Not many people stop in Reefton. At first glance it’s just a blip on the highway, a place you pass through on your way to or from the West Coast, a one-street town with not much going on.
Except that’s not true.
Well, it’s partially true. There doesn’t appear to be much going on now, but in the 1870s Reefton had it all. The fun now is in discovering it.
Quartz reefs containing gold had been discovered in the nearby hills, and Reefton’s population exploded with miners staking claims with such names as Band of Hope, Perseverance, Bonanza, and Phoenix. Reefton (short for Reef Town) was dubbed ‘Quartzopolis’ due to all the quartz reefs found in the area.
I stopped in Reefton because I’m slow. I left Hanmer Springs at 10am, and what should have been less than a two hour drive found me arriving in Reefton at about 3:30pm. Oops.
It was a gorgeous day! I couldn’t help it; I HAD to stop all those times and the lunchtime walk and picnic with a view of the mountains was totally worth it. And I’m in no hurry.
So at half past three I got to Reefton, or actually 2km from Reefton at Black’s Point. Black’s Point has a small museum inside an old church, surrounded by several rusting old chunks of machinery.
I was hustled inside with another visiting couple, and a very enthusiastic man in Victorian style clothing gave us a half-hour whirlwind of information about gold mining, local characters, and some of the thousands of objects the museum has collected from the area.
And I mean thousands. This museum is crammed full of bits of rock and gem, books, magazines and newspapers clippings, household items ranging from a butter churn to moustache cups, clothes, hats, relics from the old doctor’s practice, tools, farming implements, a working model of a quartz crusher, a cash register, an old telephone exchange, a store’s ledger books, and more. The walls are covered in pictures of important local figures.
The items in the collection date from every era, from right back in the initial gold rush days of the 1860s up to the 1970s or so. You could spend hours here looking at all the wonderful memorabilia they’ve got!
Sadly I only had that half hour to take it all in.
I drove into town, debating whether to stay there or to push on to Greymouth. The weather was beautifully sunny and warm, and I was tired after my day of stopping in gorgeous places. I stayed.
I walked up to the hillside, where a path goes up and up and up and then along a terrace overlooking the whole town, then down the other side to the highway. It’s a lovely place to walk and sit for a while, soaking up the late afternoon sun.
Across the highway there’s a swing bridge over the river, which takes you to another path that goes past the old powerhouse.
Reefton was the first town in New Zealand and in the Southern Hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity. In 1888 someone got the bright idea to harness the power of the river into a side channel and send it through a waterslide that went through turbines, creating enough electrical power for the entire place.
The old powerhouse is now in ruins and only the foundations remain, but a stroll past them is a reminder of how innovative this town once was.
I sat by the river drinking my tea, said hello to a few dog-walking locals, and then strolled down the main street, where pretty much nothing was happening. The couple of bars I went past had a few people inside, but mostly things were pretty quiet for a Saturday evening.
The next morning I visited the Bearded Miners. These guys have a replica of a miner’s hut, again chock full of objects, including a stuffed possum above your head. They tell you to watch out for droppings!
When I arrived they asked where I was from, then dug a Canadian flag out from the pile and strung it up their flagpole. They said it would stay there until they went home at 2! I’m so proud.
One of them brought out a bowl of rocks and explained to me what each one was, everything from peacock coal to obsidian, garnet to amethyst and amber and opal and yes, a few bits of quartz with gold in them.
He showed me gold nuggets and gold dust and how to pan for gold, with real sand right out of a nearby creek that actually had bits of gold in it!
The i-Site is usually just a visitor information centre but the one in Reefton has an excellent display on the introduction of electricity, the native wildlife, and of course a lot of information about the mining history of the area, including a replica mine tunnel you can go in! They should really just call it a museum with the i-Site in the same building.
Then it was back to Black’s Point, where on Wednesdays and Sundays in the afternoon you can see the Golden Fleece Battery Stamper in operation.
I was the only one there at the time, but still a lovely man spent a long but fascinating time showing me exactly how it all worked and the entire process of gold extraction, from the time the quartz comes from the mine right on to it becoming a gold bar stamped with ‘National Bank’. All for only $2.
That was it for me for Reefton, but there are other activities too.
You can visit the old School of Mines, where miners learned everything they needed to know.
You can also visit the modern mine. Yes, Oceana Gold still mines gold-bearing ore near Reefton, at the Globe open pit and in an entirely different way that I would probably understand better had I visited.
You can rent a gold pan from the Bearded Miners and venture off to a nearby creek to see if you can find your own gold!
You can walk or mountain bike the trails in nearby Victoria Forest Park, and I have a feeling that on just about any of those trails you’d stumble upon old mines and mining equipment, rusting away under the ever-growing vegetation. There’s a 5 hour return walk up Murray Creek from Black’s Point that sounds lovely.
There’s a historical walk around town, too, with story boards on several walls detailing the history of the town and its particular buildings, as well as an old locomotive.
The area is known for its brown trout fishing, and if you ask around you can find out where the best spots are, and get yourself a guide to show you the ropes if needed. I know that Trevor at The Old Breadshop Backpackers is quite an expert.
There’s also camping, 4 Wheel Driving, swimming in the river, and an apparently fabulous skate park.
Of course Reefton is just one of many, many mining towns on the West Coast. The entire area is full of gold and coal mining history, working mines you can visit, and relics scattered throughout the bush. The best known ones are possibly Arrowtown near Queenstown and Shantytown near Greymouth, but if you want a less touristified (yes, that’s a word now) and cheaper taste of the gold mining world try Reefton!
Now look out for my next post where I get properly freaked out while visiting one of the gold mining ghost towns in the area!