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GoSee explores Waihi gold and silver legends and marvels at mighty 1840 tonne New Zealand heritage rescue job

December 07, 2009
GoSee explores Waihi gold and silver legends and marvels at mighty 1840 tonne New Zealand heritage rescue job

By Angela Bryan

GoSeeNZ recently spent a long weekend in the Waihi area, a place that is rich in history from the mid late 1870s to today. Our children have been fortunate enough to take school trips to the area but mum and dad have never had the opportunity. So we decided to be tourists and check out Waihi to see what it was all about.

They call Waihi New Zealands Heart of Gold and say the streets are paved with gold. They literally are. In the 1800s the tailings from the mines were used to lay the streets, so considering the methods they used in those days to get the gold from the ore, compared with modern methods, there would have been some gold left in the tailings.

The History

It was the lure of gold that brought people to Waihi in numbers. In 1878 gold-bearing quartz was found on Pukewa spur, a Maori burial ground which soon became the famous Martha Mine. Tents and crude huts were gradually replaced with today's still visible miners' cottages.

By 1908, Waihi was the fastest growing town in the Auckland Province with a population three times that of Hamilton. Miners took their families to Hamilton on long weekends to escape the bustle of Waihi.

The mighty Martha Mine became one of the most important gold and silver mines in the world. By 1952, when it closed, around 5.6 million ounces (174,160kg) of gold and 38.4 million ounces (1,193,180kg) of silver had been produced from some 12 million tonnes of ore.

Their claim was taken over by William Nicholl in 1879. He pegged out five acres, named the claim 'Martha' after a family member, and later a few small claims amalgamated to form the Martha Company. By 1882 the first battery was in operation.

The end of the original Martha

The original Martha Mining did not end in 1952 because the Martha had run out of gold; the current operation is evidence of this. Rather, a series of factors led to a decline in production:

The international gold price was fixed at $US35 an ounce, limiting the revenue the mine could make.

The machinery needed to be updated, although the technology was available to do this, the money was not.

There had been two World Wars and the Depression of the 1930s, depleting manpower and creating a difficult economic climate.

It was not possible, given these factors to profitably mine the lower grade ore.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the gold price increased. Exploration and prospecting work identified the economic resource that is being worked today.

Following the resurgence of the gold mining industry in New Zealand in the late 1970s the new Martha project was the first major hard rock mining operation to be commissioned. Opening in 1987, the open pit was extended in 1997 and an underground operation on the outskirts of town also began operation in 2006.

We took a tour with Murray from Waihi Community Vision along with a group of Australian visitors. The tour started out from the Waihi Visitor Centre where they have a fantastic display of the history of the gold mines in Waihi. This alone is worth the visit.

Waihi streets are paved with gold
Waihi streets are paved with gold

Murray is a wealth of knowledge and provided informative commentary all the way around and was able to answer all the questions fired at him. The two hour tour took us to several vantage points around the Martha, some of which are not accessible to the public.

Just the week before our visit the mine had suffered a landslide called a chimney fall. The area on the eastern wall had collapsed into an old mine shaft called the Milking Cow.

This shaft got its name because the trucks could drive in and park under it and the ore would just fall down with little effort from the miners. There were tonnes of debris fallen down into the open pit the day we were there but Murray assured us that this was only a fraction of what had fallen inside the shaft.

Interestingly enough we could hear rock falling while we stood at the top. Consequently there was no work going on during our visit but it was fascinating all the same.

We drove in and around different areas of the mining operation at Martha and then proceeded to the processing plant.

The partly crushed ore is transported on a 2.7km conveyor belt over land and through a tunnel in Union Hill. Murray gave us an overall picture of the whole processing operations and we saw parts of this working. Most incredible were the hardened steel balls used in the S.A.G. (semi-autogenous grinding) mill.

These start out bigger than a baseball and weighing around 5kg and end up not much bigger than a marble with 7 sides, they all come out the same shape, after a relatively short time.

As you travel through Waihi you will see these steel balls decorating the roundabouts.

The processing plant also takes ore from the Favona Mine which is underground in the same area and is accessed by a five metre by five metre decline with a gradient of 1:7.

Poppet head Waihi
Poppet head Waihi

The decline extended to a depth of around 300 metres and is then mined towards the surface, backfilling worked areas as they go.

We then had a look at the tailings disposal and the lakes that are used in the water treatment. Over time this water is fresh enough to be pumped back into the Ohinemuri River.

The mining company is subject to massive restrictions over the whole operation and rehabilitation of the area that is taking place is awe inspiring.

Over 200,000 trees planted in a 10 year period and the water treatment plant will eventually be a wetlands area for native flora and fauna and already has become home to a family of the endangered New Zealand dotterel.

The mining company are restricted to working on Marth Mine to 5 days a week having to cease work by 12.30pm on Saturdays and are not allowed to work Sundays or public holidays. Noise has to be kept under 15 decibels, a classroom of children can make more noise than this.

However the Favona mine and the processing plant are worked 24/7.

Mining is limited in Waihi, as unlike anywhere else in the world the mine, particularly Martha, is right in the middle of the town. You can literally wander from the caf and have a look at what is going on in the pit. There are already management plans in place for when the mining company pulls out of the area.

A trust has been set up to ensure that when the Martha Mine closes, scheduled for 2017, Waihi will continue to be a vibrant town to visit. The open pit of Martha will eventually become a recreational lake some 196 metres deep.

Dont want to drop your sunnies over the side of the boat there.

Tiles from children Waihi
Tiles from children Waihi

Once Murray returned us safely back to the township we took a wander uphill from the town and had a look at the Cornish Pumphouse. It was built in 1904 and housed the steam pumps used in the mining operation.

Historic underground mine workings threatened the stability of ground beneath the pump house on its original site so in 2006 the mining company braced the whole 1840 tonne structure and relocated it some to the present site.

It is an awesome structure and you cant help but wonder at the engineering genius of the people of the era when this was built. It took three months to be shunted to its new position overlooking Waihi's main street in a $4.2 million operation.

In 2005 with the pumphouse tilting dangerously and the ground on which it sat continuing to move experts advised that if it was to be saved the building itself would have to be moved. The decision was made to move the entire Pumphouse 26.5 metres to the south and then about 300 metres west.

On the 8 November 2006, amid celebrations in the town of Waihi, the 'grand old lady' finally settled in for her first night in her new location, three months and one day after setting out. For picutures of the amazing process click on -

http://www.marthamine.co.nz/corn_pump_move.html

About the Cornish Pump house
About the Cornish Pump house

We spent the next hour wandering through Waihis main street, which is filled with the kind of shops you love to browse through when you are on holiday. Lots of tempting trinkets, artwork and those little things that make great gifts. Most of the buildings are from the 1800s era and have been restored beautifully.

The next day we decided to take the Goldfields Train to Waikino and take in one of the many walks that go through the Karangahake Gorge.

We had often seen people on these walks as we drove through the Gorge and it had long been on the list of must dos one day. We caught the train at the Waihi Station.

The station complex at Waihi is the most complete (on the original site) in New Zealand. It contains the station, railway yards, goods shed, six railway houses and a number of other small ancillary buildings.

The journey from Waihi and Waikino passes over farmland, through cuttings hewn from solid rock, crosses two rivers and the only private rail bridge over a state highway in New Zealand.

A leisurely half hour ride brings you to Waikino Station which is about half way through the Karangahake Gorge. The Waikino Station, originally the Paeroa Station was shifted to the site in 1990. It now contains the Waikino Station Caf and acts as a terminus linking Goldfields Railway to the walkway system and other attractions in the Karangahake Gorge.

The Station Caf is buzzing with customers as everyone who has just come in on the train decides a nice latte is next on the agenda. The caf walls are lined with memorabilia from the mining days and the massive log fire sets the ambience.

Miner Joe talks of a gold won  and  lost
Miner Joe talks of a gold won and lost

All fuelled up and knowing we had about two hours before the return train to Waihi we set off on discovery. A purpose built tunnel takes you under the main highway and then the next part of the walk is adjacent to the Ohinemaru River.

Not too far in we discovered the site of the Victoria Battery which was built in 1897. First impressions it looks like a pile of old concrete foundations, which effectively it is. In the middle of all these relics is the original building that housed the power plant that ran the battery. Here we discovered a small group of volunteers who keep the site open for tourists at a reasonable entry price.

We were given an in depth guided tour of all the displays and the knowledge of these volunteers is quite astounding. We also had the option of touring the underground furnaces where they used to heat the ore to assist in the gold extraction.

Sorry claustrophobia sets in when I even think about a venture like this so we stayed atop and had a look from the top of the furnace tunnels. The engineering that took place to build these is amazing.

About the land
About the land

It would be a major operation with todays technology, let alone in the mid 1800s. When construction was completed, the battery, with 200 stamps, was the largest quartz crushing plant for gold extraction in Australasia.

It was capable of crushing over 812 tonnes of ore each day to the consistency of sand. The noise of the stampers could be heard in towns some distance away.

One of the interesting things we learnt about the area since the battery closed in 1955 is a testament to mans greed.

The whole site was sold, and the gentleman who bought it proceeded to completely pull everything apart and sell what he could for scrap metal.

He then burnt all the floor boards and collected himself a nice bounty from all the gold that had fallen between them.

The site was then abandoned until the Department of Conservation took it over.

After our tour we wandered through all the foundations and you could get a good picture in your mind of how the place worked. It was a thriving town in its hey day but like most places like this it would have been a really hard life.

Victoria Battery ruins
Victoria Battery ruins

We had run out of time for that walk so it was back to the station to catch the train back to Waihi, didnt fancy walking the 6.5kms back.

We drove out to Waihi Beach and stopped off at one of the many eateries along the main street. The Porch Kitchen Bar, what can I say, the best lunch we have had for a long time.

It was well patronized, once you sample the food you can see why and the service was as good as you will get anywhere. A nice place to pop in for an afternoon drink or a meal, they are open all day from breakfast to dinner.

Our accommodation for three nights was at Bowentown Beach Holiday Park. Set right on the beach and popular with boaties.

We had booked a self contained unit for the weekend and it provided all the necessities for a comfortable weekend. I certainly wasnt the quietest place I have ever stayed at, our unit being right opposite the playground being the main reason for that.

Joe with miners hard hat tells of millions  missed  by 10ft
Joe with miners hard hat tells of millions missed by 10ft

But it was nice to sit on the deck in the evening watching the kids play and the morning walks on the beach cant be beaten. The staff are friendly and will see to your every need.

Waihi with a population of about 4500 is at the foot of the Coromandel Peninsula, close to the western end of the Bay of Plenty.

The nearby resort town of Waihi Beach, 10km to the east, is often regarded as the westernmost point of the Bay of Plenty region. To the west are the hills of the Kaimai Ranges. Road access from this direction is through the winding Karangahake Gorge road. Waihi is an unusually wet microclimate for New Zealand's east coast with an average annual rainfall of 2147 mm.

SITES FOR REFERENCE:

http://www.waihi.org.nz
http://www.waihirail.co.nz
www.theporch.co.nz

Blue Bay  of Plenty Bowentown
Blue Bay of Plenty Bowentown
About Victoria Battery
About Victoria Battery
Ruins of Victoria Battery
Ruins of Victoria Battery
Victoria Battery
Victoria Battery
Victoria Battery and railway
Victoria Battery and railway
History of Karangahake
History of Karangahake
Karangahake gold  boom town
Karangahake gold boom town
Karanagahake Gorge 12km west of Waihi on Highway 2
Karanagahake Gorge 12km west of Waihi on Highway 2
Towering ferns line the Karangahake Gorge
Towering ferns line the Karangahake Gorge
Once a sludge channel for the gold extraction process
Once a sludge channel for the gold extraction process
Ohinemuri River and Waltaheta River
Ohinemuri River and Waltaheta River
Bowentown Family Holiday Park has room for BIG rigs
Bowentown Family Holiday Park has room for BIG rigs
Anzac Beach near Bowentown
Anzac Beach near Bowentown
Barbecue area Bowentown Family Holiday Park
Barbecue area Bowentown Family Holiday Park
Long white cloud streams like a  feather over the Bay of Plenty
Long white cloud streams like a feather over the Bay of Plenty
Sea and land meet Bay of Plenty
Sea and land meet Bay of Plenty
Soft cloud over the Bay Of Plenty near Anzac Beach
Soft cloud over the Bay Of Plenty near Anzac Beach
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