Mention to anyone that you’re planning a road trip in the South Island and they will immediately tell you 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 and one of the most popular and photogenic routes is between Greymouth and Westport. The road snakes along the coast with beaches pounded by the Tasman Sea on one side and bush dripping with waterfalls on the other; and as if that wasn’t enough, pancake rocks, blow holes and icy furious rivers add even more photographic opportunities.
This is the Great Coast Road and it is unquestionably beautiful but there is an another route between Greymouth and Westport. This one is less direct and with fewer picture postcard moments. It’s a road less travelled steeped in history.
This route links state highways 6, 69 and 7 in a 157 kms loop through Reefton, the Town of Light, following the valleys of the Grey, Inangahua and Buller rivers.
Leaving Greymouth, the road heads inland through native bush and farmland. This is mining country, or it used to be. Evidence from by-gone days lies abandoned in valleys clogged with native bush and in empty towns. Machines may have rusted and buildings gone to ruin but the stories live on in towns like Stillwater, Brunner, Taylorville and Blackball. Stories of days like the 26th March 1896 when a gas explosion killed almost every man in the Brunner Mine, 65 in all. Or tales of tragedy at Strongman in 1967 or Pike River in 2010. The men who lost their lives are buried in local cemetries and the impact on these small towns lingers on.
The people of the West Coast are resilient and resourceful but there is a slight wariness of strangers. Nowhere is this more true than in Blackball, just 25 kms from Greymouth. Blackball was originally a small gold mining settlement but it was coal that fuelled 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. Today, curious visitors come to tramp in the hills and fish in nearby Lake Brunner, to learn about Blackball’s unique place in New Zealand’s social history and to sample some of the world famous Blackball salami. Some are even snapping up old miner’s cottages and turning them into holiday homes.
Blackball began to carve its place in history in 1904 when miners put down their tools to protest against their statutory 15 minute lunch break. After 13 long weeks they had won the right for workers all over New Zealand to double their lunch break to 30 minutes and they’d put Blackball on the map. The story goes that the seeds of the NZ Labour movement were sown right then.
Looking at the quiet streets of Blackball today it’s hard to imagine that the town was once a hotbed of trade unionism and militancy. The only signs are the photographs and other memorabilia on display in the hotel with the odd name and a story of its own. Originally named the Blackball Hilton, it took 20 years for the ‘other’ Hilton hotel owners to send a ‘cease and desist’ letter. The Blackball Hilton owners complied with unusual grace and, with a dash of West Coast cheekiness, changed the name to Formerly- the- Blackball- Hilton.
The Formerly- the -Blackball- Hilton is the grandest building in Blackball. It’s a two- story building built in 1910 and it has been left pretty much unchanged since then. The owners are proud that there is no room service or cable TV and too few electrical power points for todays gadgets. It’s the kind of place where locals swap stories and resolve the problems of the world every night over a beer and everyone knows who’s new in town. the walls of the hotel are covered in newspaper clippings of Royal visits, mining stories and “ol’ ariel” – the tramway that carried coal from the Blackball mine to the railway 4.8 km away. A review of the hotel from 1984 reads “If you don’t like the menu, cook your own meal”. Thankfully, the menu was very likeable and after dinner I spent a happy hour in front of the fire looking through scrapbooks and photographs and school records dating back to the 1800s.
The road from Blackball crosses the Grey River and rejoins the main highway at Ikamatua. 55 kms further on is Reefton, another town, like Blackball, that has successfully reinvented itself. Between 1872 and 1951 a huge 67.4 kg of gold was mined from the land around Reefton (that’s a lot of wedding rings) but when gold mining became unprofitable and the last gold mine closed, coal and forestry had become more significant to the town’s economy. In many ways Reefton is a lucky town and not just because of its rich reefs of quartz-containing gold. At the height of the gold rush it was the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have street lights powered by electricity from its own power station (that explains the town’s nickname of the Town of Lights) and, it is the only town with a Lotto shop that has sold several multimillion dollar winning tickets. A lucky town indeed!
Tourism is important to Reefton with kilometres of mountain biking and tramping tracks twisting through the native beech forest that covers the surrounding hills. You can visit a modern gold mine and see how it operates as long as you don’t mind wearing a hard hat, boots and overalls. It’s worth it because you’ll get a close up look at the opencast mine. If you want a more traditional experience, you can pan for gold or stop for a yarn with the bearded miners in their 1860s mining hut. They’ll brew you a cuppa and entertain you with stories of fortunes lost and found in the gold rush days (some of which are true!). Two kilometres east of Reefton at Blacks Point museum there is more mining memorabilia and for $2 you can see the Golden Fleece Stamper Battery which is still in working condition. The Murrays Creek Walkway starts here too – a network of tracks for biking and walking in the forest and the thrill of many suspension bridges.
Reefton’s main street is full of well preserved buildings which are now the home to stores for local shopping, art galleries and cafes. It’s rare in New Zealand not to find a great bakery/cafe in the remotest of towns and Reefton is no exception. I had breakfast at the Broadway Tearooms and Bakery where 2 full time bakers bake every day and the coffee is amazing. There’s a range of accommodation in Reefton from backpackers hostels to B & B and hotels. I stayed in the Old Nurse’s Home, a wonderful wooden art deco building just 5 minutes walk from the main street where the cost of a comfortable night’s sleep starts at $40.
The road from Reefton northwards passes through fields criss- crossed with creeks. Dairy farming is the way of life here and the landscape is easy on the eye. At Inangahua Junction the road meets state highway 6 and it’s 46 kms to Westport following the Buller River. This is the longest river in the South Island and the lower gorge, between Inangahua Junction and Westport is the most scenic. The upper Buller Gorge is narrower and steeper but here, the river spreads out and roars flows more gently towards Westport. The road follows the river all the way to Westport. It’s an exhilarating drive and you’ll feel only admiration for the men who built it. They blasted the rock to make space for a road and at one point, Hawks Crag, you’ll drive under a dramatic rock overhang which is actually a slot carved out of the vertical cliff.
Sometimes you never know what you’ll discover when you take the less popular route but if you’ve got a bit of time and an adventurous spirit, this one won’t disappoint.
Categories: New Zealand