With heritage status and a new film promoting its history, the West Coast's most well-known ghost town is coming to life once again.
On New Zealand's West Coast, historic mining sites are a dime a dozen. But the sign off State Highway 7 — indicating the turnoff to a "historic gold town" — somewhat obscures what lies at the end of the road.
Waiuta isn't just a gold town — it's a ghost town.
Hidden deep in Victoria Forest Park, Waiuta was once the company town for the South Island's largest gold mine. From 1908 to 1951, the Blackwater Mine produced nearly 734,000 ounces of gold, worth about $1.6 billion by today's standards. But when a mine shaft collapsed, production ceased and the town — which had a population of 600 at its peak — was abandoned virtually overnight.
Even before that, the writing was on the wall.
"This little town may be doomed," wrote journalist J D McDonald in a 1949 Newsview article, when the price of gold was on the decline. "The little homes that womenfolk make in the most unpromising situations . . . the vast corrugated-iron treating plant, and the winding bewildered streets — all these may go back to second growth."
McDonald's prediction came true. Over the past 70 years, nature has reclaimed what it rightfully owns, but there's still evidence of the once-vibrant community. There's the Olympic-sized pool built by the miners, now empty save for moss. A flowering rhododendron towers beside where the Anglican church once stood. And scattered across the townsite are some 87 chimneys, yellow gorse blooming in their hearths. Headstones for houses, all that's missing are the epitaphs: We Were Here.
The isolated site, managed by DoC with assistance from volunteer group Friends of Waiuta, is a testament to the resilience of Kiwis. Yet, it remains off the map for the majority of tourists.
"We get maybe 12,000 people a year, but you'd have to have a really good summer for that," says Jim Staton, a DoC ranger. Attracting visitors isn't the only challenge; Waiuta has been targeted by vandals and used as a dumping ground.
That may be about to change. In the summer of 2020/21, Waiuta will be launched as one of Heritage New Zealand's Tohu Whenua sites - landmarks that tell our stories - a designation shared with Dunedin's Railway Station and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Plans are now underway for new interpretative panels, improved tracks, restoration of some of the remaining buildings and a campsite.
"Waiuta tells a story and it's a story people should know about," says Staton. "It's everybody's history. Without gold, New Zealand wouldn't have survived."
It's not just ancient history though. In September 2020, mining will begin once again on the Blackwater Mine; it's rumoured that around $1.5 billion worth of gold remains below Waiuta's surface.
Staton was instrumental in the remediation of Waiuta's arsenic-contaminated Prohibition Ball Mill and will no doubt play a role in its future, although he's now semi-retired. As he points out where the gold was first discovered, encased in quartz, he tells me they shy away from the term "ghost town". They don't want visitors to expect rows of buildings fully intact. The billiard saloon, pub and movie theatre — amenities that cemented Waiuta's reputation as a party town — are all long gone.
But mostly, I'm surprised by what is still here. Although most of the miner's cottages were relocated, a handful remain, including Gill's Cottage, which is being refurbished by Friends of Waiuta. Visitors can also peer through the windows of the now-derelict home of Joseph Divis, some of its furnishings still within.
Divis is central to Waiuta's legacy. As the self-appointed town photographer, his images are featured in Whispers of Gold, a 2020 documentary about Waiuta currently screening across the country. They're also displayed at Waiuta Lodge, one of the few drive-up DoC huts on the South Island, which is where I spend the night. If I'm honest, I expected my stay to be spooky. Instead, sitting on the veranda looking out towards the Paparoas, it feels decidedly serene.
"Did you hear any ghosts?" asks Margaret Sadler, chairperson of Friends of Waiuta and a former resident, when I meet her in Greymouth the next day. All I heard, though, was a morepork.
Sadler's never seen a ghost at Waiuta, but she believes the spirits of its former residents remain.
"You can feel the energy of the people who once lived there," she says.
Talking to her, it occurs to me there's one thing Newsview journalist McDonald couldn't have predicted: That decades after the last townsfolk moved away, Waiuta would still have an entire community rallying around it.
How to get there:
Waiuta is an 75-minute drive inland from Greymouth on SH7. Past Blackwater access is via an unsealed historic coach road. It's narrow and winding but can be accessed in a car or caravan.
What to do:
Allow a half day to explore Waiuta in its entirety, or a full day to complete the three-hour tramp to Big River, a nearby former township and mine.
Where to stay:
Waiuta Lodge is a serviced drive-up DoC hut, complete with crockery and electricity. It can be booked through the DoC website for $15 per adult, $7.50 for kids 5 and up. Freedom camping is also permitted for self-contained vehicles.