South Island meanderings … January 2017 (Part 2) … Westport–Denniston–Karamea–Westport–Murchison-Tapawera

12 Jan – We left Westport for a while and continued up the east coast towards Karamea. Didn’t go too far to start with – stayed the night in Waimangaroa which is below Denniston and near where the bucketloads of coal from the mine travelled down the steep Rail Incline to the bottom of the hill.

Next morning we drove up the steep winding road to the top of the hill (600m) and decided to phone up and book on the Denniston Experience Tour that goes down into the Banbury Coal Mine (the first mine in the area).

Looked around the Brakehead and Incline area while we waited for the tour to start.

Tea break

Lots of signboards around explaining the various areas and we looked over the displays and relics and over the start of the Incline where the coal filled wagons ‘fell’ over edge, on their way to the bottom.

The Aerial Ropeway carried coal from two other Mines, some distance away, to the Brakehead area at the start of the Incline.

Pulley Brake – part of Aerial Ropeway system
Top of the Incline working area
Brakehead area – building was sited on foundations (bottom right)
Downhill view – the Incline track centre of photo
Incline diagram
A different view
Ready to go over the edge




Boiler area
The coal travelled along this route from the mines

Then it was back to the office to don our high-viz jackets and hard hats. Our tour guide was an ex-miner that worked in this mine – now officially retired but he obviously enjoys his current role.  We started off walking around the Brakehead area and he explained how it all worked – how big weights were used to adjust the speed the wagons moved down the Incline and that the weight of the full wagons pulled the empty ones back to the top again.

When the mine was first opened there was no road to the top and people had to brave themselves to travel up and down in the wagons. Apparently some women spent all their time on the hill and never came down to avoid the journey. Mind you the wagons were travelling at a 45° angle so it would’ve been quite scary. Local kids, however, considered it their own roller coaster.

We walked along the old transport rope road overlooking the Waimangaroa Gorge (where all the timber was milled for the mine tunnel supports).

Train ride to the mine entrance

Then boarded the narrow gauge train that transported us into the Mine Portal. 

View back down the valley
Entering the Banbury Mine
The low ceiling was the actual height the miners worked in

We entered the mine and proceeded underground following the  rail tracks.  The roof along the way has been raised so we can stand upright but we could see from the side tunnels that the miners had to walk and work stooped over as the ceiling was much lower. That must have been hard on their backs and they worked 12 hour shifts.

Single-file into the dark
Mine equipment

Dolly cart

The nine of us on the tour were all given name cards that were placed on the IN Board before we left the surface which are only removed to the OUT Board once the individual has left the mine.

We also drew job positions and had to perform associated tasks once we were underground. I was a “Hewer” and Neville was a “Shiftman”.

Sifting out the dust from the coal lumps

We soon found out what that entailed. I ended up shovelling coal into a sieve and together with my partner, shook it around to separate the lumps of coal that were then tipped into a boxcart.

Preparing the shot

I also helped the “Shot Firer” prepare holes that the explosive was inserted into to blast the coal loose from the seam.

Drilling the shot hole
Blowing the charge

Our young ‘Shot Firer’ on the day really enjoyed twisting the handle to blast the explosive (complete with sound effects).

‘Shiftman’ shoring up the roof

For my efforts I was paid the handsome sum of 3d per ton of coal that I sent to the surface.

Neville on the other hand was in charge of maintenance in the tunnels making sure the poles strengthening the roof were solid, inserting wedges when required, looking after the rail ballast and tracks – lots of heavy labouring jobs in other words.

He was paid 1 shilling per day. I was getting the better deal methinks…each filled boxcart carried ½ ton of coal and good miners were sending out between 80-100 boxcarts per 12 hour shift.

Roof collapse on a side tunnel

Before we exited the mine we sat on some benches in an area that was used as an eating/meeting place and watched a hologram presentation of an impromptu Union Meeting. Related to an historic 6 month strike at the mine when the miners fought for better wages and conditions, which was eventually successful.

On our way back we all switched off our headlamps and the absolute blackness was quite spine-chilling but we did see some glowworms too. Eventually we headed back to the light, re-boarded our train and returned our shift cards to the ‘OUT’ board – everyone from our ‘shift’ made it out safe’n’sound.

Mine train
Train ride out
Story of the ‘Clippers’


On the way we learnt about the ‘Clippers’ – mostly boys from the age of 14, who performed the dangerous act of clipping and un-clipping the carts to a constantly moving rope.

During winter they would thaw their fingers in a tub of hot water in the smoko shed to keep them nimble and less likely to make a mistake on the line and injure or lose a ‘digit’ in the process.

Fireplace where water was heated to thaw frozen fingers

Then it was back to the start to hand back our coats and hard hats.

The tour took 2½ hours so we certainly felt that we got our ‘moneys-worth’ – learnt heaps about coal mining, the hardships endured, how they survived the harsh conditions at the top of the hill, and how the community spirit give them a social life and a sense of looking after each other.

(About three weeks after our visit we learnt that the Underground Mine Tours have been discontinued indefinitely due to new Health & Safety Regulations requiring an experienced, qualified mine manager to be on site at all times. As there is no definition between a ‘producing coal mine’ and a ‘tourist mine’ the rule also applies for the Banbury Mine. The Tour Operator is a qualified Mine Manager but was unable to be there all the time, so they’ve had to give up their concession with DOC to run the Tours as it would be too cost prohibitive to employ another Manager. On their website it appears they’re working with DOC in the hope of resolving the situation with the Authorities, but it could be a drawn out process. Meanwhile, what a sad thing that the tours are discontinued both for visitors but also as a drawcard for the Westport area. We are so glad we decided to do the tour on the spur of the moment, who knows they may never re-open).

Ruin of old cottage

We went for another walk down a track to look at some supporting archways below the rail line and found some ruins of a cottage along the way.

Archway supports – almost overgrown and a little hard to see

The Banbury Mine closed in 1890 and newer mines were opened further up the Plateau at Burnetts Face and access to the area improved in 1910 when a roadway was built and a horse-drawn coach service established.

The Incline closed in 1967 and the coal from the mines was then trucked down the hill to the Railhead.

Once there was a good road to the Plateau, people eventually drifted down the hill re-settling where the climate was better and workers would travel by road back up the hill to work each day.

We took a quick drive up to Burnetts Face old town but didn’t do any exploring as we were pretty ‘mined-out by then, so we headed back down the hill, returned to the little carpark we‘d found the night before and slept soundly after our time ‘slogging’ in the mine.

Following morning we continued up the coast passing through Granity so named for the large granite rocks found and mined here. Just north of there, headed up a winding side road to where the Stockton Mine entrance is. Nothing to see of the mine itself and the entrance area was all fenced off with a security guard ‘manning’ the gates. But viewable from the road, there was a line of disused towers of an old aerial ropeway and a large mine truck sitting on a hill.

Disused aerial tramway

Apparently they do allow tours of the mine but for groups and not individuals. That ruled us out, so headed partway down the hill again (through an impressive colourful cutting) and drove into the old mining town of Millerton, site of another coal mine and an aerial ropeway.

Nothing to see of the ropeway but along another road we found the mine ruins and an overgrown walkway (that we put in the ‘too hard to do basket’).

Inspecting Mine ruins
Millerton Mine

Parked in another spot and after a bit of exploring, we came across a large concrete ruin which we realised was an old Bathhouse where the miners showered and cleaned up after shifts.

The structure was quite impressive and was probably quite modern in its day as the miners were afforded some privacy in separate cubicles rather than open communal shower areas that we’ve seen at other mine sites. There were even clothes hooks and corner soap holders for each cubicle.

Bath house cubicles
Shower cubicle with a view
Even a boiler to heat the water

A dam wall, forms a water reservoir so appears it supplied the water for the Bathhouse.

Rail tunnel to township

We didn’t have any leaflets on this area and the only sign we found pointed towards a “Bat house” so when we came across an old tunnel entrance we wondered if bats were living there??

Surviving rail tracks

Laughed our heads off when we eventually found the Bathhouse ruins and realised the sign was missing a crucial letter H‘.

OK – so where are the bats?

Driving back down the road again we spied a lovely waterfall in the distance.

Bridge to nowhere

Tried to get closer along a piece of old road but we were halted at a ‘bridge to nowhere’ at the road end.

(On investigation, the road was still OK to walk along, following the path of the old ropeway back up the hill to Millerton).

End of the road

The waterfall run-off passed under our feet at the bridge but any view of the falls was hidden at that point by thick trees and foliage.

Rapids from the falls
Stockton coal arriving at Ngakawau railhead

Next town up the coast road was Ngakawau where the coal from the Stockton Mine comes over the hill by aerial buckets to a large Depot where it is loaded into train carriages ready for transportation over Arthurs Pass to Christchurch for export.

Called into the Info Centre there and picked up leaflets on Millerton and the local walkways. Found we could park overnight just over the town bridge on an old tennis court area right by a nice picnic spot and the ocean – checked it out over our lunchbreak.

Black ‘gold’ awaiting the train
Rail tracks evident for most of the walk

It was a nice fine day and the forecast wasn’t good for the next day so decided to head straight out on the Charming Creek Walkway which was on our list of things to do.

The total walk is 3 hours one way but without transport at the other end we reckoned we’d walk halfway and then retrace our steps. The lady at the Info Centre said the main features along the walk were in the first half anyway.

It was a great walk following an old privately owned railway track up a gentle gradient through the bush and alongside the riverside.

First place of interest was a clearing where the railway yards and buildings were originally located.

Boiler chimney


Old wagons
Old boiler of some sort
The relic of old Engine
Engine – front or back!

Lots of nice views of the river as we walked along. The river gorge becoming narrower as we moved upstream.

In places the rail track has been covered by rockfalls or undermined leaving the rails hanging in mid-air.

Rockfall over tracks
Umm – I think the bridge is missing!
Tunnel along walkway

Track passed through a rock tunnel and alongside a small waterfall.

The Walkway leaflet told us that a rare and protected species of daisy (Celmisia Morgani) is only found in this area and it flowers in Dec/Jan. “Keep an eye out for it” I say to Neville…”yeah right” was his disbelieving response. Then, lo and behold….

After an hour of walking we came across a suspension bridge crossing over the river.

Bridge information
Upstream from bridge
Downstream from bridge


Walking over the bridge we could hear the roaring of water and we then got our first view of the impressive Mangatini Falls on the other side. Lots of water cascading over a sheer drop. 

First view of the falls.
Mangatini Falls

The track continued past the falls and straight into a second tunnel which was 50m long and pitch black.

About to enter another tunnel

Luckily there was a railing to hold onto as guide. First time through I tested every step in case of holes or obstacles but there was a good boardwalk underfoot so it wasn’t a problem in the end.

The next section was quite wet with dripping water and passed under a rock ‘verandah’ overlooking the river and the Upper Ngakawau Gorge. The rocks worn smooth and into unusual shapes by roaring waters through here. The river was quite sedate today though.

Trickling water other side of tunnel
River Gorge
Water-worn rocks
Meeting of two rivers

Another 30 mins later we arrived at Watsons Mill. This was our halfway point so after a quick look around some of the relics in the immediate area, we started back. Time was marching on as it was another 1½hr walk back and the skies were starting to look quite gloomy.


Bridge view from walkway

As we came out of the bush we realised it was drizzling already which confirmed that we’d been wise to do the walk that day.  

Last views were looking downstream towards the road bridge, in the tidal part of the river.

Drove back to our overnight spot by the bridge. The disused tennis court was a great surface to park on as it rained quite heavily at times through the night, so we didn’t have to worry about getting stuck on soggy grass. Woke next morning and decided to have a ‘rest day’. There were some fine spells during the day allowing us to go for a short walk along the beach and make a dash across the road to the local shop for fresh bread and a newspaper. Otherwise it was nice to blob out from our busy sightseeing schedule!!

Beach side of the bridge

16 Jan and we were off again. Still following the coast, arrived at Mokihinui and drove to the river mouth to look at a Camping Ground there (for future reference).

Then headed to Seddonville along a side road. From there you can drive to the other end of the Charming Creek Walkway that we half completed. Rather than do the second half we decided to do the shorter Chasm Creek Walk which was also nearby.

The path follows the old railway line to Seddonville which was used to transport timber and coal to the port at Westport. The line was closed in 1981 and the track was dismantled.

‘Safe’ unsafe bridges

The two bridges on this walk are currently closed but at the last Info Centre we’d been told they’ve been fixed and are safe but are waiting on a second signature on the documentation before they can be officially re-opened.

On arrival at the first bridge it was pretty easy to get around the barrier so we figured it was fair game to use it!  All was well…so we continued on and thoroughly enjoyed the walk.

Looks pretty solid to me!
Caught in the act!
Mokihinui River
Chasm Creek
Warrigal Island

The second bridge crossed Chasm Creek where it flows into the Mokihinui River.  There is also a big bend in the river at this point and Warrigal Island sits in the middle.

Then came across another tunnel to walk through. Its apparently full of glowworms, but we didn’t see any on our daytime visit.

The next section was quite magical, passing by embankments that were smothered in colourful mosses and different varieties of ferns.

Another nice view of the Mokihinui River after the tunnel, looking at the Island from downstream this time.

River view from other side of tunnel

Arrived at the end of the Walkway, then rather than heading back along the roadway, we retraced our steps and enjoyed the views all over again.

This house is having a ‘bad hair day’

Back on the road again, we returned to the main road, crossed the Mokihinui River Bridge and drove down the north bank to the river mouth. Then followed a track to the start of another 20min walk uphill to the Gentle Annie Viewpoint.

Eventually found it…someone has made a neat ‘maze’ of tracks to negotiate first, before we found the right way and were rewarded with awesome views up and down the coast and towards a rocky bluff with an impressive waterfall dropping into the sea. “Take a photo Neville…you have the camera”. “No I haven’t” he says!! Bugger! So couldn’t even record the event! We could have gone back up the hill again…but in the blazing hot sun it seemed like too much effort at the time.

So we continued onward and the road at this point left the coast and climbed up and over the Karamea Bluffs and Happy Valley Saddle. The road was steep and twisty but the untouched (West Coast) bush scenery was great to see.

Looking back to Mokihinui River

Coming down the other side we came across a signpost to Lake Hanlon so stopped and walked up and into a sunken valley to see the lake. Apparently early morning it has amazing reflections across its smooth surface – rippled today but still pretty scenic and was worth the stiff climb uphill to get to it.

And so we ended up at Little Wanganui for the night. Drove to the river outlet and watched a huge tidal surge of water that was swamping the end of the road at times. It was just as the high tide was turning and the incoming waves were fighting with the outgoing river so the waves were diverting along the side banks to get past. Have never seen this happen so drastically before so we stayed and watched for a while.

Tidal surge
This surge picked up this branch and carried it back upstream

Parked for the night at the local Pub and enjoyed chatting to the Publican and some locals over a couple of drinks in the Bar and indulged in a meal of fish & chips (saved me cooking tea).

17 Jan – arrived at Karamea in the morning and explored around the town. Theres a large Estuary here, home to lots of birdlife and a walkway runs around part of it. Karamea used to be quite a bustling Port till around 1929 when another earthquake near Inangahua slowed the river outflow which caused the estuary to silt up.

Beach at end of the road

Shopped for supplies at the local Four Square store and called into the Domain Camp to fill with fresh water and use their waste water dump…had intended to stay there but in the end we headed out of town again and continued northward to the ‘end of the road’ along the West Coast.

This is where the Heaphy Track starts or ends (whichever way you’re walking). It’s also a large DOC Camp so we found a good spot and settled down for a few days. We were very surprised that we actually had some phone and internet service here too.

Locals living in the middle of the river

The next day it was fine in the morning but by afternoon it was mostly raining. A big ‘weather bomb’ was about to hit NZ so we figured this was as good a place as any to sit it out and some dense old pine trees were giving us a bit of shelter from the south and west directions.  By nightfall the rain was quite heavy at times and a big puddle had filled up a hollow under the ‘belly’ of the truck, thankfully though the back wheels were still on hard ground. We were woken around 4:00am by torrential rain on the roof and a few nastyish wind gusts that shook us around a bit but nothing major. We checked that we were still ‘watertight’ then went back to bed and listened to the sea roaring away in front of us.

We didn’t wake up again till 8:30 next morning – rain was gone and the ground around us was all dry again like the deluge had never happened! Our puddle had soaked away quickly in the sandy soils. It was a cold day though with a bitter southerly wind and that night we got another dose of heavy rain as the next ‘front’ passed through.

20 Jan – Going to be a nice day! We shifted the motorhome into the full sun to let the solar panels do some charging and then set off to walk to Scotts Beach (along the Heaphy Track) and the Nikau Walk on the way. Surprisingly the Kohaihai River didn’t even look that flooded though there were signs after the swing bridge that lots of water had been coming down the hills and across the track in places.

Start of Heaphy Track
Kohaihai River
View downstream to the sea
Somewhere across this mudslide is the track

The Nikau Walk was closed due to flooding and we had to pick our way around some small washouts along the main path. The people coming down the hill they told us there was a slip further on that they couldn’t get past. We carried on to have a look anyway. Yep – track has been washed away around a corner section. You could get around it, but it would mean walking through deep mud. Not in our shoes we decided, so back we went.

Back across the swingbridge

I decided to have a look at the Nikau Walk anyway (getting good at climbing around barriers). I got through OK but saw evidence that a big deluge of water had washed over it – lots of debris over the track. But it was dry again and was easy enough to step over the flotsam!

View of Kohaihai Bluff

Just before we got back to camp we climbed up a Zigzag Track to a Lookout over the camp.   A pretty good view.

Kohaihai DOC camp
Our protected campspot

Back ‘home’ we decided to drive back to Karamea and checked into the Domain Camp for a couple of days so we could get our laundry done.

Other people in the camp told us the camp area was flooded for a couple of days with a lake of water over the football field and they had to paddle ankle deep to get to the amenities block. The river behind the camp was almost bursting it banks during the weather ‘bomb’ and the caretakers had been warned during the night that if it had gone any higher they would have had to evacuate everyone. So it appears we got off lightly further north at the DOC camp.

But the rain hadn’t finished yet and we got more heavy rain during our second night and it was still falling steadily the next morning. We figured there was not much use in staying in the area as all the tracks were too wet underfoot to walk anyway. So headed back to Westport – a very wet trip all the way. All the rivers we crossed were raging torrents and the floodwater was hitting the underneath of one bridge and almost coming over the road.

Arrived in Westport around lunchtime just as the weather started to clear up. Filled up with diesel and stopped in town at our ‘fav’ fish’n’chips place for lunch. We parked overnight at the Club Park again as the free area was closer to the beach and it was evident that the rain (or sea) had been washing over it so there were more areas of soft sand that we didn’t like the look of.

Next day we drove back to town to do our grocery shopping and spent an hour or so looking around the Coalfields Museum attached to the I-Site. Lots and lots of reading! Many old artefacts from early days, photographs and looping film clips explaining various aspects of the mining town etc. A mine-tunnel exhibit to walk through and a large display of one of the Denniston coal truck sitting on rail tracks showing how steeply it travelled down the Incline. A pretty good museum for its $10 entry fee…we probably only read half the stuff on display.

24 Jan – Leaving the West Coast today! T’was a nice sunny day and temperature getting hotter (about time).  Headed along SH6 and through the Buller Gorge. Stopped a few times to enjoy the scenery and take some photos.

Clear water meets flood water – Buller River

Drove under the famous ‘Hawkes Crag’ an overhang of solid rock that was carved out many years ago to allow the roadway to pass underneath and around a curve in the river.

I’d seen a photo on Facebook where a few days earlier the flooded river was lapping the roadway at this point. Today it was well down again.

Driving through Hawkes Crag

We stopped at Inangahua to look through the ‘earthquake’ display in the local hall. Again lots of reading but the photographs were interesting. When the 7.1 quake hit on 24 May 1968 the whole town was virtually demolished.

Continued on along the Upper Buller Gorge to Lyell, another old gold town (another DOC camp here). Stopped and set off on a loop walk around the area.

A pretty spray of water along the path
Historic cemetery

The old cemetery along the way was interesting and the track then continued on uphill then led down again to cross over the Lyell Creek.

Graves on the hillside
A poignant headstone
Wonder if there’s any gold there still?
Halfway – crossing the stream
Bridge dedication at the end of our walk

The trail then looped back to the camp following an old bullock trail. Ended at a swingbridge and the Carpark where we started. It was another nice walk and took us around an hour to complete.

The “Old Ghost Road” cycle trail starts from here too – looks like a tough ride all the way over the hills to Seddonville.

Lots of cars coming in and out of the carpark so we waited till it slowed down then found ourselves a flat spot to park overnight.

Quite an interesting sculpture


Buller Gorge

Next morning we set off for Murchison, stopping to look at the Brunner Memorial on the way.

Buller Memorial

Buller River rapids

A little further on we pulled over again and walked down a wet track to see the Ariki Falls.

We went on a rafting trip down the Buller River many moons ago and remember negotiating this set of rapids on that trip. As we walked over the rocks and looked up we could see high above us the flattened grass where the flood had reached a few days ago.

Falls – but not obvious when river flooded

Arrived in Murchison and drove into the Club Park – motorhomes and caravans everywhere! The place was fairly empty when we stayed there around 12 months ago. Luckily we found a place to park and it was only just after midday! The gates were closed by 2:00pm as by then it was chokka! Appears most people were on their way to the Music on the Mountain Rally at Tapawera the coming weekend. We booked in for a few nights and the second night the park was just as full. But the local school had opened up its grounds for the overflow visitors to use, so all was not lost for the late-comers.

So it was the 29th Jan before we were back on the road again, still on SH6 towards Nelson. Turned off at Gowanbridge to drive to Lake Rotoroa because neither of us could remember if we went there when we came this way last year. Got to the lake and yes we had been there…but it was a nice place to have lunch looking down the lake and hiding inside from the multitudes of sandflies (little ones small enough to squeeze through our insect mesh unfortunately – out with the flyspray!).

Lake Rotoroa

Resident – get too close and it ‘hisses’

Drove back to the main road afterwards and ended up stopping the night in a large gravelpit area beside the main road.

Continued on the next morning and we started to get sore arms waving at all the motorhomes coming in the opposite direction displaying Club “Wings” as they left the Music in the Mountains Rally. Reports said that there were around 700 motorhomes parked at the school grounds in Tapawera during the Rally so they are now all on the road somewhere? No doubt the Murchison Park would be full again that night. We have been travelling slow deliberately, in the hope that the places we want to go next have time to quieten down.

We had a look at the Hope Saddle Lookout along the highway. Great views over the forested hills.

Hope Saddle Road

We then came across the Clark River Recreation Grounds, alongside the river where camping is allowed, so that was our spot for the night. We got there at lunchtime and it was a large area with several grassy areas to park. By nightfall in our little area we were closely surrounded by another Motorhome, two campervans and four ‘sleeper’ cars!! Talk about the ‘cluster’ mentality. We can understand it in small areas but where there is plenty of space…why does everyone have to squeeze up together? Maybe we have a ‘magnet’ on board that attracts them!

31 Jan – last day of the month. Left Clark River and still heading north, turned off SH6 onto the Motueka Valley Highway towards Tapawera. Not so many vans around today so appears the Rally has almost dispersed. Stopped there to get fresh water, bought a couple of things from the Four Square Store and browsed in a little shed displaying photographs of the town history. Then travelled about 12 kms to McLeans Domain, another free camp area beside the Motueka River this time. Looks like we’ll reach Motueka tomorrow as we can only stay here one night.


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