When the star-crossed prospectors featured in the novel The Luminaries set out in search of gold on New Zealand’s West Coast, they took their lives in their hands.
Many did not survive the perilous trek across the newly forged passes through the Southern Alps, and if they did, the effort so weakened them that it would be weeks before they were strong enough to lift a pick. The journey could take months.
For my family and I, on a trip to revisit New Zealand’s long-forgotten goldfields, where our ancestors lived their lives and met their death, the journey would take two years.
We had first attempted to reach Hokitika, the setting for Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning gold rush-era novel, in 2012, only to be hit by one of the West Coast’s notorious “weather bombs”, a torrential downpour that washed out a bridge on the only road north, leaving us marooned in Fox Glacier, a town on that day that had no electricity, no beer and rainclouds slung so low that there wasn’t even a view of the eponymous glacier.
But like a digger spurred on by his first sight of “the colour”, that alluring first glimpse of the South Island’s savage and isolated western shores called us to return, to rediscover the gold rush sites that were for one instant the centre of the world’s attention, literal “flashes in the pan”.
At first glance today, Hokitika’s wide, sparsely populated streets are a far cry from the city’s heyday, when “tipsy diggers, new chums and ne’er-do-wells, bad men and pavement nymphs” could take their liquor at any of 102 hotels and where gold dust was acceptable tender at the bars within.
But dig a little deeper and a thriving community is revealed, led by artisans working with glass, gold and greenstone (the local jade, also widely known by its Maori name, pounamu).
The talents of the local artists are best revealed upon Hokitika’s centrepiece, its magnificent black-sand beach. Great forests of driftwood are transformed into sculptures of both breathtaking intricacy and wonderful simplicity: swans, stags, dinosaurs.
Children and tourists alike pose for photographs upon a recumbent driftwood camel; others lie on a huge bed with a woven-flax base, a catafalque perhaps for a fallen warrior. The highlight may be a Giacomettiesque interpretation of The Evolution of Man. The sculptures are built for a competition in January, and remain afterwards to do battle with time, wind and tide. As evening draws in, they are gilded by New Zealand’s most spectacular sunsets.
The success of Catton’s work has led to an upturn in tourism in Hokitika. At the local Take Note book store, staff tell of devotees who “come to New Zealand, and to the West Coast, and to Hokitika, and to this bookshop, specifically to buy their copy of The Luminaries here and get it stamped”.
Free maps are available for a walking tour that guides readers around key sites in the novel, and the museum glisters with nuggets of information for those who like a little fact to go with their fiction. Even at its busiest, Hokitika wears an easy, laid-back air, encapsulated perhaps in the fact that there’s not a traffic light in the town.
In a country famed for the beauty of its scenery, the West Coast stands alone for its rugged nature. Indeed, the attributes commonly ascribed to its rivers, beaches, waterfalls and mountains – “raw”, “untamed”, “ferocious”, “savage” – more readily evoke wild beasts than landscapes.
The region also embraces its wild side in its epicurean culture. The Hokitika Wildfoods Festival held in March is the town’s biggest annual event, with a menu ranging from the succulent (local venison and crayfish) to the squirming (huhu grubs, fat white worms).
The most famed local delicacy is whitebait – tiny juvenile fish fried in an eggy batter, they are infinitely superior to the wooden offerings of the same name found in fish-and-chipperies up and down Britain. For an alternative take on the classic recipe, we headed to Fat Pipi and scoffed pizzas loaded with a quarter pound of whitebait in a magical garden that fronted the sea.
Eager to claim our share of any spoils the diggers might have missed, we hired a pan and headed to Goldsborough, 15km north of Hokitika and one of a smattering of sites in the South Island that have been set aside for public gold “fossicking”.
Clambering over rocks through clear, ankle-deep water, we took tips from an elderly woman busily working downstream. Had she ever had any success? “About $15,000-worth… Enough to pay for that camper van back there.”
The following couple of hours were fruitless, but more than compensated for by the sight of my boys enjoying themselves, sluicing and sloshing in the streambed, soundtracked only by the birdsong of the watching tuis.
We were not the first in our family to come up empty-handed. Indeed, my ancestors had worked tin and copper mines in the heyday of Cornish mining, but turned their backs on Britain in search of greater riches in a mysterious and far-off land.
Their journey was not smooth. The ship’s surgeon general, describing their passage from Plymouth in 1842, called it “a little Ireland, or hell of swearing, filth, theft and pilfering”. A correspondent travelling with the family once they had reached New Zealand recounted the conditions: “No roads, no bridges, the whole country a primeval wilderness, the Maoris just emerging from a condition of savagery and cannibalism.”
When gold was discovered at Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence in South Otago, in 1861, the news spread like wildfire through the colony and four of my family – Samuel, Richard, Thomas and William Treweek – headed south to try their luck.
We followed with trepidation in their footsteps, a touch nervous at bearing witness to the desecration of a valley that was described at the time as “once verdant with fine grass, but now gutted and ransacked”.
A steep walking track ( easy for adults but testing for children), signposting points of historical significance, traced a path through native bush and around the deserted diggings at Gabriel’s Gully. While nature is slowly repairing the diggers’ destruction, it is still possible to peer down over the edge of the ruined hillside and experience the fear the miners must have felt as they picked away on the precipice while tons of water, rock and earth roared past.
The sun-scorched walk over, we stripped naked and swam in Gray’s Dam, confident in our privacy in a country where it is possible to have an area of outrageous beauty such as this entirely to yourself.
We left paying silent respect to Samuel and Thomas Treweek, neither of whom survived a year in the goldfields; felled by disease by the ages of 22 and 19 respectively. Samuel’s headstone at the nearby cemetery is lost; an anonymous death among the thousands who died seeking a fast way to a better life.
While the fortunes of Gabriel’s Gully declined as its mineral riches grew scarce, further north in Central Otago the old goldfields have experienced a rebirth on the back of an industry worth millions more than the gold ever was: wine. The Gibbston Valley, which follows the Kawarau Gorge east from the resort hotspot Queenstown, has undergone a transformation in the past decade that would astonish those who had toiled here 150 years ago.
Above the preserved cottages of Chinese miners, row upon row of vines cling to steep, north-facing slopes that plunge dramatically to the river below. About 250 hectares of vineyards cover this mountainous valley, but there remains room for remnants of the past: at the Goldfields Mining Centre , visitors can follow paths to mine shafts and tunnels.
The vines follow the course of the ice-blue Kawarau as it continues to Cromwell and the tiny backwater of Bannockburn, another hamlet swept up in the rush and then discarded like a dismal “tucker claim” (a patch that would yield barely enough gold to pay for a miner’s meagre meals).
Bannockburn lies at the heart of the Cromwell Basin, which now accounts for 70 per cent of Central Otago’s vineyards, and where small producers such as Felton Road, Terra Sancta and Mt Difficulty enjoy a burgeoning international reputation for their pinot noirs and rieslings.
Growers here rejoice in the weather conditions that made the digger’s lot such a miserable one, as the scorching, dry heat of the day gives way to rapidly plunging temperatures at night. The large temperature variation during ripening contributes to the intensity of flavour and depth of colour of the local vintages.
The damage wrought upon this landscape by the heavy industry of the miners seems in some way to have enhanced its natural features. Climbing the Bannockburn Sluicings, a track took us through an arid, eroded environment, where large hill-faces have been washed away in the search for “the colour”, leaving unnatural pinnacles of rock reminiscent in shape, if not scale, of the Utah desert.
The top of the track brought us to a desolate stone hut, the sole remaining dwelling of the former encampment known as Stewart Town. While the boys scampered in and out of the hut, I clambered up fruit trees planted by the diggers more than a century ago, and we greedily devoured succulent apricots and plums.
Plodding back down with a stomach continuing to rumble, I decided that for lunch we could do a lot worse than a locally sourced pie made from the rabbits and aromatic wild thyme that both enjoy dominion over these hillsides.
Pleasingly, with Bannockburn’s profusion of cellar doors and vineyard restaurants, a suitable venue was not far away. We feasted our stomachs, and then our eyes upon the views across Bannockburn’s vines to Lake Dunstan and the tawny, distant Pisa Range.
We drank to the memory of the diggers, those who struck gold and those in The Luminaries and my own family who found only an early grave, and toasted the very soil that continues today to give up its riches. For those who come to this remote part of the world to seek “the colour”, it is possible to raise a glass of pale-gold riesling or pinot gris and believe that you have truly found it.
Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861, ) can arrange bespoke holidays in New Zealand’s South Island, including gold panning experiences. Packages cost from £1,645 per person for an 11-day trip, including car hire, accommodation including two nights at both The Beachfront in Hokitika and The Rees in Queenstown, and a gold panning excursion. International flights are from £1,200 per person.