The floor creaked and groaned as I tiptoed through the old abandoned house. Wallpaper was peeling off the walls in huge chunks, every surface was covered in thick dust and it was clear that the house had been empty for quite some time, but I still felt the presence of its former occupants, and the hair rose on the back of my neck.
I wandered carefully through the rooms, snapping photos of bed frames and objects left behind, my heart pounding. As I went I fought the urge to flee the house and escape the creepy feeling I was getting, telling myself it was irrational.
As I came around the corner into the kitchen, I let out a loud gasp. Someone had set the table. SET THE TABLE! No one had lived here since 1951. And yet four place settings were carefully laid out with plates, bowls, cups and saucers, as if at any minute Dad was going to come home from the mine and sit down to dinner with his wife and kids.
I wasn’t entirely sure just how much of a ghost town Waiuta was; it wasn’t clear from the information I’d seen if people still lived there with a few abandoned houses, or if it was entirely deserted. The brochure I picked up for $1 from the i-Site in Reefton provided a map and a walking tour of the town, and I guess if I’d read the thing before I went I would have had a better idea what to expect.
I found the highway turnoff between Reefton and Greymouth and drove for about 8km up a winding country road. Then it turned into a gravel road, narrow and still winding, but heading 6.5km up the side of a mountain through a forest. It really, really felt like I was driving off into nowhere, and I would eventually reach a dead end where the road just turned into forest.
It didn’t. I emerged from the bush onto a road that split, the left side going high against the side of a hill above some overgrown bush, the right going down into the bush. I took the left and after about 500 metres reached a shelter with some information boards telling me all about Waiuta.
A gold-bearing quartz reef was found here in 1905, and within three years a local company had been formed to mine it, and the town of Waiuta was born.
As mining progressed, it became clear that this would be a long-term operation, and by the 1920s the population of Waiuta was about 500.
Most of the miners came from overseas, and while some moved on after a while, the ones with families stayed. This created a very strong community spirit, and despite the uncertainty that comes with gold mining, the people here invested in their town. There were shops, a hospital, and plenty of recreation facilities.
The town and mine flourished, with another shaft being dug and the quartz being sent to the nearby Snowy River Stamper Battery by aerial cableway. The mine at Waiuta was the most productive gold mine on the West Coast during its operation.
However, disaster struck in 1951. The original shaft collapsed, and the mine filled with water and poisonous gases. Due to various economic reasons, the company decided to close the mine.
This obviously came as quite a sudden shock to the people of the tightly-knit community. In a company town, without the mine there were no jobs, and the population very quickly scattered to various parts of the country.
Three months later only 20 residents were left. Most of the buildings were torn down, the materials taken away and reused elsewhere. The bits and pieces left behind consist mainly of brick chimneys and debris, and the bush is slowly taking back the land.
Waiuta is now in the hands of the Department of Conservation, which has erected sign boards throughout the town showing historical photographs so you can see what that spot used to look like.
The rest of the gold remains safely encased in its quartz reef, inaccessible beneath the collapsed mine shaft.
I wandered down the path to the 30-metre-long swimming pool, long empty with nothing but weeds growing through the cracks in the concrete. On the way I passed a prospecting tunnel and the original spot where the quartz reef was discovered in 1905.
One of the mine buildings still stands, with a metal smokestack that is only a fraction of its original height. On one side is a huge pit of concrete foundations for the mine’s winding engine, long gone. Nearby, behind a tall fence, is the shaft itself, 563 metres deep.
The huge pile of waste rock (known as mullock) was turned into a bowling green, and only the foundations and chimneys of its clubhouse remain.
Down the road I found a house. Up until this point I had only seen a few other people in Waiuta; a couple who showed up by car shortly after I did and had already departed, and two guys on mountain bikes who rode right through. As far as I knew I was alone.
But this house looked lived in. The garden seemed tended at least somewhat recently, with flowering ivy growing to the top of the house, a fence and small gate out the front, and curtains in the windows.
I hadn’t seen anything saying for sure that all the residents of Waiuta were gone. As tempted as I was, I couldn’t quite bring myself to go look in the windows, because what if I was peeking in the windows of someone’s current home?
I passed it by, stopping instead at the building next door, which turned out to be the only remaining commercial business in Waiuta, the barbershop. An abandoned one, though, with ivy growing through the peeling wallpaper and a thick layer of dust covering everything. It was locked from the front, and as I peeked in through a broken window I realized that the back was open, and I carefully made my way around and inside, stepping gingerly in case of rotten floorboards.
It’s amazing to see what things that were left behind. An entire barber’s chair was there, seemingly waiting for its next customer. Why didn’t the barber take it with him when he left?
I felt uncomfortable inside the barbershop, feeling like I was invading someone else’s space, so I quickly snapped a few photos and left, moving on down the road past chimneys being overgrown by bush.
The place was creepy, and being all alone there made me slightly nervous, as I wasn’t sure who might be around or still living there. But the walk down the road through the growing vegetation was pleasant enough, and I continued on.
I took a detour to Joe Divis’s house, a miner who was also a photographer and is the main reason there is such a good photographic record of Waiuta. After the mine closed, he decided to stay, and lived in the town until he died in 1967.
On approaching his house I heard noises, and, as I was already on edge, my heart rate immediately escalated. Who was there?
They were weka. Weka are small brown flightless birds that look similar to kiwis but without the long beak. They were once a food source for Maori and early European settlers, and now their populations have declined and they are a protected species. These ones were investigating Joe’s lawn, and with their pecking and cooing noises generally just trying to scare the crap out of me.
Joe’s house was confusing. It had a sign outside, giving details of his life and death, which seemed to indicate that it was ok to go look. But on the outside of the house was an old but clear No Trespassing sign.
What to do? The place is supposed to be deserted. So I looked through a window. While there were some pictures on the walls and things left inside, they seemed to be in enough of a disarray that no one would be living there permanently. But I was feeling jumpy so I didn’t check to see if the door was open, and before very long my nerves got the better of me and I moved on.
I quickly went past the former sites of a couple of churches, now completely overgrown, and the hospital. Waiuta Lodge now stands here, which was built in 1986 for a reunion of former townspeople. The lodge can be rented for groups of up to 30 people, if you’re interested.
Across the road were the recreation ground where football, cricket, and women’s hockey were played, as well as the croquet lawn, tennis courts, and a whippet racing track!
Further along the main road was another house. My brochure clearly said this one was abandoned, and is now maintained by DOC. It was surrounded by a picket fence, the lawn tended, and the door hanging wide open. I went in.
Again, I was surprised at the things left behind. There was a small sofa and several bed frames, and the same feeling of having just walked into a stranger’s house without them knowing, when they’re going to jump out at you from behind a door and demand to know what you’re doing in their home.
And then I went into the kitchen and found the table laid out for dinner.
Talk about creepy. By this time I was completely on edge, the hairs on the back of my neck bristling, my heart pounding. I forced myself to stay and take a few pictures, and then just to make it worse, I noticed this drawing on the wall.
That was it. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I don’t know why they did it, but whoever had set the table and drawn that picture had managed to completely freak me out.
And for no reason. There should be absolutely nothing creepy about this place. It’s simply where some people used to live, and now they don’t. They weren’t murdered, tortured or maimed; they left for economic reasons. And it was perfectly ok for me to be there. So why was I so jumpy?
I don’t have an answer for that. Is it because I was there alone? I do think I probably would have felt more relaxed if I’d been with someone. By myself I was able to focus on the creepiness of it all without distraction, thus escalating it in my mind and allowing a quiet, rather peaceful place like Waiuta to scare the crap out of me.
After that house I was pretty much done. I hurried down the road, aware that I’d only covered less than half the town. The brochure recommended that I take a slight detour to see where the school and teacher’s house used to be, but when I saw how the road headed into deeper forest and turned a dark, muddy corner, I decided I didn’t need to.
Up the hill there were a few signs showing me what the town used to look like from those vantage points. I love historic photographs, and these were fascinating, but it was pretty hard to recognize the street scenes I saw in the photos in the overgrown bush I was looking at now.
I rushed along the top road, pausing only for a few moments at the foundations of the old Empire Hotel and at a tiny, crumbling building that may have been part of the bakery or a blacksmith.
The former police station is the last intact building in this street, but it has been restored as a weekend getaway (I can’t imagine wanting to spend a weekend here!) and was off-limits. I was glad to not have to go in another creepy building!
If you’ve got more time and are not completely creeped out like I was, you can drive up to the Prohibition Mine shaft and the remains of its associated buildings. I more likely would have considered the half-hour walk down to the Snowy Battery, which is supposed to have great views.
Despite my irrational fears, Waiuta was a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours wandering around and trying to get a glimpse of what life used to be like here. Most of what I’ve heard about these former mining communities is that the people loved living there, and that fact was demonstrated by a small cross I found, bearing the name of a woman who’d been born in Waiuta and had died in Christchurch in 2005. May she rest in peace in her happy home, Waiuta.
Would you have found this place creepy too? Have you ever manged to scare the crap out of yourself like I did? Tell me about it in the comments!