It could be termed “gold rush gone wrong.”
When gold was discovered in the Coromandel Peninsula in the 1850’s, prospectors fanned out over New Zealand looking for similar finds. And in 1881, Hone Werahiko, a prospector, found gold in the Waiorongomai (why-o-rongo-my) Valley, located about 30 miles west of Tauranga as the crow flies, and part of the same geological formation as the Coromandel.
Initial assays were very promising and large numbers of prospectors flooded into the rugged valley and massive amounts of money were invested to develop the gold fields.
There are basically two ways gold is recovered from the ground. One is termed alluvial mining and consists of panning, cradling, sluicing and dredging gold from gold-containing substrates, the images we are more commonly familiar with of prospectors searching for gold. In the second method, the gold is essentially trapped in gold-containing ores, usually quartz, and the ore has to be first mined, then crushed and treated with chemicals to extract the gold.
This was what was required at Waiorongomai Valley. At the base of the valley, a stamper battery was built with forty heavy piston-shaped rods, called stampers, that rose and fell on the quartz crushing it. The crushed ore was then transferred to berdans, basically large mortars and pestles, where the ore was mixed with mercury, which attracts the gold. Then the mixture was heated and the mercury driven off leaving the gold behind.
Water-driven turbines ran the machinery; a total of 6.5 km of water races (ditches) were dug to bring the water from nearby streams to run the battery.
The ore itself was dug out of mines higher up the valley using pick-axes, explosives and water-powered drills. To bring the ore down, an elaborate system of tramways was constructed on the steep hillsides to move the wooden ore carts, along with a series of aerial ropeways to lower ore-filled carts.
A town grew up in the remote valley with several hotels, a dozen stores and a school. At the peak of the mining boom, 2000 people lived in the area.
Suffice it to say, lots of money was spent, elaborate engineering performed, expensive machinery built or brought in and backbreaking work done by thousands of people in this relatively remote valley in the quest for gold.
What happened? Well, here is a poem by C.W. Richmond in 1892 that summarizes the outcome of gold mining in Waiorongomai Valley.
O wrong are you, o wrong am I
O wrong all of us
We are all sold, there is no Gold
The claim’s not worth a cuss.
We came O why? t’s all my eye
So sing O wai – o- rongo – mai
Here comes the bloomin’ bus
Let’s all get in, it is a sin
The claim’s not worth a cuss.
Singing O wai – o – rongo – mai.
O wrong are all of us.
No, things didn’t work out as planned. Why? The rock was harder than they thought and there was less gold in it than expected. The gold was also complexed with other minerals making it more difficult to extract. To add to this during dry summers, not enough water was available to run the machinery.
And so several years after it was begun, the whole massive operation essentially closed down. Sporadic attempts were made to mine the gold up until the 1920’s with little commercial success. And then for almost one hundred years, the mines were left abandoned, the machinery was left to rust, the trails were destroyed by slips (landslides) and the steep railed inclines were overgrown by the bush. The fateful history of Waiorongomai Valley was covered over and lost.
But starting in 2004 the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) decided to restore this historic site. For the next five years they re-constructed the elaborate network of trails and tramlines that criss-crossed the mountain valley, rebuilt the steep inclines up and down on which the ore carts travelled, and uncovered and preserved much of the original mining machinery. Numerous signs now chronical the history of the valley including the danger of lowering ore carts, which weighed up to one ton each, down the mountainside. The job the DOC has done here is truly amazing.
The area consists of four separate levels each higher up the mountainside with the uppermost mines 400 meters (1300 feet) above the valley floor. Tramlines, many with their original rusted rail tracks, run parallel to the valley floor. These are connected by three very steep railed inclines, the steepest of which has a grade of 25%, all of which you can climb. (For those of you in Colorado Springs where we came from, think Manitou Incline in a botanical garden.) Mines and mining machinery are spread throughout the area. What makes this all the more fascinating is that this is all played out in a vast jungle-like forest of tall native trees and giant tree ferns.
Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand without countless waterfalls cascading down the numerous valleys and a giant swing bridge crossing a massive ravine and exiting directly into a mining tunnel.
Waiorongomai Valley is certainly not very well known and we have never seen it mentioned in any of the tourist literature. We spent more than five hours exploring the valley and there was still more to see. We saw maybe half a dozen people all day. Truly a fantastic place to visit, and certainly one of the best off-the-beaten-path places we’ve discovered.
Despite the gold never panning out, the effort of the miners in this remote beautiful valley is now certainly preserved and remembered.