Mention to anyone that you’re planning a road trip in New Zealand’s South Island and they will immediately tell you their stories of spectacular coastal roads and rugged mountain passes. “Picture postcard moments around every corner” they’ll say, and they’d be right.
The South Island got lucky in the beauty stakes. One of the most popular and photogenic routes is between Greymouth and Westport on the West Coast.
The main road hugs the coastline, with black sand beaches pounded by the Tasman Sea on one side, and dense forest dripping with waterfalls on the other; and as if that wasn’t enough, pancake rocks, blow holes and sparkling rivers add even more photographic opportunities.
It is unquestionably beautiful scenery, not to be missed, but there is an another route between Greymouth and Westport (a less in-your-face-look-at-me road) that has a charm of its own. This route heads inland through Reefton and along the valleys of the Grey, Inangahua, and Buller rivers.
The land around Greymouth is mining country, or it used to be. Now, rusty machinery lies abandoned and the old mining buildings are being reclaimed by the forest. Once, this land provided livelihoods for hundreds of men, but the mining operations took a heavy toll on the land and its people.
Men lost their lives in the Brunner Mine, Strongman, and Pike River and the impact of these tragedies on families and towns lingers on.
The people of the West Coast are resilient, resourceful and slightly wary of strangers. Nowhere is this more true than in Blackball, a tiny town just 25 km from Greymouth. Blackball was originally a small gold mining settlement but it was coal that fueled its growth.
The population was 1200 at its peak but when the mines closed the people left, and like many other mining towns Blackball had to re-invent itself or die.
Today, visitors come to learn about Blackball’s unique place in New Zealand’s social history. In 1904, Blackball miners downed tools to protest against their statutory 15 minute lunch break. After 13 weeks they had won the right for workers all over New Zealand to have a 30 minute lunch break, and had given Blackball its reputation as a ‘bolshy’ town.
The story goes that the seeds of the NZ Labour movement were sown right then.
Photographs and other memorabilia from Blackball’s turbulent history are on display in the hotel with the odd name: Formerly the Blackball Hilton. Originally called the Blackball Hilton in the 1970’s, it took the family-owned Hilton hotel chain about 20 years to notice that their name had been adopted by a two-storied wooden establishment in a tiny New Zealand town.
When they did notice, they insisted that the name was changed, and with a dash of West Coast cheekiness it was. Now the ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’ is exactly as it was in 1910 – no cable TV, room service or mini bars. It’s an eclectic mix of museum, hotel and social hub for locals and visitors.
Walls in the guest lounge are covered in newspaper clippings of royal visits, mining disasters, and “ol’ ariel” the town’s ariel tramway that carried coal from the mine to the railway 4.8 km away back in the day. There is also a moving tribute to the miners killed in the most recent mining disaster at Pike River in 2010.
The road from Blackball eventually joins the main highway at Ikamatua where it crosses the Grey River. Reefton, 55 km further on, is another re-invented town. Originally a rich gold mining town (between 1872 and 1951, 67.4 kg of gold was mined), by the time the last gold mine had closed coal and forestry had become more significant to the town’s economy.
Nowadays, you can still pan for gold and have a cuppa with the bearded miners in their replica 1860’s mining hut, or get up close to a modern mining operation as long as you don’t mind wearing a hard hat and gumboots. Reefton is a lucky town not only because of its rich reefs of gold.
The town was the first in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lights, and the only lottery shop in town has sold its fair share of multi-million dollar jackpot winning tickets.
From Reefton, the road goes northwards through fields criss-crossed with creeks and dotted with dairy cows. A few kilometres on is the ghost town of Waiuta, once home to the deepest mine shaft in New Zealand and the richest mine in the South Island.
You won’t see many other vehicles on the road, maybe a cyclist or two or a camper van, which is of course, part of the charm of being off the beaten track.