Nelson: The perfect date with a gold-digger

By Jim Eagles

Ignoring the cloud of sandflies looking for fresh blood, I slid my pan into the clear waters of the Buller River, swirled it around skilfully, and began to wash out the mud, sand and stones ... when suddenly, much sooner than I had expected, I saw the glint of gold at the edge of the debris. Weehaa. Paydirt.

You don't have to see much of it to understand gold's eternal appeal. Even tiny flakes sparkle with life. And then there's the money.

Thanks to the global economic crisis, gold had that very day hit a new record price of $1709.87 an ounce, so my panning had surely earned me enough of a stake to live happily ever after.

Like the gold prospectors of yesteryear, my journey to get here had been a long and dangerous one, over steep mountains and across angry rivers, sleeping wherever I could find a place to lay my head and living off the land, but the effort had paid off.

True, I hadn't faced quite the same challenges as those old-timers who flocked in their hundreds to the nearby town of Murchison by ship and canoe, on foot and by horse, when gold was discovered there 150 years ago, but in its way my journey was every bit as exciting.

It began with Air New Zealand's direct flight from Auckland to Nelson. Luckily, instead of having to rig up a makeshift shelter in the bush, I found accommodation in a terraced house at the new Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco, modelled on a quaint English village.

And rather than riding or walking the 88km from Nelson to Murchison, I flew there with local scenic operator Flight Corporation, giving myself more time for panning, as well as the chance to enjoy spectacular views over the ranges and gorges, rivers and forests of the Tasman region.

Murchison Airport was busy when we arrived. No one was manning the terminal, with its honesty box for landing fees, but local character Grahame Atkinson was flying one of the model planes he has been building since he was 10.

Also at the airport was our prospecting guide, Mark Allen, a lifelong gold miner who these days works at the Buller Gorge Swingbridge ... when he's not using a suction hose to suck out gold trapped under the gravels on the riverbed.

We were lucky to have him, because it's not easy for an amateur to know where to look for gold. Nor, for that matter, is it easy to get across the gorge to the flats, which are the best place to pan for nuggets. Maori named the Buller River "Kawatiri", meaning "deep and swift", which says it all.

Fortunately, those who came before me built a swingbridge across the deep chasm - the longest in New Zealand at 110m long and 17m high - and it's still there today, providing spectacular access to the gold workings ... provided you don't suffer from acrophobia.

The land on the other side of the bridge is like an open-air museum of gold prospecting in New Zealand.

Amid the regenerating bush is a network of tracks which pass lengths of the pipeline the old miners used to bring in water to sluice for gold, great trenches gouged away in the process, earth-moving machines and homemade motor-driven sieves abandoned when the gold ran thin, plus a miner's hut made of handcut slabs of timber (a replica but built by a genuine old-time prospector), a mineshaft and several panning sites.

On top of that, if you take a trip with Allen on his Goldrush Jet, you get not only an exhilarating and scenic ride, but also views of the crack in the gorge wall which sits above the epicentre of the great 1929 Murchison Earthquake, the site of the vanished mining settlement of White's Creek and the remnants of the ambitious plan to divert the river through a tunnel and expose all the gold on its bed.

Personally, I wasn't sorry the diversion ran out of money when the tunnel was only partly dug, because the whole point of coming down here was to get some of that gold for myself. And my ambition had been fired by the sight of the jewellery made by Allen from nuggets he has found in the river over the years, which is on sale in the swingbridge reception area.

So, as soon as our jetboat ride was over, we headed for the goldpanning training area, where Allen showed us the ropes.

Then it was off to the river with a few crucial words of advice ringing in our ears: "Remember, gold sinks. What you have to do is find a crevice full of gravel and mud that has been there for a long time and scrape it all out right to the bottom. It's in the stuff down there you'll find the gold."

Down at the water's edge, my wife and I found an old pick and used it to scrape all sorts of nasty-looking gunk out of a crack in the rocks that looked as though it had been there since shortly after time began. We started swilling the stuff in our pans ... and you know the rest.

Even Allen, who's found a lot of gold in his time, was excited.
"Yaahoo," he yelled, as he looked in my wife's pan. "It's the mother lode."

I was so excited I didn't need to walk back across the river on the swingbridge. I flew.

Which was easy, actually, because alongside the swingbridge there's a 160m flying fox. Mostly people go across it neatly strapped into a seat. But you can also put on a crash helmet and a special harness and fly like superman. It's a fantastic way to travel.

"Weehaa", I shouted for the second time that day as I swooped like a large bird - Jim the golden eagle? - above some startled people on the swingbridge. Sorry, but striking gold will do that to you, and I had a vial in my pocket that shone like the sun.

Jim Eagles struck gold with help from Air New Zealand and Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has up to nine flights a day from Auckland to Nelson with fares starting from $95 a person one way. Visit airnewzealand.co.nz or phone 0800 737 000.

Getting around: Flight Corporation offers flights round the top of the South Island, including to Murchison, Takaka and Karamea. See the website or ring 0800 359 464.

Where to stay: The four-star Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco offers a range of accommodation including apartments, with rates from $129 per night. See accorhotels.co.nz or phone 0800 44 44 22.

What to do: The Buller Gorge Swingbridge offers activities including Cometline ride, goldpanning, guided walks and jetboat rides. See bullergorge.co.nz or ring 0800 285 537.

- NZ Herald

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