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Book extract: Lost Gold - The 100-year search for the gold reef of Northwest Nelson

Paul Bensemann
Wed, 01 Jan 2014

Since 1907, gold prospectors have searched for an El Dorado reef in the rugged mountains of Northwest Nelson. Based on geological maps where X literally marks the spot, a series of intrepid fortune seekers have scoured rivers, valleys and peaks east of Karamea and near Mt Domett but without success. Chief among these characters is Frederick Giles Gibbs, known as "F.G." We pick up the story in chapter 10 of Lost Gold, by Paul Bensemann, who started researching the story with an oral history project in the summer of 1979-80.

1932-33 A Candle Burning Kept Us Warm
F.G.’s rekindled interest in the reef, after visiting [geology professor Patrick] Marshall in Wellington, coincided with a new flood of miners through the forests of north-west Nelson. In the 12 months from March 1931 the gold price rose by more than 50 per cent on the black market and, during the same period, the government mooted a major new subsidy scheme for prospectors.

To F.G.’s dismay the idea had no greater champion than Motueka’s independent MP George Black, who urged prospecting associations to write to Prime Minister George Forbes asking for aid from unemployment funds. Rules for paid prospecting were announced in November 1931, but months of paperwork followed, as budding bushmen applied to the local Unemployed Committee, which sent each application to mining inspectors and prospecting associations, as well as the district inspector of factories.

By the autumn of 1932, when regional bureaucrats were finally exhausted from circulating character reports, dozens of unemployment line refugees began tramping into mountains west of Motueka. At no other time since a short-lived goldrush of 200 men into the Roaring Lion in 1867 had so many men wandered into this wilderness area. Ninety per cent were not gold miners at all, according to prospector and Golden Bay historian Darcy McPherson. ‘The unemployment benefit was 10s a week, but they were supplied with a tent and billy, and paid 15s. They were supposed to give only per cent of their gold to the government.’

But F.G. knew from committee colleagues some subsidised men were tough, veteran miners. Charles Cannington, who was on F.G.’s Mt Balloon Hut Scenic Board, and also worked for Waimea County Council, which helped to manage the scheme, remembered Laurie Kelling as a real character’. Laurie, described as a ‘little skinny fellow’ by bushman Max Kerr, had an old motorbike with short sharp lengths of angle-iron bolted around the back wheel instead of a tyre so he could get through mud to the Tableland.

Anonymous messages
On the way he would write cheery anonymous messages in hut books, such as this, thought to be his, of 4 April 1932: ‘Yes some cold last night lovely morning after all the rain snow & howling wind hope to meet some HE Men in further so passing on, on, on. The Girl from Rectus.’ Charles described Laurie standing with a shovel, in all seasons, in the middle of a stream near Balloon Hut. ‘He used to wear scanties [brief underwear] in the summer to keep cool and bloomers in the winter to keep warm.’

Instead of camping, prospectors started living in the mountains, building log and slab huts, including several in the Flora and its tributaries, called Stagger Inn, Do Call Inn, All Inn, Bust Inn and Cram ’Em Inn. Experienced miner Bill Pirini, who had worked in the Leslie with Harry Chaffey some 20 years before, returned to the bush with his wife Charlotte to pit-saw red beech for a hut at the Tableland/Upper Takaka track junction, where the couple were often seen up to their waists in water, with several layers of clothes on, to keep warm. ‘She tamed blue ducks and used to feed them,’ Godfrey Grooby said. ‘She had about 14 there at one stage.’ Like the other miners, the Pirinis nailed a sign over the front door, naming their hut Emohruo. Asked often what it meant in Maori, they said, ‘Read it backwards and you’ll find out’.

Some, as Len Turtley and Neil Page had done, built bases too far into the mountains for F.G.’s comfort. Steve Leppien, another Mt Balloon Hut Scenic Board member, tramped with Charles down to the Leslie valley and up a deeply cut tributary called Hodge Creek on the Leslie’s west side, not far east of the Lion, to visit four miners in two beech-slab huts. ‘They said the sun never entered their gully.’ He was amazed by a corrugated iron chimney and unique open fireplace. ‘They always had a log fire, using a big matai, but not by cutting it. They fed it in from the outside, gradually.’

The disappearing packhorse
One of the four, Earn Ray, recalled, ‘We got only 16 ounces, four ounces each, for the whole 12 months.’ He lived with Norm Jackson in one hut; Jack Robinson and George Williams were next door. The party had one packhorse but let it go in the Leslie, ‘and that’s the last we ever saw of him. Don’t know what became of the bugger.’ A supervisor would visit about once a month, fill in the forms, pay the benefit and stay up late trying to beat the quartet at bridge. Otherwise there was no social life, no women and it was boring, dark and cold. ‘You had to either stick with it, or carry your swag.’

On the West Coast side, between 30 and 40 men joined Stan and Gwen up the Fenian, and Trevor, too, explored the little catchment, prospecting not for alluvial gold but an alternative route to Mt Domett. He thought old tracks, reopened and improved by modern miners, could lead to a new way over the Fenian Ranges and into the Ugly, avoiding the dangerous and difficult Karamea River and cutting days off the journey via the Heaphy.

Following the scouting mission, he put his family first this time, delaying the journey after Elmer was rushed to Westport Hospital with a perforated appendix. Instead of leaving in the New Year, Trevor set out on the journey proper on 9 February 1933, with an obvious companion, cousin Norman Johnson. They headed north-east towards the distant Domett, angling across Oparara tributaries flowing roughly east to west, and passing from the Fenian Creek gold workings over a low ridge into New Chum Creek and Postal River, the track gradually petering out as they moved up the branches into gorgy little streams.

It was too late to try getting over the Fenian Range and anyway they wanted to be sure of climbing the right ridge; one that would take them far enough north to avoid coming down into one of the small, deceptive creeks that would swing south to the main Karamea, rather than leading east to the Ugly. The Fenian Range, they knew, had fooled others.

Rain and fog
The second day, a Friday, began with rain and fog so they decided, rather than risk losing their way with swags on, to leave most of their gear at the camp and check what seemed the main ridge up, starting from a Postal River fork. They climbed gradually for hours, but felt it was taking them too far south, so returned to camp and next day tried the main tributary of the Postal and up into its source, where they found ridges heading the right way – north-east – but quite steep.

By Sunday, the small stream they were based in – named Camp Creek by Trevor – had risen higher than Nelson’s Maitai in flood, according to Trevor’s notes to F.G. They stayed under their rough flysheet all day but Monday cleared enough to allow an excursion up the other large branch of the Postal where they shot ‘extra Fat Stag. Excellent animal 8 points’. By now Trevor and Norman had been in the Oparara catchment for five days and the venison was welcome. Tuesday morning dawned fine, and they were confident now of the route up, following a large and relatively gentle ridge veering north-east. When they reached the top of the Fenian Range that afternoon, it rained again, so they retreated slightly and camped on a sheltered flat off the range’s edge to wait.

This was typical Trevor. It had taken nearly a week and they had still to reach the Ugly, but the patience shown by the two men, in choosing the right route and weather, were key skills of survival. With no visibility at all next day, they stayed in camp. The skies cleared around 11 a.m. on Thursday so they left their swags and ventured up on the tops to look north: ‘Wonderful view Domett in distance.’ Trevor was happy with their route. ‘Just as I anticipated
Karamea behind us in flood.’

Blizzard conditions
Even from some 5 kilometres away, they could hear the big river, to the south, roaring. By 1 p.m. they had packed and it took some six hours to reach the Ugly, where they walked upriver for about an hour to find a good camp. Next day, after setting out at 8 a.m., it was not long before the two were on a familiar path, arriving at Heart Lake at 6, where they shot a fawn for food. On the misty Saturday morning they set out to climb above the murk for a view, ‘up the hill that gets higher & higher’ – perhaps Mt Centre, but instead of clearing, the weather became ‘a real blizzard’, driving them back to camp, near a small tarn off the main lake.

It was clear on Sunday when they left at 5.30 a.m., but Trevor was not veering around to the south from Heart Lake, as suggested by Marshall and F.G. Instead, he wanted to show Norman his ‘reef ’, with the sparkling iron oxide, hoping it would be gold-bearing on the opposite, north side, of the eastern Domett Range. He was still convinced Bell and Marshall traversed the range before bits fell off in the earthquake and perhaps he believed also that the three tarns, marked clearly on Marshall’s map, had dried up.

They made progress ‘along new Route & correct one’ somehow finding a way to climb around the worst slopes and peaks at the western end. But, by 11 o’clock, when not even halfway to the reef, they found the way impassable with swags. ‘Although we kept jigging only fit for Persons no guns 4 hands. Appeared very Risky for a mile or so jagged.’

Shooting hinds
Norman and Trevor found a steep tributary to take them into the Lion and walked down the river to the valley floor below the reef, where they camped. In the morning, it was foggy again, so they left their swags and made the hard climb towards an eastern Domett Range saddle noted on previous trips, but, according to Trevor, there was ‘no track, no visibility, no food’. It seems they had left the fawn meat at Heart Lake, confident of finding more, but when they shot three hinds ‘one after the other’, the deer ‘gave a final kick in different Places. & down they went Hundreds of feet down slatish rocks out of sight’.

On top, although the north-west wind, fog and rain made it hard to see, the rock formation seemed to continue over the side, or as Trevor described it to F.G., ‘ordinary Rusty Quartz Reefs running alongside & through darker seams of slate, all looks dark at a distance & Probably deceived in appearance your friends, it appears a very mineralised belt, would take days Prospecting same.’

It was too late, too wet, too steep and too risky to go further and break off a sample. They climbed back to the saddle and, while descending to the Lion, searched for deer tracks the hinds had been on, so as to sidle around the slope and cut the risk of falling. After finding one and following it, they ran out of daylight before reaching the valley bottom. In heavy bush now, and rain, without a torch, they had to crawl along, Trevor with his rifle slung over his back, so as not to lose their way and risk falling over a bluff at the end.

This time there was no question about the route out. With the extra rain the Karamea would be in full flood, so on Tuesday they climbed back out to Heart Lake, where they had a meal. It would be a long day, but Norman and Trevor knew, by following deer tracks and the right tributary, they could reach the Ugly by dark, which they did. Although the river was high they were wise enough to cross while still easy to do so that evening and it would take just another two nights to get home via the Ugly’s west side and the Fenian Range. The hardest campsite of the 16-day trip was on a steep slope, just over the range when they were caught in the dark before finding any flat ground. ‘So sat & half lyeng up all night,’ Trevor said. ‘A candle burning Kept us warm. the gun across two trees kept us from slipping down Hill into Postal.’

Insurance premiums
Although F.G. did not pay wages for these difficult trips, he did fund insurance premiums for Trevor and Norman in case of death or injury. The policies had started in early 1929, indemnifying him as employer against liability under the 1922 Workers’ Compensation Act, and the latest, with the Australian Alliance Assurance Company, guaranteed ‘Indemnity in respect of employees engaged in gold prospecting but excluding liability in event of explosives being used’, with the maximum sum to be paid out £1000.

On 27 February 1933 F.G. wrote to Trevor, saying that the policy had cost him 10s per £100, but ‘they have apparently now discovered that Karamea district is a bit hilly, so they are asking 45/-. It is not worth while paying this unless you are sure of going back to Domett…’ Trevor had urged F.G. to continue the policy, keenly aware he and Norman could perish on the steep slopes of the eastern Domett Range and wanting something for their families if they did.

As a different kind of insurance, against exposure with winter approaching, and to replace his one-sheet shelter, Trevor wanted the small pup tent F.G. had brought with him in 1929 and left at Karamea. Post-earthquake floods through the McNabb house had covered the tent in mud and Trevor had told Stan Simkin that it was perished. Stan collected it anyway, cleaned it and hung it out in the rain, before using it on prospecting trips. Trevor walked up the Fenian to collect it from Stan’s mining camp on 12 March.

Norman and Trevor made their next trip to find the gold reef on 20 March, reaching Heart Lake in only four days. Yet again they made the daunting climb from the Roaring Lion up over the eastern Domett Range to check out the northern continuation of Trevor’s reef. It can be imagined, on this bluff, how in places they lowered themselves by rope and, at times, hung on by fingers inserted in little crevices and with the edges of their boots perched on narrow ledges. All Trevor said was: ‘The steep face of the ridge is impassable in many Places being too Perecipitous.’

Although they searched the reef area, they found no gold, but Trevor remained convinced Marshall and Bell had come along this range. For a start, it was granite, ‘then a Greyish rock or stone then the hard slatish country with Quartzite reef 10ft & small seams of Black slate, The Quartzite & Dark-slate combined, which you can trace running through the country for a considerable distance, would certainly appear a blackish reef all in one at a distance what you have been looking for.’

'No commercial value'
He sent two pieces of rock ‘obtained alongside the Quartz Probably of no consequence’. Testing proved his scepticism: ‘In each case the black colour of the samples was due to the presence of carbonaceous matter which was readily removed by ignition leaving a light coloured residue of clayey material…. The samples are of no commercial value.’

Even now, Trevor wanted to go back. He suggested to F.G. that others may be closing in. Trevor seemed to raise the possibility in March that someone had sources or ‘two Spooks’, in his words, from either Bell’s 1908 expedition, or F.G.’s 1928 trip with the Heaths: ‘… strange to say from several unconnected different People all are bent to know more about this area, especially these time when Prospectors out every-where, one man has two Spooks on the original trip & alleges there is one defining R. [reef] another says Earthquake altered country R Lost. & so on.’ And in April: ‘I’m kind of disgusted yet because of remarks I heard. I was amazed. Two chaps have been in from the Cobb side looking for this Particular Reef discovered years ago they apparently have information originated from the name sounded like Heath & Your name was mentioned. Now they are talking of. Bee lining from  here.’

In vain, F.G. sought more details: ‘I am very interested in what you say about those fellows crossing from the Cobb… if they followed along the ridge from Aorere Peak to Domett, they must have been very good climbers. I should like to know more about them and who they were. No doubt they must have had a yarn with the Heath Brothers who were out with me on one of my trips.’

According to Cyril Heath’s son Mervyn, the Heaths kept their promise of secrecy, out of loyalty to F.G., and were reluctant to talk of the reef even to family. But F.G. may have wondered if Neil Page, who now had a camp up the Lion, had been told. Perhaps Ash and Cyril had broken the confidence early in their 1928 trip to the eastern Domett Range, when playing cricket with Neil outside Flora Hut. Yet F.G. did not continue to press Trevor for information. It was April 1933, he was 66, he had hired seven young searchers and guides over the last five years and made several expeditions himself. It was time to give up.

F.G. told Trevor there was little doubt he had found the black-looking lode described by Marshall. ‘I am afraid it is pretty clear that for some unknown reason there is unfortunately no gold in the reef where you have struck it… so I really think it is not worth your while going back there again. I think you have proved that there are no good reefs in the Karamea Valley.’

Trevor, as it turned out, thought otherwise.

Reproduced with permission from Lost Gold by Paul Bensemann
© Paul Bensemann

Paul Bensemann
Wed, 01 Jan 2014
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Book extract: Lost Gold - The 100-year search for the gold reef of Northwest Nelson