The Big River Track – Waiuta to Big River Mine
This weekend’s hike took us South West into Victoria Forest Park. If like me, you haven’t heard of it before, it is roughly sandwiched between the Nelson Lakes National Park to the East, and the Paparoa range to the West. The nearest town is Reefton. There are lots of walking tracks in the park, and we walked the Big River Track from Waiuta to Big River.
We chose this track because it is pretty low elevation (we didn’t fancy hiking up any mountains on an average-weather winter’s day…) there is plenty of interesting history, it is a good overnighter, and the track is pretty easy. The track is 11 km from Waiuta to Big River hut, and depending on how much exploring you want to do, DOC recommends between 3-5 hours to walk the track. We took just under 4 hours on the outbound walk and just under 3 hours return.
We left Nelson at 7.50 am and headed south down the SH6 towards Murchison for an obligatory coffee stop. From Murchison, we continued on the SH6 towards Greymouth and turned off at Inangahua. From Inangahua we took the 69 to sleepy little Reefton then took the SH7 as far as Hukarere and turned off on the Waiuta Road. We reached Waiuta at 10.50 am.
My day began with something of a fright. I had moved house-sits the week before and hadn’t yet unpacked my tramping gear, so I pulled everything out of the box, and got dressed. I threw my hair up into a bun and was eating breakfast when I felt a little tickle up the back of my neck in my hairline. A sixth sense told me to scoop rather than slap whatever it was, and to my horror, a large cockroach plopped to the floor. It wasn’t a great start to the day.
We left Nelson at 7.50 am and headed to Murchison, swinging into the Hope Saddle lookout to use the loo (clean, in excellent order, no wasps in winter) and for a look at the snow-capped mountains to the South.
At 9.20 am we got to Murchison and stopped off at the Rivers Cafe for a coffee and a delicious muffin. We’d been hanging out for some amazing French pastries from the Sweet Dreams French Bakery opposite, but unfortunately, they didn’t have any baking out yet – and we later learned that it changed owners in March and may no longer be French. We had a ferret around the awesome second-hand store next to the Rivers Cafe before jumping back in the car and heading on.
We were back on the road by 9.50 am and reached Reefton at 10.50 am. It is only a 20-minute drive to Waiuta from Reefton via the tiny little settlement of Blackwater. We passed the beautiful Blackwater School and made a note that we’d stop there on our way back.
Whether or not you’re a history buff, Waiuta and the surrounding area is a fascinating place to visit. Between 1906 and 1951 it was the town servicing the largest gold mine in New Zealand’s South island, and in the 1930s had a population of over 600 people. It is now a historic town site managed by DOC. There could be a whole blog post dedicated to it, but instead, I will leave you in the capable hands of the official Waiuta website and New Zealand History website.
We stopped at the first of many information boards and had a bit of a drive around the town. We hadn’t realised that there was so much to see here! However the day was getting away with us, so we decided to find the track and come back tomorrow to take a proper look around.
The Big River Track
We drove a short distance out of Waiuta in the direction of the Prohibition mine and parked at the small car park at the start of the Big River Track. We started walking at midday. The track initially starts off on a four-wheel drive track for a Km or so, before turning left into the forest. It then follows an old, benched pack track sidling along the upper Western flank of the Snowy River valley at an elevation of around 700m.
The track was easy and beautiful, with a couple of very gentle ups and downs. We started walking in a light drizzle, surprised at how cold it was!
There was plenty to keep the track interesting, with the beautiful forest around us, fallen trees, and some interesting mushrooms at our feet. This part of the world clearly doesn’t get a lot of sun, but does get a lot of rain, and as we continued I think we saw every possible kind of moss that New Zealand has!
We saw a few robins along the track but heard few other birds apart from one pocket where there were lots of tiny birds chirping away in the canopy. They were too high up for us to see what they were, and unfortunately, we didn’t recognise their song.
After a couple of hours, we began to get really cold. We stopped for a lunch break and to put another layer of clothing, gloves and hats on. At around 7 km the track came up and out of the Snowy River valley and into a branch of the Sunderland Creek. Thankfully as soon as we crossed we could feel the warmth slowly creep back into us.
The track narrowed as we came down into the creek and we walked through the beautiful creek bed itself. We managed to rock hop to avoid wet feet, but if it was raining no doubt the trickle of a stream we walked through would be considerably higher.
We soon came to the site of the abandoned St George mine. There was evidence of some kind of shaft from the track – a gap in the beautiful mossy surroundings. A little further on we dropped our packs and took a look at a site that was signposted from the track. We wandered down a short and very boggy track but there wasn’t anything to see. On the basis of that we skipped the Big River South mine about 10 minutes further up the track.
Boardwalk across the pakihi
After the Big River South mine we climbed a little and eventually came out onto an area of wet heathland. I was reliably informed this was known as ‘pakihi’ wetlands, a completely new word for me. A quick Google search later told me that pakihi are a wetland characterised by infertile soils and little or no peat. The large amount of rainwater that falls here has nowhere to go due to the impervious layer of rock underneath the soil. The soil becomes infertile and can only support a special kind of vegetation.
Shortly afterward, at 3.45 pm we reached the 20-bed Big River hut. Thankfully, there was a coal fire going in the stove, left by the group who lunched here. The hut was lovely and warm. We got to work sweeping the floor, rebuilding the fire and making a hot cup of soup.
Adventures from Big River hut
We enjoyed our cup of hot soup and were delighted to warm up several notches. Time was getting on and we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, so we summoned up some energy, changed out of our snuggly hut clothes and went back out to scout around the mining sites close to the hut.
We learned that below the hut was the old cyanide plant and mine battery (which has undergone a lot of remedial work to make it safe for the public to wander around). Rock that was mined from the Big River mine was crushed here in the battery before the gold was separated out using chemicals.
We really wanted to see the other parts of the mine site, but this required a crossing of Big River. It was actually a small river, but enough of a river to get our shoes and boots soaked. We didn’t want wet(ter) shoes/boots at this late stage in the day, so there was only one thing for it. We took our shoes and socks off to cross.
It was FREEZING!! I love a good grumble, but the profanity I uttered as my feet went numb in the 50 seconds it took to cross the river, was next-level.
Big River Mine Engine Room and Poppet Head
Suffering the very very cold river was worth it for the cool historical stuff up the hill. We followed the four-wheel drive track about a kilometre and came to the restored engine house and winding room. Inside, we marveled at the workings. This used to be the control centre for the mine and the ‘winding engines’ hauled rock out of the mine above and took men and equipment down into the mine.
The Big River mine was open from 1829 to 1942 and was at one point, the deepest mine shaft in New Zealand at 602m. A huge 4.3m diameter water wheel was used to power the winders before they converted to steam engine in 1895.
We wanted to visit the poppet head mostly because it has the word ‘poppet’ in it. Secondly, because it continued the awesome historical discoveries we were making, and finally, because we knew there would be an amazing view. There was a sign indicating it was a 25-minute walk up and along the four-wheel drive track. Twenty minutes later we arrived and it didn’t disappoint.
A poppet head is a building/frame that sits over the top of a mineshaft. It houses the winding mechanism of pulleys and ropes that come up from the winding house, and go down into the mine. We walked around and looked down at the engine house over the ‘mullock’ pile. Today’s second new word – meaning the worthless rock that was taken out of the mine and tipped over the edge.
We spent some time admiring the view and basking in the evening sunset, before heading back down. We opted to go down ‘the quick way’. To the left of the engine room (as we looked down upon it) we could see a steep, sketchy little path that went down the line of vegetation that would bring us out to the engine room. We were down in 5 minutes.
We headed back towards the hut via ‘tin town’ which was the site where the miners used to live. There were a few remnants, but sadly the impression we were left with was of an area ruined by four-wheel drive vehicles.
Back at Big River hut
We got back to the hut at 6.30 pm and enjoyed a gourmet dinner of pre-prepared risotto and a Greek salad. Someone had kindly left a box of shiraz wine, which we enjoyed with dinner. At 8.30 pm just as we were thinking of heading to bed, we saw the lights of 2 four-wheel drive vehicles slowly heading towards the hut (Big River hut is accessible by vehicle from Reefton).
You may know that sinking feeling when you think you are lucky enough to get the hut to yourselves, only to have a bunch of people turn up later. As there were two vehicles, we expected 6-8 people. It turned out to be 2 friendly guys from Christchurch, who we enjoyed a lovely evening with.
Big River Hut to Waiuta and Prohibition Mine
In the morning we enjoyed a very leisurely breakfast as the sun warmed the hut. We lazed around on the balcony chatting and eventually left 10 am. We arrived back at Waiuta at 12.50 pm.
When we got back to the car, we headed up the road to take a look at the Prohibition mine site. This site was recently cleaned of the huge amounts of arsenic that used to be present and is now (mostly) accessible to the public.
Back to Waiuta
When we got back to Waiuta we had a nice surprise as we discovered that amongst the 40 or so people attending a Geology conference there, was Rich’s dad. It never fails to amaze me that you can go to some of the most out-of-the-way places and bump into someone you know.
We had a quick chat before the geologists headed off to look at formations, and we had a delicious lunch. Afterward, we wandered around Wailua, checking out the post office, the swimming pool and the Blackwater mine site.
On the drive home, we honoured our promise to stop in at the beautiful Blackwater village school. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world don’t miss it! Not only is it a lovely building, but inside it is a treasure trove of local history. It was wonderful.
It was one of those weekends that wasn’t quite long enough. I’d have loved to have stayed to do some more exploring and to spend some time in sleepy little Reefton, but a 3.5-hour drive home was on the cards. There are definitely more trips to be done here and I’m really glad it’s now on the radar.
To break up our journey home, we hopped out to do a little recce of the rapids on the Buller river.