The West Coast's mining towns were built by prospectors hungry for glittering ore. Now, as gold prices soar, the homes of Ross township's 300 residents stand in the way of the miners. Matt Nippert reports.
On November 8, the West Coast town of Ross, population 300, was the scene of an ill-reported war. Soldiers dressed in German uniforms clashed with rivals dressed in New Zealand Army kit.
The Germans, backed by a Spandau machine gun, attempted to flank their colonial opposition.
"They were sneaking up, and in the end people were yelling at us to turn around," says Evan Birchfield, who was behind the wheel of his Chieftain tank bearing the Union Jack and well aware of the 3500 civilians gathered nearby.
"Then we swivelled the turret round and fired the cannon - and then the Spandau opened up - people were covering their ears and running away. Christ, it was noisy."
It was part of the Ross Fireworks Festival, a thank you from Ross Birchfield Mining to a town that was once witness to one of New Zealand's biggest eyesores.
The crowd watching the event had gathered beside a large man-made lake that is 71m deep in the centre - deep enough to submerge the Beehive.
This was ground zero of the giant Ross goldmine.
The town itself has seen better days. Where once there were three pubs, there is now one, and it has been for sale for some time on Trade Me.
Locals have watched the price of gold soar in recent years, tripling in value from a low point in the early 1990s to $1500 an ounce. Many locals work at the nearby mines, and the high price has also re-ignited the prospect that the entire town could be shifted sideways to let miners get at what's beneath.
A front page in the Hokitika Guardian 20 years ago pointed out the town sat atop gold reserves that could be worth $700m. With today's prices, that could mean more than $3 billion.
Birchfield, the man behind the mine, moved from north of Greymouth to Ross, and doesn't consider himself a local. He's aware of the potential riches that sit beneath his local pub.
A couple of years ago he bought some pensioner flats off the council to make way for more mining: "They were in the way."
Shifting the town - which would require every resident to sign up - has been mooted in the past. Now the rise in the price of gold has led to old plans being dusted off. Canadian firm Superior Mining International Corporation holds the paperwork for the claim.
Birchfield says: "There were a lot of plans, but I think the company's looking again at it now."
Superior Mining chief executive John Proust, who is married to a Kiwi, says the land beneath Ross is rich. "I think where the town is now, it's probably sitting on a goldmine." Literally.
But bowling the township, and moving all the inhabitants to get to the yellow stuff underneath, "is a very long term proposition".
"It would take a lot of consultation, a lot of massaging - it's not anything we're contemplating right now," he insists.
Ross is just one battlefield in a war sparked by this West Coast gold rush. And it's real conflict brewing. Goldminers are seeing increasing value in digging up the region's hills, paddocks, forests and beaches - and opposition is stiffening as more of the Coast comes under claim.
Near Blackball, about an hour's drive north, Birchfield's brother Allan has restarted his colossal, 3000-tonne river dredge. The brothers are big players in the gold industry, between them accounting for around half of the West Coast's alluvial mining business.
"Some people describe it as a gold factory," says Allan. He is standing in the shadow of his enormous - and enormously noisy - corrugated iron dredge, which processes 1700 tonnes an hour of sand, earth, gravel and riverbed from the Grey River.
The dredge had been sitting idle for the better part of four years, but the steady rise in the price of the metal it mines led to Allan refurbishing and restarting it last month.
"When the price of gold got over NZ$1000 it got viable," he says. "It's now over US$1000."
Allan acknowledges mining doesn't have a universal tick of approval: "It's part of our culture - but it's not so popular with the green religion."
Before the arrival of the Greens, the colour of religion on the West Coast was yellow. And Barry Rooney's business may well be considered the place of worship.
Rooney now runs jewellery outfit The Gold Room. He sees a few small-time panners and fossickers come into the shop to sell their finds - mostly for beer money, sometimes for more - and has noticed an upturn in this side of the business.
"We had a chap in this morning with a few grams, and another guy yesterday - he's retired, and it's something to fill the time."
Even if it is just a hobby, Rooney says the part-time miners are a secretive lot. "Some of it comes from public panning areas, but others want to keep things secret. You can drive around the district and see cars parked in deserted area - you know what they're doing."
He pauses, then adds: "Well, it's one of two things."
The Gold Shop specialises in nuggets, the naturally occurring chunks of gold that industrial miners often melt down. Pride of place in a wooden display case is taken by a nugget no bigger than an iPod Mini that sits heavily in the hand.
By weight alone, at 8.4 ounces, the metal is worth around $13,000 - not that Rooney's selling.
Bigger miners don't see the uniquely shaped nuggets as works of art, says Rooney. "But they are to us."
The real rush into the West Coast began after the whole area was bought for £300 in 1860. The purchaser was a bit of a rascal who cut a hard bargain with local iwi, says Westland District mayor Maureen Pugh.
The discovery of gold led to a boom in business, civic and criminal life. In November 1865, Hokitika prison housed just 13 inmates. Scarcely five months later a new prison had been built at Seaview that was home to 58.
Hokitika, the closest port to Australia, swelled in size to more than 25,000 residents - the largest settlement in New Zealand at the time. It boasted more than 100 pubs.
This spectacular growth was driven by the gold boom. In 1870 the region exported 1.5 million ounces of the precious metal. At today's prices that haul would be worth $2.3 billion.
Now, the industry is but a fraction of the size. Industry spokesman and mining consultant John Wood says the region produces around 125,000 ounces of gold annually, most from Pacific Rim conglomerate OceanaGold out of Reefton.
While the big corporate mines hum steadily along, Woods says the real potential for growth comes from alluvial mining - extracting the trace amounts of gold that can be found all over the low-lying West Coast.
Wood ended up in New Zealand by accident. The British native cut his teeth in the business working for the de Beers Jwaneng diamond mine in Botswana. In 1987 a friend offered him a berth on a round-the-world sailing trip and the journey included a stopover in New Zealand.
"I liked the place, and I stayed," he says. The colour of the landscape after years spent in dry Africa was enough of a magnet. "Green is a colour you can get used to."
Wearing cut-off shorts and Jandals in his yellow-walled office, Woods says the new gold rush gained momentum as the price hit $2000 an ounce last year. And while the price rise has been a spur for expansion, the recession also played a part.
Contractors, who had worked on property developments and subdivisions during the boom, were left idle when the property market crashed.
"You're left with a fleet of earth-moving equipment - what do you do? One thing you can do is go gold mining," says Woods.
Out at Humphrey's Gully, farmer Pete Morrison got his gold mining operation running last November.
Wood, who helped with permits and resource consents, says getting approval was a relative breeze. Morrison owned the land, so access wasn't an issue, and he also owned the neighbouring properties, so there were no objections to resource consent.
The site, last mined 100 years ago, is a swirl of dust-storms on a hot January day. A large block of pine forest and scrub has been cleared. It will be replanted afterwards, says Wood.
Despite technological progress since the glory days, the process of extracting gold is much the same. Wood points to the ridgeline where more than 100 years haven't repaired severe erosion damage from when gold-miners ran water down the hillsides to dislodge gold-bearing soil.
"Sluicing - that was state-of-the-art back then," says Wood. And what's state-of-the-art today? "Bigger diggers. And dump trucks."
An excavator feeds soil through a screen which washes smaller particles on to a riffle table, where gravity separates the metal. Larger debris (the tailings) is carried off by a conveyer belt. Dump trucks bring in new soil for the screen and take away the tailings.
Wood says the price of gold means sites with concentrations of 100mg per cubic metre of soil are now viable. A density that low requires putting 1.7 tonne of earth and gravel through the screen, to extract 0.1 grams of gold.
Gold mining in the late 1800s was a highly labour-intensive affair, but the Humphrey's Gully site employs only a handful of people.
Mechanisation means gold mining is now a skilled, rather than mass, employer.
"We're not talking about 3000 people in Stafford," Wood says. "We had around 300 people employed during the last boom in 1990." Today probably only half that number are employed in alluvial gold mining.
Driving back from the gully, Woods laments Muldoon-era make-work schemes that have left trees planted in places that make getting approval to mine difficult.
"In my mind they should stop trying to grow trees here and instead turn it into a place where you can go gold mining. You can always plant trees afterwards."
Most of the West Coast miners are old-timers, a small group of 20 or so who have hired or fired as prices waned and waxed.
As one puts it: "There's a rush? I guess that means I've been rushing since 1993, and my dad before that."
But the rising price has brought new players into the business.
South of Hokitika, in the tiny community of Ruatapu, Dean Sweetman is keen to try his hand at gold. He owns the Westco Lagan sawmill, and sees the metal as a hedge against the decline of the logging industry.
Sweetman isn't a local - he commutes to each week from his home in Cashmere, Christchurch.
The mill employs 86 people but has been struggling. So he's proposed a small gold-mining operation. If consents are granted two of his staff will run the screen, digger and trucks, for a mineable area of only 1.5ha (the Humphrey's Gully claim has permits to mine 400ha).
"It's not even the size of a football field," says Sweetman.
But part of that runs through Department of Conservation forest that Garry Walls built a house to look at.
The photographer, who mostly does weddings but has a nascent nature photography business, says he moved over the alps to get a house with a view.
He concedes there's a certain amount of 'Nimby' in him: "When the man wants to dig up our back paddock it becomes personal."
Walls had plans for a bed and breakfast, but fears this will no longer be an option. "My house is unsaleable at present because of this, it's not worth a pinch of shit."
Sweetman says he'll replant any DoC land he mines, but that isn't good enough for Walls.
The area of bush is regenerating natives after a mining operation in the 1900s. Rimu there now stand at 9m tall: "It'll be a hundred years before it's the same," says Walls.
The gold-mining proposal is going through the process of getting resources consents, and Walls has formed a residents' association comprising 60 per cent of the community to oppose the mine every step of the way.
The John Key-championed national cycleway is intended to pass down the road and past the sawmill; Walls says the Government needs to step in.
"They need to decide whether they want cyclists looking at the birds, or looking at ... the filthy great scars of gold-mining."
Sweetman staunchly defends his business, adding that few of his staff have secondary-school qualifications and work in the tourism sector doesn't suit everyone.
"Not everyone is going to be able to make a latte and serve tourists."
Evan Birchfield, who walks with a stoop after being crushed by machinery when he was 20, employs 25 people at his mine. On average they take home more than $60,000 a year.
"They almost need a wheelbarrow to take away the cash on payday," he cracks.
Birchfield Ross Mining runs its own engineering workshops, where its tanks - one still festooned with a swastika from the fireworks festival - take pride of place.
Birchfield is a blunt-talking man, whose children are third-generation miners. His company remains family-owned, and he rebuffed an offer to sell to Chinese investors a little over two years ago.
The argument for tourism doesn't wash with him. He sits in his office, a rifle next to the rubbish bin, and says:
"I don't believe tourism does this place any good. They take out more than they put in. They bought in didymo and giardia. I'm not a tourist fan, they're blocking up our roads and fouling our rivers."
Mining can simultaneously extract gold and convert the site to pasture or pine plantations, he adds. "You can't do any damage, because it heals itself so quickly."
Despite environmentalists' concerns, the mining industry is picking up pace on the West Coast. The Greymouth Star reported that the number of mining permits issued in the region tripled in the last year. The interest is not only in the soil: de Beers are looking at setting up a dedicated offshore rig to mine the seafloor.
Whatever the size, or duration, of the new gold rush, the good old days of the West Coast won't be back. Extractive industries have mechanised and will never again be mass employers.
Mayor Pugh, who grew up in Kumara, says her town was host to 92 hotels at the peak of the late 1800s boom.
"Back then if you had a sheet of iron and a bottle of whiskey you could call yourself a pub," she says. "We had two until last year - but both closed."
With modern environmental and safety rules and regulations, there will be no return to heady era of the 1800s.
The boom days are over.
"You need licences now, and given the active contribution of public health and the police, I don't think we'll ever see another hundred-pub town on the West Coast."