Monday, November 7, 2011

Mining Country

On our way back from Opotiki we stopped for the night in the Karangahake Gorge, an old gold-mining area that has some nice walks.

It's a lovely, peaceful setting, with the hills gradually being reclaimed by the forest, and the mining ruins weathered with age.

We left the main track alongside the Ohinemuri River, and followed the course of the Waitawheta. It's a stunningly beautiful walk along paths carved into the hillside, with a fresh view around each bend. In places the path goes through a tunnel, with holes (the "windows" that give this section of the walk its name) cut into the rock overlooking the stream.

This lovely place was very different a century ago, when mining was at its height. The little village of Karangahake was a town then, where the Waitawheta flows into the Ohinemuri, with shops, hotels and dance halls; it was busy, bustling, and above all noisy. These paths weren't cut for walkers, but for the miners and their machinery.

Gold mining here was not the alluvial mining that conjures overly romanticised visions of gold panners by rushing streams, searching for that elusive glitter amongst the pebbles and sand. These steep hills were threaded with tunnels—the slope on the right of this picture had more than a dozen levels of them one above the other, carved deep into the hillside.

Ore was brought from the tunnels in wagons that ran along rails down to Karangahake for processing, and the walking paths have such an easy gradient because they were built for those wagons. Those rock windows with their lovely views were cut for the miners to heave waste rock down into the Waitawheta River below.

Karangahake did not give up its gold readily. It meant crushing the ore in stamper batteries powered by coal-fed engines, pounding it into a fine powder, then using cyanide to extract the gold. Those batteries roared and thundered, shaking the ground, and the air must have left a foul taste with each breath. Some workers died of phthisis from the ever-present dust.

In Settling the Account I send a character into this Blakean vision; a fifteen-year-old farm boy who's spent his life roaming around the bush and the paddocks, never far from the sea, used to a wide horizon and to a palette of green and blue. I'd always known coming here must have been a shock to him, but until this visit I'd never quite appreciated just how terrifying such a place would have been. I now picture him standing at the entry to one of those deep tunnels, perhaps for some time too terrified to move. Stepping into that black, yawning mouth was one of the bravest things he ever did.

I strongly suspect he never did tell his mother just how dreadful it was. He wouldn't have wanted to upset her.

The history of one of the Karangahake mines, with some old photographs, here.