Topic: Old Gold by June Daly

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Some places remain like daggers in the heart of our memory. Some, like a vampire stake, so horrible in all the circumstances and discomfort that they induce a mental wearing of cross and garlic. On the other hand, some places and times when recalled click on a warm glow of happiness and return the enchantment that possessed one when that place was visited.

One place that induces this joy is Kuaotunu. Although it was thirty-something years ago, the weekend there remains a vignette that lingers large in my memory. 

Our family had just returned from a nine week trip to the U.K. and Ireland visiting family and seeing fabulous and famous sites and sights. No longer could we be satisfied with work, home and childcare. We wanted to broaden our experiences and the children were old enough to participate. With this in mind we joined the Papakura Lapidary Club, a club for those interested in amateur geology, precious and semi-precious stones and fossil finding.  

My husband’s fascination! We went along for the pure joy of being in the outdoors, roughing it in places not usually visited by holidaymakers – the back of beyond.  The Coromandel Peninsula was ideal for this and our guide on these forays was an old bloke called George.  He knew the Coromandel like the back of his hand: every vein of quartz, every stream and knuckle of hill.  He knew where to find amethyst, rocks with a glazing of opal, fossils, petrified wood and carnelian.  

George regaled us with stories of the old days during the Depression as he went back forty years from then. He had worked in all manner of jobs, including gold mining, and got us unto farms and streams to fossick.  He had all the contacts.  When he announced that he had booked cabins in a place called Kuaotunu we knew we were going to the back country.  

In the 50s and early 60s my brother used to pig hunt with friends and camped on a farm in Whitianga. “Where’s Whitianga?” he was asked - and Kuaotunu is 11kms further north.

We reached Kuaotunu after travelling through Coromandel township and swinging east on a then narrow and gravel highway, now known as SH25.  The cabins were basic but we were there to experience ‘the outback.’ There was no lighting about the camping ground at night and as my young son always wanted to go in the middle of the night, I was the anointed to escort him while my husband snored.

I enjoyed the feeling of the bush all around, the scented fresh air, the dark and a certain disquiet and adrenalin rush as to what might be ‘out there.’ I was the landlubber female equivalent of Captain Cook (or one of his men) landing on a beach in New Zealand. My vivid imagination added to the excitement of the place.

The next day we took the Black Jack Road spiralling up as it fell away on all sides, in some parts leaving only sky to be seen. Thrilling; but my husband, the driver, did not like such heights.  We were looking for pyrites when we arrived at Otama Bay and then went on to Opito, now a smart holiday destination.  That night George built a bonfire on Kuaotunu beach and we burnt sausages and heated baked beans and such. Simple pleasures.

Inevitably someone had a guitar and ‘we sang up every song’ that musician knew. The night was magical with the sound and the smell of sea, the tranquil bush and the ambience of quiet calm. The salt-of-the-earth rockhounds and the artlessness of the whole weekend greatly appealed. For some reason that has stayed with me, perhaps because so much has now changed.

I was to discover that Kuaotunu had a rich past of mining gold, a bustling town with areas known as Pumpkin Flat and Irishtown. It had a community with homes, families and all that appertains to a thriving settlement.

The sole reason for its being was the gold.  The Try Fluke Mine was the largest and richest, producing 10 oz. to the ton of ore.  The Try Fluke bought the Mariposa, The Red Mercury and Just in Time.  It had its troughs and peaks and lasted until 1902, with a boom time when mere washing was replaced by the cyanide method of extracting gold. Only 35% was retrieved by the washing and 95% by cyanide, so the tailings and slurries were treated again.

The Waitara Mine took a creditable second place to the Try Fluke, and produced from 1889 until 1916. It was situated in rugged terrain. The Kapai-Vermont used an Otis Crushing plant and not a stamper battery for breaking up the quartz as this was regarded as superior.

Different mines had differing fortunes literally and figuratively in size and production. The Great Mercury was active from 1890 to 1908.  The before mentioned Red Mercury had only a short life and sold out to the Venus Gold Mining Company, which in turn was sold to the Try Fluke.  Small-time mines like the Handsworth and Irene ran into difficulties and closed.  It is hard to imagine an area like Matarangi with gold-mining ventures, small mines that were gradually swallowed up by the bigger operators.  When mining became uneconomic it slowly ceased, though I understood that shafts, tunnels and even some equipment could still be found amongst the gradually encroaching bush of whauwhau, ti tree, mamaku, puriri and pohutukawa that covered the area.

At one stage it was mooted that a breakwater would allow ships to anchor close to the shore or a rail link could be hacked through from civilization. Neither plan ever eventuated and the gold was brought to the beach on horseback. Floats were attached to the bags to prevent any mishap if the rowboats floundered while taking them out to the ships which carried them to Auckland.

A School of Mining was part of this community of old, teaching assaying, metallurgy, chemistry, mathematics and mining.  It did not last due to the difficulty of obtaining and retaining tutors, and closed in 1906.  The building was sold and re-erected for a private owner in Mercury Bay.

Approximately 140,000 pounds sterling of gold was extracted from the area.  Around the late 19th and early 20th century gold was two pounds and thirteen shillings an ounce.  At present gold averages at $1,500 per ounce so the richness of the output can be gauged.

Today the ‘gold’ is found in extending subdivisions and holiday homes.  Matarangi, reached from a well-made off-road west from Kuaotunu, also boasts an aerodrome.   An acquaintance reported and a Google look shows that Kuaotunu remains beautiful and has plenty of charm, but it is not as isolated as it was at the time of gold mining or when we visited thirty or so years ago.  Now it can be reached from a well-settled Whitianga on a sealed road.  The Black Jack Road still has some hair-raising twists, but is much more civilized.

The splendid isolation was part of its wild attraction.  Reached easily now it has become another beach along a string of lovely beaches along the Coromandel Coast.  Its history remains part of its draw for me.  Circumstances have not made it possible to return, which is, perhaps, a good thing.

I like to keep those old images and illusions.

Yet if I did return one day - who knows? - maybe I shall find a nugget there.



‘Old Gold’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors Bay of Plenty Region with support from Tauranga Writers.


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