The Dining, Wining and Mining Tour of the South Island

The Geyserland 4WD Club’s adventure to Reefton and surrounding area’s mining tour was going to be busy enough just as planned, but mechanical issues, and the best that Mother Nature, could throw at us, added a whole new dimension. And a fairly unique one at that.

Plan A was pretty simple. Leave Rotorua early, convoy down to catch the late afternoon ferry, and after a night in Picton, explore the some of the mining history of the top left-hand corner of the South Island, do a bit of off-roading and visit a few local attractions. Then head home via the Rainbow Road, Ferry etc again a week later.

Well, that plan lasted exactly 52km, approximately 35 minutes. When the Water Pump let go in Edwin de Beun’s XJ Cherokee, the cloud of steam and boiling water had us all thinking his trip was over before it had even begun.

Enter Plan B.

A rescue wagon was dispatched from Rotorua to collect the errant Jeep, replacement parts were ordered, and the rest of us continued south, with the de Beun’s rescheduling their crossing for about midnight, to meet us in Picton the next morning.

Success. After a rapid gasket change in Rotorua, the Jeep hit the road again, and the group was reunited at Picton the next morning, to do the Queen Charlotte Road, then the off-roading into Nelson.

But the evil spirit living under the bonnet of the Jeep struck again, and it just refused to start. Not a cough, hiccup or splutter! The lights were on, but there was no one home. It’s an XJ, so the solution is obvious; the crankshaft position sensor. A call is made to Sav in Nelson, yes, of course, he has one, and a pickup mission is dispatched.

Meantime the weather has turned to rubbish, the Queen Charlotte deviation is cancelled, and we wait for the replacement part. Which fixes the problem instantly. By this time we can the little off-road loop we were planning, and head for the Wearable Art Museum in Nelson. Where we stumble across half the Nelson and Blenheim 4WD Clubs. Well in the pub next door to be more precise.

And in the car museum, we stop to admire a Chevy Corvair imported from the States many years ago by Georges father, small world.

After dinner in Nelson we headed for St Anaud. Two days in, forget the mining tour, it has only been the dining tour. Well, maybe a little wining — we have been in Marlborough.

Next morning, a quick look at the top of Lake Rotoiti, yep, we have come about 500 kms from Rotorua to look at a lake, before heading down to Howard for a bit of a fossick in the claims area of the river, and a drive up to the miners memorial, then finally into 4WD across to the top of Lake Rotoroa to share lunch with about a zillion sandflies.

It wasn’t exactly a leisurely lunch.

Descent into Lake Rotoroa

Out through Mangles Valley, check in to the accommodation at Murchison, and then a bit of a scenic cruise to check out the country’s longest swing bridge, and the mining, flooding and earthquake attractions on the other side.

Dinner that night in the oldest Murchison pub (the start of a bit of a trend), with an honest attempt to destroy the coasts whitebait population, and the team settle in for a couple of wines, and a good night’s kip. Right. Cue the Kaikoura earthquake! Power cuts, car alarms, sirens wailing, dogs barking, kids crying etc.

Amid myriad aftershocks, we all turned out to check on each other, reassure to Motel owner we were all ok, calm the hysterical tourists, and a nerve-settling coffee. Except for our web editor Melissa, who rolled over, and went back to sleep. “If I’m going to die, I’m going to do it in comfort!

”Next days plan was supposed to be the iconic track from New Creek to Denniston via the Mackley River crossing. Followed by the Denniston Experience. At a group meeting to decide the wisdom of proceeding or not, one thing became clear – there was no way in hell any of us were going down in that mine that afternoon. NO WAY IN HELL!

Apart from no phones or power, there was no damage in Murchison the next morning, and with little risk of major aftershocks, we decided to carry on with the 4wd part of the day, swapping Gold Mining history for Coal Mining. Right decision. This is a great drive, apart from when the Mackley is high when it becomes impassable. We were lucky, it had a bit of water from all the rain we had been getting but was pretty easy.

Pete and Deb crossing the Mackley

About midday, cell phone coverage was restored, with the news that the Denniston Mine experience was closed following the earthquake, for safety inspections. What a relief, we weren’t a bunch of NI wimps after all, we were suddenly a group of disappointed explorers, deprived of a much anticipated underground adventure.

So we explored a bit above ground, in seriously atrocious weather, before heading to Westport, a big aftershock, the camp at Carters Beach, and a Tsunami warning.

The days mining segment had been fulfilled, so all that was left was to catch up on the wining and dining. Check!

Next morning, still all present and correct, we head south. At which the already twice repaired Jeep decided it was time to get all hot and bothered again, and blew its top radiator hose.

Spectacularly! No replacements in Westport, but three, yep three, in stock at Repco Greymouth.

A couple of rolls of duct tape, and several zip ties, later (roadside repairs are the best) we join the usual West Coast camper van invasion, and head south. We were planning to take it quietly to protect the Jeep. We had no choice, we were in a queue most of the way! They call them road lice over that way.

With the new hose fitted at Greymouth, it was an optimistic little group that left the town, Reefton Bound. Mining beckoned.

Taylorville, Brunner, the Blackball Hilton, and the Pike River memorial were all on the itinerary that afternoon, all with their stories of disaster and tragedy. It was a dangerous and tough business digging in the ground. Pike River reminded us it still is. A somber and sobering place.

Then we were in Reefton. Mining central. So we went to the oldest pub we could find, see the trend, for more wining and dining.

By then the full impact of the quake was becoming more well known and hit us right in the travel plans. Our route home through The Rainbow Road was off, the road stayed closed for months, and our ferry crossing was brought forward as the Interislander line struggled to cope with the Wellington ferry terminal damage.

So we had a couple of days ahead in Reefton, then had to face the tar seal back to Rotorua.

Big River was, as always, a great drive there and back. It’s not difficult particularly, but it is a real reminder of just how hard the miners worked for their pay out there, with the work DOC has done at the old winding house reinforcing the message. The logistics of getting that stuff in there by horse and wagon is mind-blowing.

Wine and dine in the old pub again, more whitebait, before we came to the attention of John and Jim at the bar. Jim runs the place and was showing us a dirty great hunk of quartz stuff he keeps behind the bar, when John, a retired Aucklander who is hell-bent on preserving Reefton, joined us.

It appears he had just purchased the old mines office, as is where is and offered us a preview tour the next morning. Of course, we accepted, well it would have been rude not to, and got an up close and personal look at samples, the assay lab, models and plans, and a human skull with a bullet hole clean through the front.

No one had any idea of its history, so it may have had nothing to do with mining, or wining and dining for that matter, but I thought it was worth a mention anyway.

Lessons in quartz at the School of Mines.

Back with as much of the plan as we could, we headed out to a date with 4WD and the Napoleans Tunnels at Noble. Which were closed. Flooding this time! I told you right at the start mother nature had it in for us. I think Plan C had kicked in by this stage.

Luckily we had booked lunch at the Smiths at Ahaura, and the coffee, pikelets and scones spread Robyn crafted while Malcolm showed us the homemade waterwheel, sluice and DIY generating plant that dominates the view from their front room, went some way towards off-setting the disappointment.

Well for me anyway, I can’t speak for the others, but there wasn’t much of anything left on the plates when we staggered back to the vehicles for a guided scramble up to the remains of the town of Noble, in a DOC reserve on Napoleon hill.

I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but Malcolm took the time to tell us the town had about 100 inhabitants, 10 pubs, three brothels, and a general store. He seemed quite proud of that. All on one main street. A graveyard with six graves is about the only thing the bush isn’t reclaiming.
And we did get to walk through a couple of caves on the farm, complete with glow worms, and underground streams.

We’ve heard a few 4wheelers over the years complain that the Smiths charge an access fee to cross their land, and that you should avoid it when doing the tunnel trip. I disagree entirely. The knowledge, history, hospitality and pikelets (did I mention the pikelets) were worth twice what they charged us. We left a tip.

With the changes forced on us, that was really the finish of the mining section of the trip, so we headed back to Reefton to work on the wining and dining. Quite successfully too.

Travelling home through Marlborough next day, with all the vineyards and wineries along the road, there was talk of making the next trek south just a wining tour. It would be easier I guess, but we’ve still got places to see, and tracks to drive. But we have had our share of nature, thanks very much.

Check out more pics from the mining tour trip in the gallery below.

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