Bolshy Blackball

The thing I like about road trips is that you never know where you will end up for the night. On the first day of a 5-day adventure, I had a vague notion to head west from Christchurch across Arthur’s Pass (you can read about that here and  ….. well that was about as far as my plan went.

As I got closer to the coast I decided to take the road around Lake Brunner which was signposted as a scenic route.  Taking the detour would mean that I’d miss passing through Kumara and since I’ve never been to a town named after a vegetable, I didn’t make the decision lightly. I figured that the scenic route would be compensation enough but, as it happened, the rain fell and the cloud got lower and I didn’t see anything of the lake.

But this is how I found myself in Blackball.  A small town even by New Zealand standards, Blackball is tucked under the Paparoa Range 25 kms from Greymouth.  Just 370 residents, a couple of stores, a couple of hotels and quite surprisingly an award winning salami company.

Blackball began as a gold mining town but it was coal that fuelled its growth and in its heyday around 1200 people called it home. When the coal mine closed in 1964, Blackball lost its way a bit and many of its residents moved away but, unlike many other towns in similar circumstances, Blackball survived. First an influx of folk looking for an alternative lifestyle arrived in the 70s and more recently the old miners’ cottages have become holiday homes for people from Nelson and Christchurch who like fishing for trout and salmon in nearby Lake Brunner. Others have realised that Blackball offers affordable housing an easy commute from Greymouth.

I checked into the hotel called Formerly The Blackball Hilton and found myself the only guest that wasn’t young, fit and talking about helicopters and weather. I realised that the hotel had become the base for the NZ Defence Force, called in to help with an operation at the Pike River mine which had been closed since an explosion in 2010. That would explain why I had to declare that I wasn’t with the media when I checked in and I understand the caution taken. The people of the West Coast, typically wary of strangers and their attention, must be weary of the cameras and interviews that tragedy can attract.

The name may have changed but everything else is the same as it always was: the hotel now known as Formerly The Blackball Hilton

In 1910 when the hotel was built it would have been the grandest building in town:  double storied, with balconies out front, a huge open fire and an impressive staircase inside. It was originally called The Dominion but became the Blackball Hilton in the 70s and it was only in 1992 that Paris’ mum and dad seemed to notice the liberty that was being taken with their tradename. The Blackball Hilton owners were instructed to change their name and with true West Coast cheek, they did.

The Hilton it is not, but Formerly The Blackball Hilton has a strange charm of its own. The decor is eclectic and worn round the edges and the facilities are basic. The hotel prides itself on being just as it has always been so there is no room service, no ensuite, no TV.  A quick check on Trip Advisor will tell you that not everyone appreciates this level of quirkiness. I didn’t know that I’d stayed in the honeymoon suite until I checked out the next morning and discovered that many of the rooms have bunks or singles which the squaddies seemed perfectly at home with. The rows of hiking boots lined up outside their rooms should have given me a clue.

You wouldn’t guess looking at the wide quiet streets that Blackball was once a hotbed of militant unionism and played an important role in the political history of New Zealand. In 1908  coal miners in Blackball stood up for their right to have a 30 minute lunch break instead of 15 and after striking for13 weeks, Blackball was a household name, the miners had their half hour lunch, and the NZ Labour Party was on its way.

Traces of bolshiness are still evident in Blackball: photographs in the museum and the Workingmen’s Club and in hotel lounge a faded banner that says “No Scab Labour” but there is a lot of heart in Blackball too. The town was knocked sideways by the mining disasters that happened at the Strongman Mine in 1967 and at Pike River in 2010. In the dining room there are newspaper clippings and photographs stuck on the wall, a miners cap, a letter of thanks. It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming but there’s some typical West Coast humour on show too. One headline says “If you don’t like  the menu, cook your own meal”. That’s Blackball bolshiness at its best.

Categories: New Zealand

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