Coromandel, days of Gold
(Ian D. Robinson)
The broken shoreline of the North Island’s Coromandel Peninsula is just a couple of hours drive from the heart of Auckland City, along its stony bays and sandy beaches some of New Zealand’s first visitors made landfall. In the rugged hills of the ranges above lie the rust and ruin of the works of men in search of riches, both from below the ground and above it.
The calm rich greens of the forests and farmlands which cloak the Coromandel today belie the peninsula’s violent volcanic origins. Massive eruptions in the Miocene Period saw the forming of the Kaimai Ranges, the Coromandel Peninsula and Great Barrier Island. The last evidence of this activity can still be seen as it bubbles to the surface through the sand at low tide on Hot Water Beach on the peninsula’s east coast. The eruptions were the early writings of another stage in Coromandel’s history as the cracks in the andesite lava and agglomerate were filled with quartz, millions of years later that quartz would be dug from the ground for the gold it carried.
Prior to the great Polynesian migrations the Coromandel, as was all of Aotearoa, the secret and undisturbed domain of an abundant and diverse population of birds of every size imaginable, and reptiles, some of which could trace their ancestry back to the days of T. Rex. The first human inhabitants to arrive on the peninsula were those that voyaged from the Tahitian Islands with the great ocean navigator Kupe.
Some of Kupe’s people are said to have settled here and they were later joined by descendants of the Arawa canoe. In the new land they found rich volcanic soils, seas teeming with catch and forests rustling to the steps of frightened moa, the bones of this valuable quarry have been found in middens in the sand hills around the region along with the skulls of kiore, Polynesian rat.
Another great ocean explorer Captain James Cook was the next to visit the region when he sailed into Mercury Bay in November 1769, anchoring so that his astronomer Charles Green might observe the transit of said celestial body. The measurements taken and calculations made were crucial in the precise plotting of where exactly the New Zealand islands lay. Around the same time Cook and the esteemed botanist Joseph Banks were given the unprecedented honour of an invitation to tour Wharekaho Pa, the only such offer made on his sojourn.
The British ship Fancy was the first foreign vessel to spend an extended time on the peninsula when it anchored for a year while kauri spars were collected from the thick forests above. Seen as one of the reasons why Britannia ruled the waves the superior quality of the spars gave the British an edge over other navies. The reputation of the first trees taken soon spread and by the 1820s other ships had begun arriving with the same objectives.
The 1830s saw the first rising of industry on the Coromandel as kauri were felled. As it was soon realised the great trees were useful for a lot more than ship’s spars, the colossal straight trunks were the perfect milling tree, each specimen giving hundreds of feet of timber, clear of knots and naturally resistant to many types of rot and insect pest kauri built the homesteads of the first settlers, the villas of Auckland, Sydney and even as far away as the United States.
Incredible lengths were gone to by the men who worked the forests as the massive logs were brought from even the most inaccessible reaches of the Coromandel range to the coast and the mills by all manner of contraption; the ‘kauri dam’ was developed and tramways were cut through solid rock. In some places the milling of kauri would continue for a hundred years.
In the mid 1800s, as the kauri trade continued to roar, it was found that Coromandel had yet another gift to offer, one that would provide a farther reaching legacy than that offered by the trees, one that had driven men to fever for centuries across the globe; gold. The gold fields spread across the entire peninsula, licenses were issued and claims staked, local Maori landowners were paid off, ripped off or coerced into signing over rights.
The discoveries continued in 1867 in Thames and the settlement soon had the largest population in the country with fortune seekers arriving from the world over to try their luck in the diggings. The batteries where the quartz was crushed so the gold could be extracted ran day and night, and the hotels numbered over a hundred to cater to the thirsty miners in need of a pint or two. It was the Coromandel economy that built Auckland. And as the gold ran out the tunnels were left and the little boom towns hidden in the hills went bust. The miners packed up their families and moved away, or went back to work on the kauri until that treasure too was stripped from the land and all but gone.
The stamper-batteries have long been quiet, the kauri dams no longer hold the rivers back to flood, the tram lines that crossed the ranges are gone or rusty, the trees are protected and saved, the settlements of Waitekauri, Puketui and Wentworth are now reserves or historic names on a map. But these places and the places where all this happened can easily be visited and the remains of industry, lives and livelihoods can still be seen in the forests and along the river banks and roads of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Sitting at the southern most end of the Coromandel range the town of Waihi has a long relationship with the search for gold, reaching back to 1878 when two prospectors McCrombie and Lee discovered the precious metal here. Mining still continues today in the activities of the Newmont Waihi Gold Company at the underground Favona mine. Bronze sculptures in Waihi’s main street vividly depict scenes from the town’s gold mining history; a mother taking advantage of the free hot water which flowed from the mine above down the gutters to bathe her child in a tin tub.
Two rather striking relics of Waihi’s boomtown days remain, one is an enormous hole, the Martha mine established in 1879 and named after a relative of founder William Nicholl it was worked until the 1950s. The other is the impressive concrete colossus which stands proudly above the town as a testament to the toil of men, the Cornish Pump House.
The templates for the grand and imposing structure were pump houses built for Cornish tin mines, they housed machinery used to extract ground water from the mine shafts to prevent them flooding. Built in 1904, the Waihi pump house was steam driven and was only used for ten years when electric pumps took over. The machinery was maintained and kept in working order however, until 1929 when it was finally declared obsolete and the boilers, engines and mechanisms were either scraped or left to rust.
Perched on the edge of the massive open cast mine the Category One Cornish pump house was in danger of crumbling into the hole. In 2006 the entire structure was strengthened with steel, cut from its foundations and moved nearly 300 metres closer to the Waihi town centre on an ambitious and ingenious system of Teflon pads, beams and rams. Nothing quite like it had been attempted before in New Zealand but the moving of the stately old girl was a complete success.
The tiny once-was settlement of Waikino stands at the entrance to the Karangahake Gorge and is still linked to Waihi by a 6.5 kilometre stretch of railway track that was part of the Paeora to Waihi line. Completed in 1905 after pressure from mining companies, tired of hauling everything thing in and out through the narrow gorge by horse drawn wagon, the railway was closed down in 1978 when the quicker Kaimai tunnel to the port of Tauranga was opened.
The station at Waihi still stands on its original site and is one of the best preserved and most intact New Zealand Rail ‘Troupe B’ type stations in the country. Aside from the station itself there are the rail yards, goods shed and six railway houses. The Goldfields Railway Incorporated Society runs restored steam engines and rolling stock on the scenic ride to Waikino Station which was moved to its present locale from Paeroa. Three times daily the little engines puff their way through farmlands and cuttings, over the river and highway to Waikino where tea and scones await in the café.
The natural scenic beauty of the Karangahake gorge, with backing vocals from the rushing Ohinemuri River, and disturbed only by the drone of traffic on State Highway 2 belies the hectic industrial centre the area was. From 1882, when gold mining began here, until 1920 when all the ore there was to be got had been the gorge rang to the racket of stamper batteries as they pulverised the load-bearing quartz into dust and then used cyanide to extract the gold it held.
In pre-European times the Karangahake gorge was a strategic gateway guarded by Maori who stationed drummers on the peaks around to sound warnings when invaders encroached. Later even the lure of gold wasn’t enough for miners to risk entry into the natural fortress as in the late 19th century the warrior chief Te Kooti flew his flags from the hilltops as notification of his intentions to defend.
Today the Karangahake is one of the Coromandel region’s premier historic attractions with several scenic walks taking explorers into the hills and forests along the river and beyond where the remains of the gold industry still stand, or lie. Easy walks from the Karangahake Reserve lead to the ruins of the Crown, Talisman and Woodstock Batteries while the site of the Victoria Battery lies closer to Waikino on the Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway. Information signs along the tracks tell you exactly what the concrete slabs or rusting hulks in the scrub you are looking at were. A torch is a good idea on some of the trails, in particular the 180 metre Crown Track Tunnel, although the dripping brick work of the kilometre- long Old Railway Tunnel is lit from within.
As the Coromandel’s closest town to Auckland Thames has been and still is the peninsula’s largest economic centre. The missionary Samuel Marsden was the first European to establish himself here in the 1820s after moving down the Waihou River from Purir. Maori had lived here for centuries to take advantage of the bountiful supplies of shellfish in the muddy washes of the firth.
Gold was found here too, in 1867 by William Hunt in the Kurunui Stream, as soon as word of the new discovery got out the rush was on and Thames would soon boast a population of over 18,000, more than Auckland at the time, and in fact more than anywhere else in the country. From 1868 to 1871 Thames was New Zealand’s big smoke with the batteries ran day and night six days a week!
Such was the need for skilled workers and operators that a ‘School of Mines’ was established in 1886 on land which had once been an urupa, burial ground, gifted for the construction of a Wesleyan Church by local Ngati Maru. Against their wishes the site was then used for the school which trained the men who worked below ground in the shafts as well as those above involved in the complex chemical process to extract the pay dirt from the ore. Closed in 1956 the school is now open to the public as a museum, along with the ‘Goldmine Experience’ which offers visitors the experience of conditions in the dark of the shafts, not something for the claustrophobic or those fearful of cave wetas.
One may wonder what all those hardworking miners got up to after they’d finished their shifts and had exchanged their nuggets for coins. The answer is found in the fact that Thames once boasted over a hundred hotels stocked with ale by a local beer baron, the Hamburg-born Louis Ehrenfried. Advertisements from the day trumpet the refined attractions the establishments offered in the new and wild land; ‘Splendid accommodation for travellers, the best brands of wines and spirits kept, a first-rate billiard table, good stabling, a private assay office on the premises, pure whiskey (no headaches) and chefs-de-cuisine!’
They were also the venue for political discussion and debate, the forming of early trade unions and the pretty barmaids were often the only chance the eligible diggers had at catching a young lass’s eye. All but a few of the old watering holes are gone, those that survive are the Brian Boru, the Imperial, the Junction Hotel and the Cornwall Arms, now home of the Thames Working Men’s Club.
What gold is to the Karangahake kauri is to the Kauaeranga Valley. The great trees were the Coromandel Peninsula’s other main historical industry, the remains of which can still be seen in the Kauaeranga on tramps through the bush ranging from an hour’s walk to several hours of serious back country hikes.
Once the kauri were felled by bushmen, who often spent months in isolated camps, they were dragged by bullock teams or rolled into the ‘driving’ creeks. The ‘kauri dams’, a contraption unique to the industry had evolved over the years. Early dams built before 1850 were destroyed in the drive but later development of the ‘loose plank gate’ meant the dams could be used repeatedly. The logs often lay in the streams for months until a heavy rain enabled a drive, when the volume of water was sufficient and the logs held behind the dams floated freely the dam was tripped sending an enormous wave of kauri and water downstream where other dams were released in time to keep the logs flowing.
Despite the hard work and ingenuity of the loggers the method was wasteful with millions of feet of valuable timber damaged or jammed and never making it to the booms and mills. Later steam driven tramways were cut into even the most inaccessible corners of the valley so the precious trees could be more carefully carried out, the remains of which can still be found on the walks into Billy Goat Basin.
Kauri logging mainly ran from 1870 to 1924 when the supply of trees was inevitably exhausted. Of the more than 100 dams which once stood in the valley the remains of several, including the Waterfalls, Tarawaere and Dancing Creek Dams can still be visited for those willing to pull on their tramping boots and make the hike. Alternatively, and closer, a replica dam has been built on a stream near the Kauaeranga Visitor’s Centre.
Giving its name to the entire peninsula Coromandel town is itself named after a ship, the HMSS Coromandel anchored in the harbour while it was loaded with kauri spars in 1820. In 1852 Charles Ring was the first in the region to discover gold, a find that would leave forever its mark on the history and landscape of the peninsula. By 1862 the booming town had been officially registered as a goldfield and the industry continued to build into the 1870s when many of the town’s grander residences and public establishments were built, many of which survive to be seen today as the town retains a quiet colonial charm for all but a couple of weeks of the year.
The most prominent of those gems still standing is perhaps the ‘Star and Garter Hotel’ which retains pride of place in the centre of Coromandel’s main street. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1895, the inferno spreading to several of the adjacent buildings in the gold town’s business district and the Star and Garter of today is a building that began life as a drapers. Across from the hotel is the old assay house built in 1874, no doubt diggers would have come in from the hills, cashed up their findings and then waltzed over to the hotel to wash a fair proportion of their takings down their necks.
Charles Ring’s original homestead has been restored to its former 1854 glory and a wander through Coromandel’s streets will reveal other dwellings dating from the gold-rush days, both the grand estates of those who struck it rich and the humble cottages of those who tried. Few of the old buildings are now used for what they were built for, some have been converted into motels and B & Bs, others are private residences but the old courthouse is now the information centre and the Coromandel School of Mines is the district’s museum.
The now modern and quickly growing resort centre of Whitianga is also the place where human activity began on the Coromandel peninsula. It was here, sometime around 950AD, that the Polynesian explorer Kupe made landfall on his vessel Matahorua and left his name Te Whitianga-a-Kupe, the crossing place of Kupe.
The site of Te Ana Pa overlooks Whitianga harbour and was once the fortified village of the people of Ngati Hei. The Ngati Hei were a peaceful people which made them the frequent target of less tolerant tribes, one of which, the northern Ngapuhi arrived in 1819 seeking revenge for the killing of the niece of the dreaded warrior Hongi Hika several years before. The unfortunate girl had been kidnapped by escaped Australian convicts and then dumped at Whitianga where she was killed by two quarrelling Ngati Hei chiefs. As hundreds of Ngati Hei tried to flee to the safety of their pa from the harbour’s northern shore they were clubbed or shot with muskets in the water, their bodies left to the tides.
Visited by Captain James Cook the people of Wharekaho Pa, to the north of Whitianga township, suffered a similar fate in 1820 when the Ngati Tamatera invaded. Luring the Ngati Hei defenders into the water of the bay and then ambushing them from behind only around twenty of the tribe escaped the massacre, today’s Ngati Hei trace their ancestry back to those few morehu, survivors.
Hahei beach on the peninsula’s east coast is one of Coromandel’s favourite stretches of sand. Sheer cliffs rise on the beach’s southern end and the natural defences they offered, with views for miles up and down the coast, along with abundant shellfish and a fresh water spring, made the headland highly valued by Ngati Hei. Two fortified pa were built here, one encompassing the headland itself, Hereheretaura, and Hahei Pa on the ridge above reached by a short walk from the beach through a grove of pohutukawa. The outer defensive ditches at Hereheretaura have been repaired and other earth works such as garden terraces, storage pits and living platforms can also be seen.
Puketui Valley and Broken Hills
The Puketui Valley, a quiet corner off the Hikuai Road was once the site of the bustling little community of Broken Hills, built on dreams of gold. Hidden in the bush are the rusting relics, old batteries, mine shafts and foundations of a thriving town of two hundred people who had their own post office, shops and hall. All was abandoned however in 1923 when the gold ran out but today visitors can get a real feel for what working conditions in the shafts was like.
The Water Race Track follows the course of an aqueduct cut across the mountainsides to bring water from the Tairua River to run the stamper batteries at Broken Hills. For the more daring Colins Drive is a five hundred metre shaft cut through from one side of the mountain to the other in a fruitless search for gold, a good torch and a lack of fear of the dark is essential.
Gold was struck in the Wentworth Valley in the 1870s and the remains of the town of 300 which grew around the diggings can be found in the undergrowth. In earlier times Maori made use of the valley’s trails as warpaths across the ranges and onto the Hauraki Plains. Then in 1872 part of the Auckland to Wellington telegraph line was diverted across the Maratoto Plateau and through the Wentworth to avoid the wars in the Waikato and King Country. Some of the poles once strung with wire and with old bottles as insulators can still be seen. However, if you’re goldmine-relic-ed out a pleasant hour’s walk leads to the spectacular Wentworth Falls, the pool at the bottom is a delightful place to cool off on a hot day!