West Coast: Charms of old? Take your pick

By Jim Eagles

The romance of steam trains and gold prospecting make Shantytown a rare delight, says Jim Eagles.

Steam engine driver Fiona Littlejohn. Photo / Jim Eagles
Steam engine driver Fiona Littlejohn. Photo / Jim Eagles

They let me ride in the caboose of Gertie, the 132-year-old L508 steam engine at Shantytown. The little kids got a chance to walk through the cab when the train stopped at the end of the line. But I was allowed to be there during the journey. Both ways. Sometimes being Travel Editor is just so cool.

It was nice and cosy in the cab thanks to the heat from the fire and it was full of fantastic gleaming brass levers, copper pipes and shiny pressure gauges, black piles of coal, the occasional puff of smoke and lots of soot.

Once during the trip the steam pressure went a bit low so Fiona Littlejohn, the engine driver, opened the door of the firebox, letting the flames roar out, and shovelled in some more coal. Wahoo.

As we chugged along the Infants Creek Railway Line - previously an old bush tram line for bringing out logs - I asked Fiona if when she was little she wanted to be an engine driver. "My mother says I did," she said. "I don't really remember. But I do know that when the opportunity came for me to do this I jumped at it." Wouldn't anyone?

They've got half a dozen steam trains at Shantytown, though most of them need refurbishing, which they await in the shelter of a giant workshop which once stood at the defunct Blackball Mine.

The two that run on the Infant Creek Railway, Gertie and her 114-year-old mate Kaitangata, with its wonderful bulbous funnel, have a heavy workload. In fact Shantytown proudly proclaims that it is the second biggest passenger rail operator in the country after KiwiRail. That's clearly because there's something special about riding in a steam train.

I had just ended a tour of the country in passenger trains - the Overlander, the TranzCoastal and the TranzAlpine - pulled by diesel engines and while that was great fun the diesels just don't offer the wonderful smells, the feeling of riding through a glamorous past or the sense of romance that comes with steam.

"That's right," said Fiona. "It's not the same on the modern trains. These old steam engines have got something special about them. I never get tired of riding on this old girl."

It's exactly that sort of feeling, a sense of the allure of yesteryear, an impression that the past was somehow more inspiring than the present, that makes Shantytown, just outside Greymouth, so exciting to visit.

The goldrush days of the 1880s, which this place celebrates, were probably not romantic at the time, with men living and working in appalling conditions, but from the comfortable perspective of over a century later the idea of thousands of prospectors from all over the world swarming here in the hope of striking it rich does have a certain charm.

Shantytown is built on the site of an actual goldrush settlement, a place that would have been torn up by picks and shovels wielded by men desperately searching for gold, and there is still gold in the ground today.

In fact, as we discovered on the drive to Shantytown, gold is as much a part of the West Coast's present as of its past, with goldmining going on everywhere.

"Almost all the land round here has been sluiced for gold and reinstated," said Matt Lysaght, who runs Kea Heritage Tours. "Some of it has been sluiced twice as the techniques have got more efficient."

Reminders are everywhere. "That trench along the roadside was originally dug to take the water away from the sluicing ... That ridge up there was completely demolished, all the material was screened, and then put back again five years ago." Did it make much money? "I don't know but the guy who owns it built two pretty flash houses up there when he reinstated the ridge."

If all that talk of gold inspires you, Shantytown has a wooden trough filled with locally dug gravel where you can pan for gold under the watchful eye of an official miner. I didn't pan myself - though I have in the past and there's a couple of small sparkly bottles in a drawer at home to prove it - but I did watch some visitors try their luck.

"What happens if we don't find any gold?" asked a portly American, seemingly poised to quote the Consumer Guarantees Act. "Weeelllll," said the miner cautiously. "If you do it properly you should find some. But if you don't we'll give you another pan of gravel and you can keep trying until you do."

Further on, a huge overshot waterwheel, 9m in diameter, powers an eight-headed stamper battery, which uses heavy hammers to crush quartz and release gold content.

Down a path through the bush there's a small Chinatown, complete with a mine tunnel dug into the bank, showing the terrible conditions in which the Chinese who flocked to the goldfields were forced to live. Shantytown's curator, Julia Bradshaw, has just published a book Golden Prospects: Chinese on the West Coast, and her research will enable the Chinatown to be rebuilt in a more authentic style.

Important though gold has always been to the West Coast economy, it wasn't the only source of wealth. Another major industry was timber extraction and Shantytown's newest development is an old steam-driven sawmill, relocated from Browns Creek near Ikamatua, and restored to working order, with enough moving parts to give a feel for what it would have been like in its heyday.

The next project, due for completion in a few months, is to recreate the Dispatch Foundry started in Greymouth in 1873 to manufacture equipment for goldmining, sawmilling, coal mining and the railways, which is still going today making dairy sheds.

As all of that suggests, in the 39 years since it was founded Shantytown has become a substantial settlement complete with Beehive store, Post Office and Everybody's tearooms, fire station, hospital and jail, masonic lodge, gold claim office and Coronation Hall.

Oh, and there's a church of course, made in kauri, sent in kitset form from Auckland and erected in the Grey Valley in 1866 in a place called No Town. It was given its name by the luckless immigrants who arrived in what they had been led to believe was a thriving metropolis only to find there was nothing at all.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: You can find out about the Scenic Rail Pass, the cheapest way to see the country by rail, at tranzscenic.co.nz.

Where to stay: The Kingsgate Hotel is on the riverside in Greymouth.

Seeing the sights: Take a West Coast trip with Kea Heritage Tours.

What to do: Visit Shantytown.

Further information: See west-coast.co.nz.

Jim Eagles travelled New Zealand by rail with help from KiwiRail, Air New Zealand and the regional tourism organisations along the way.

- NZ Herald

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