11 Rankers Reviews
1 Buller Gorge
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Stories of untold golden riches, hard pioneer Coasters and a settlement in the forest.
The Old Ghost Road and Lyell Historic Reserve are signposted 34 km west of Murchison and 16 km east of Inangahua on SH6. There is a large parking area with toilets, picnic shelter and sandflies.
The Lyell Walkway and the start of track are signposted from the top carpark.
Head past the cemetery with wrought iron enclosed gravestones and descend to Lyell Creek, crossed by a footbridge.
It’s a short steep climb up the other side to meet with the Country Dray Road. This is the start of the loop section. Head right and then right again to Croesus Battery with the lookout platform over the remains of the stamper battery and berdans.
Retrace your steps and follow the Old Dray Road back via Deep Creek to the carpark.
The name Lyell was conferred by Julius von Haast during his explorations in 1860. He named the range after Sir Charles Lyell, ‘the father of modern geology’.
Charles Heaphy explored the upper reaches of the Buller in 1843 with J.S. Spooner. They ventured as far as the Gowan.
In February 1846, the notable party of Charles Heaphy, William Fox (later to be Prime Minister), Thomas Brunner and Kehu (a Maori guide who was ‘worth his weight in tobacco,’ wrote Heaphy), explored further. Fox nearly drowned in a river crossing near the junction of the Buller and Mangles.
In December 1846 Brunner again set off from Nelson with Kehu and other Maori travellers, hoping to reach the mouth of the Buller. They crossed the swollen river many times, on one occasion with a raft carrying their clothes and provisions. They tied a flax chord to it while five swimmers held it like a life buoy and swam like fury. They landed one mile downstream - thankfully missing any rapids.
The wet autumn meant some days they only travelled a couple of miles and it took 5 weeks to reach Lyell. “Many days of hunger,....frightful a country in heavy rain…. broke our fast on a species of fungus on rotten trees,” read Brunner’s diary. At times he dangled on a flax rope 100 feet above the rock. When they arrived at Arahura, Kehu left, but Brunner continued as far as Paringa. On his return, he journeyed back up the river with Kehu, fell ill, and was paralysed down his left side. Kehu and his wife nursed him back to semi-health. 550 days after his original departure, Brunner returned to Nelson a semi-broken man.
Brunner’s hardships opened up the way for further exploration. Gold was discovered up the Lyell in summer of 1862 by a Maori and four Europeans. After 40-50 stream crossings and a 16 day journey from Nelson, the early discoverers struck it rich. ‘Scottie’ found a 35 oz nugget and a reported 103 oz came from a single hole. A display shop in Nelson in 1863 showed nuggets of 52, 28, 18 and 17 ounces respectively. The rush was on!
Early travel was by way of Maori built canoes. Expert waka builders, accomplished navigators and prudent in risk, they transported many Europeans to Lyell. Most drownings came from impetuous gold-seekers in sub-standard European rafts attempting travel in dangerous conditions.
Characters such as Peter Mangos (Peter the Greek), an illiterate Greek escapee, are representative of Lyell’s early days. After making a profit from owning 12 barges, he secured capital to start up the Post Office Hotel. At age 42 he married the policeman’s 16 year old daughter, impregnated her 14 times and had a success rate of 13/14. Ever the gentlemen, he arranged for a piano to be transported from Nelson to fill his hotel with music played by his convent educated bride.
By early 1870s many of the tracks were upgraded to horse roads. A dray road was a further improvement and put the canoe operations out of business.
The first major reef was claimed and pegged by Antonio Zala, who raised the necessary 10,000 pound capital and formed the Alpine Reefing Company. With other members of his party, Giorgio Zanetti, Alberto Iseppi, Romano Zala, Giovanni Robacco and Stephano de Filippi, they followed a promising lead and started tunneling. With efforts worthy of heroes, they moved machinery from Westport with canoes, dragged it through the dense forest and installed it as close as possible to the tunnel opening. They then constructed a water wheel, built a 750 metre water race with 20,000 feet of pit sawn timber and made a 1.2 km long board chute to transport the stone crushings to the plant. Phew! This battery proved the mainstay of Lyell and survived for over 40 years.
With gold galore, the settlement started to boom. Churches, schools, newspapers and hotels sprung up - but no hospital. With frequent deaths from drowning, accidents, childbirth and illness, Lyell’s deceased filled three cemeteries.
From 1880 - 96 Lyell’s access improved with barges or bridges at the main river crossings. Wages were good and unemployment ran at 0%. The Iron Bridge was the most notable piece of engineering, withstanding the 1929 earthquake and still serving as a vital link on today’s SH6.
Lyell became infamous throughout the region in 1884 when murder came to town. Mrs Grammatica, a widow with a fondness for a tipple or three, entertained two similarly drunken no-gooders. The evening ended in Davidson murdering Quinlan, disposing of his body in the river - only for it to be washed up downstream at ‘Murderers Point’. Davidson was later imprisoned. But of unstable mind, he took to murdering prison staff, one with a knife, the other with a shotgun, before committing suicide. The lovely Mrs Grammatica was run over by a cart on a bridge one night, as she unsteadily made her way home after a few too many bevvies.
The New Alpine Mine closed in 1912, having recovered 315,402 pounds worth of gold. The 1929 earthquake sealed the fate of Lyell’s quiet decline. The Depression years saw some men stationed there to re-work old tailings, but by the 1950s most buildings had been dismantled. A fire destroyed the Mangos old hotel in 1963 and with that, the last of Lyell’s infrastructure and stories went too. Even the magnum of champagne that survived the 1929 earthquake.
A stamper battery was used to pulverise the rock into finer particles for separation and amalgamation. The lighter particles were washed away in a slurry and the heavier component was then washed over amalgamating tables. These are composed of Muntz metal, an alloy of 60% copper and 40% zinc, covered in a thin layer of mercury. This traps the gold and silver to form a putty like amalgam.
A series of berdans, inclined bowls which act like mortars, each contained eight kg of mercury. The pestle in this case is a large iron block called a muller, which revolves for two days and grinds the slurry to an even finer consistency causing the gold to sink to the bottom and amalgamate with the mercury. The mixture is then squeezed through a ‘chammy’ leather, the mercury escaping through the cloth in droplets and trickling back to the berdan. On opening the cloth, a tiny nugget of gold/silver bullion glistens, the final winning of a protracted and complicated process.
The final piece of chemistry performed is to place the amalgam in a retort. At 350 degrees Celsius, the mercury evaporates to a gas, where it is collected in a Leibig Condenser, a tube surrounded by a case of cold water. This condenses the gas to be reused, while the bullion is recovered, melted and poured into a mould.
South Island ▷ West Coast ▷ Buller Gorge
Nice walk to start the day, we expected a bit more than the old mine.
Nice walk with some up and down parts. Nice views from bridges. It is a bike track for approximately 1/3 of the loop.
A good, energetic walk including a moving historical site. The return loop is on the Old Ghost Road with much gentler slopes.
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Easy walk, track is in perfect condition. Excellent facilities, i.e parking and toilets.
Interesting but not breathtaking.
Very beautiful mountains & river
Really nice mountain, amazing trees, too many sandflies
Lorna and Seb
Good track, good mining information.
Jeff and Carey Brown
Magnificent forest, old cemetry, evidence of old gold mining, spectacular vegetation. Killer Sandflies!!
Nice walk, interesting cemetery in the woods, hardly any gold mining relics left. Photos and description of historical place gave an excellent impression.
Beautiful walk with the river so close, we were amazed there were such steep drops to the water from the walking path. For the isolation of the path it was well maintained.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍