West Coast: Digging into the past on the wild West Coast

By Jim Eagles

A new venture in Denniston allows visitors to step back 100 years to experience life in the coal mines, complete with ghostly visions and echoes of another era, writes Jim Eagles.

Visitors walk down the restored railway to the old Banbury Mine as part of the Denniston Experience. Photo / Jim Eagles
Visitors walk down the restored railway to the old Banbury Mine as part of the Denniston Experience. Photo / Jim Eagles

The further you get into the damp, dark, narrow tunnel of the 133-year-old Banbury coal mine, high in the Southern Alps, the more the mine talks to you.

At the entrance it's just a murmur, barely audible above the sound of bellbirds singing in the surrounding bush of the Denniston plateau, but if you listen carefully it starts to sound like the rumble of wagons laden with freshly hewn coal, once probably hellishly noisy but now muted by the distance in time.

As you move further into the darkness, lit only by the occasional flickering candle and the thin beams of our helmet lamps, the rumble begins to be joined by a chorus of picks chipping at the coalface, huge banjo shovels sweeping the coal into wagons, the rustling of rat's feet and the slow clop of the horses pulling the wagons to the surface.

Then human voices start to be heard, the banter of working miners, whose accents indicate they came to New Zealand's wild West Coast from traditional mining areas like Cornwall, Yorkshire and Wales.

And finally we hear the distinctive tones of the earth itself, speaking through the creaking of the mine's old wooden props, the tinkle of pieces of loose rock falling on to the floor and the groaning of the layers of stone and coal.

Some 170m into the mine a puddle of light from a collection of candles signals that we have reached the workface, an area where four tunnels meet, creating a welcome sense of space.

I have a special role to play here because this is a good place for a secret union meeting and before we entered the mine I was designated as the union representative. It's a role I'm well-suited to because I've been a union officer in three countries and once I even called a strike.

But before I have a chance to call the brothers to order - actually half our group are sisters but the old miners considered it unlucky to have women underground - the ominous sound of a roof fall echoes down the tunnel and the candles gutter and die leaving us in darkness.

It's a scary moment and, since for most of us it's our first time down a coalmine, we could hardly be blamed for panicking.

But then a ghostly presence starts to shine from one of the branches and a firm North of England voice assures us that it's nothing to worry about and we should turn our attention to the union business that brought us here.

The ghost gradually solidifies into the hologram of a strongly built man with a flat black cap on his head, a determined jut to his chin and an air of quiet command, and we realise that this is the spirit of John Lomas, who played a key role in the development of unionism in New Zealand, starting with the creation of the Denniston Miners' Mutual Protection Society in 1883.

The speech he delivers on the shocking conditions faced by the miners who dug this tunnel, and their battle to win improvements, is a timely one because the trip we are on, the Denniston Experience, aims to give visitors a small taste of what coal mining was like more than a hundred years ago.

Needless to say, enjoying a tourist operation which has to meet rigid modern safety requirements is a rather different proposition from working in one of the country's oldest mines, but Lomas' impassioned words - delivered by a Yorkshire actor - help to make it work.

For our visit, a trial run before the experience officially opens on May 1, we first made the long winding drive from Westport up to the desolate plateau where, remarkable as it may seem today, a mining community of 1500 once lived, loved and died.

Little remains of that township today but the Department of Conservation has put up information boards with old photos which show the hotels and homes, schools and shops, which once blossomed on this stony, scrub-covered mountain soil. And in our group is Jenny Pattrick whose bestselling novels, The Denniston Rose and Heart of Gold, have brought the remarkable story of the settlement to life for thousands of readers.

Assembly point for the tour is the recently restored brakehead at the top of the Denniston incline, the extraordinary cable railway built in 1879 to transport coal down the steep 600m high slope to the coast, described in its day as "the eighth wonder of the world".

There we are fitted out with high visibility jackets and hard hats fitted with mining lamps, issued with our union cards and given an extensive safety briefing before being led to the mine.

When the experience is running commercially, customers will travel underground on a small train drawn by an electric-powered mining locomotive. But we have to walk in, which is actually great, because it provides a chance to see the extraordinary array of artefacts discovered when DoC rebuilt the mine's original railway track: everything from old bottles, china plates and even scent containers to the rusting remains of century-old railway tracks, dilapidated wagons and crumbling hauling chains.

As we make our way down the track, Department of Conservation historic assets ranger Jonathan Thomas explains that the reason this Banbury Mine is able to be used for the venture is that its seam of coal was fairly small and it soon proved more valuable as a tunnel, going right through the hillside to provide access to the more valuable seam of Coalbrookdale.

"Because of that it wasn't mined out and left to collapse, as usually happened, but maintained as an access route until they stopped using it around 1900," he says. "As a result it's still completely sound."

That's good to know when we get inside the mine and start hearing all the sound effects DoC has installed to highlight what it was like working so far underground.

But it doesn't make it any easier when the time comes to carry out a series of mining tasks which form part of the experience.

Fortunately, my role as the union rep is a supervisory one. At the entrance Jonathan himself uses a modern detector to check gas levels in the mine. Further inside he also takes on the responsibility for laying a charge to bring down a load of coal.

As we cower round the corner from the blast, one of our group, Charles, is assigned to the nerve-racking job of cranking a hand generator to set off the explosive. Then another member, Valda, is sent to bring a wagon and clip it in position. When Jonathan asks for someone to shovel the coal I hide behind one of the props but Valda, who looks to be close to 70, enthusiastically grabs the huge banjo shovel and gets stuck in.

By the time we emerge, blinking, into the daylight we've been underground for nearly an hour and I think we all feel a little bit like miners ... with the splashings of mud and smears of coal dust to prove it.

The Denniston Experience is a unique venture, having been developed by DoC in conjunction with Solid Energy, Friends of the Hill Society, Buller District Council and the West Coast Development Trust.

The aim is to make Denniston's amazing mining heritage more accessible to the public while at the same time, hopefully, generating some income to help with DoC's conservation work. After it has been running a few weeks, and any teething troubles have been sorted, the plan is to lease the experience to a commercial operator.

It's also unique in offering ordinary people a chance to experience a century-old mine. As Jonathan puts it, "There are mining experiences elsewhere which offer you the chance to go into a mine but they're modern mines which closed down relatively recently. As far as we can tell this is the only place in the world where you can go into a mine which is pretty much as it was over a hundred years ago."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Westport and Hokitika.

Thrifty Car Rentals can deliver cars to both airports.

Where to stay: Archer House, built in 1890 for a prosperous merchant and superbly restored, is a B&B in the heart of Westport.

What to do: The Denniston Experience is due to open on May 1.

Westport's Coaltown Museum has some fascinating displays on mining and the Denniston Incline.

Friends of the Hill Society, at Denniston, has a website here.

The Department of Conservation has lots of information on Denniston.

Further information: Click the link for more about visiting the West Coast.

Jim Eagles went to Denniston with help from Tourism West Coast and Air NZ.

- NZ Herald

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