted a family of weka foraging in the cut grass on the side of the road, we stopped and I walked back towards them. 

There were 5 adults and 4 chicks- 2 lots of 2 chicks. These cuties don't look that long hatched, the adults weren't worried about me but the chicks were a little anxious, ducking into the long grass as I moved closer. 

'Putting your best (and biggest) foot forward!' 


  1. That was very interesting to read, thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for sharing. We almost went there in March. We shall certainly go there before next March.

    1. You're welcome, I'm pleased you enjoyed it and also that you'll return to check it out for yourself.

  3. What a amazing photos, I was expecting to see a ghost at some point. A real deserted place, must have been scary walking around taking the photos

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed the blog. And no it wasn't too bad although I don't think I'd like to be up there after dark! :)


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