Wild NZ: Gold Rush! Striking it rich in Central Otago

Wild NZ: Gold Rush! Striking it rich in Central Otago

My biggest obstacle to finding more gold was overcoming the fear that my precious yellow flakes were being lost over the side of the pan. Although, apparently, that’s not likely to happen.

Gold Rush! Striking it rich in Central Otago

I worked the pan carefully, worried some of that precious gold might be washed away with an over-exuberant swish, or an excessively vigorous swirl! I was sure that vast quantities of gold flakes were being swept back into the Arrow River as I gently worked the gravel out of the pan. But, I needed to trust the gold – and trust what our friends had told us: gold is heavy, and it always makes its way to the bottom of the pan.

MY WIFE AND I HAD BEEN IN Queenstown for a few days with friends – celebrating a couple of birthday and wedding anniversary milestones. It’d been a pretty amazing time so far, involving jet boats, helicopters, steamships and restaurants. (Let’s just say that my brownie-points are at an all-time-high!) But that’s another story for another time …

While we’d had a blast during our stay in the south, there was still one thing I wanted to do: gold mining. Our trip had been pretty expensive, and gold was currently paying $1508.21 per ounce – I was feeling a little gold fever coming on!

Our mate Taz picked us up from the airport and took us out to Skippers Canyon for a look around. The infamous road leading into the once-gold-rich-gorge was rated by a British driving firm as the 22nd most dangerous road in the world – it’s so bad, that your rental car won’t be insured if you drive on it! Thankfully, we were in Taz’s 4WD – so car insurance wasn’t an issue. Although, at times, we did think about life insurance – the girls were pretty nervous as the truck teetered on the edge of the huge bluffs!

Once up in the canyon though, we swapped our mode of transport for a jet boat – a great way to explore the area, and even more exciting! We were on the Shotover River, a region with a rich history of gold mining and an abundance of old, rusting, mining relics. Known as ‘the richest river in the world’, the Shotover was the site of one of the largest gold rushes this country has seen.

The story of the Shotover River gold rush is a fascinating one, starting with the first discovery in 1862 by a couple of shearers, Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern. In the area known today as Arthurs Point, they found about four ounces of gold in three hours – although this pales in comparison to the discovery made in 1863 …

Dan Ellison and Hakaraia Haeroa, two North Island Maori, had pushed through the rugged gorge past Arthurs Point and were travelling with other miners on the eastern bank of the Shotover, when their dog was swept down the river. Dan plunged in after it and swam down to a rocky outcrop (now known as Maori Point) where his dog was. Here, he found particles of gold in the rock crevices – and (so the story goes) gold dust in the dog’s coat!

Together, he and Hakaraia gathered 300 ounces (8.5 kilograms) of the precious metal before nightfall!

Now, if I’d wandered up the Shotover and found that much gold today, I’d be walking away with around half-a-million dollars – so it’s fair to say they were laughing all the way to the bank!

Word soon spread, and a town (Charlestown – named after someone called Charles) sprang up almost overnight at Maori Point. Plenty made their fortunes, and the town peaked with a population of over 1000. There were hotels, butchers, a bakery, a bank, post office and police station – the town was thriving. But by 1864, the easy gold had been found and as quickly as it rose, the population fell, and today, little remains except a small plaque marking the site.

The two main types of gold found in New Zealand are alluvial and hard rock (or reef) gold. Alluvial gold is found in rivers and streams (and dogs’ coats) and it’s this that started most of the gold rushes. It gets there by being eroded from the mountains by glaciers, storms and floods, and then carried down into the rivers by heavy rainfall.

Reef gold, on the other hand, is found in rock – usually quartz veins which often run deep underground. It’s a lot more difficult to extract, and in the old days required stamper batteries to crush the mined quartz rock into dust, and then a chemical process to separate out the gold. This was mostly done using cyanide or mercury – a pretty toxic combination! Most of the gold found in the North Island is hard rock gold.

Anyway, as mentioned earlier, I was feeling a little gold feverish and was keen to give this go. I was in good gold country, after all – it was almost rude not to! Actually, the Queenstown Lakes area is home to some of the few areas where Joe Public can ‘fossick for gold’ without needing a permit. Nationally, there are 17 locations in total, and none of them are in the North Island …

My chance came on our last day. After an amazing patch of weather, our luck finally ran out and we awoke to rain. Taz’s parents, Les and Bev, were both keen gold-fossickers themselves, and they’d offered to take us up the Arrow River to pan for gold. Initially, we were hoping to head to Macetown, a historic gold mining settlement some 16km up the Arrow River. But the 4WD track to Macetown crosses the river 22 times – and with the rain we’d been having, we decided to leave that for another day.

We did, however, manage to get a fair way up. And after several exciting river crossings (just ask my wife!) we pulled up on a shingle bank and got ourselves organised. Our equipment was pretty simple: a gold pan and a shovel. And the method was equally straightforward: find some likely-looking gold-bearing-gravel, shovel some into your pan, and away you go!

The science behind panning is that gold is a lot heavier than the surrounding material – in fact, it’s 19 times heavier than water, and around 16 times heavier than the rock! So in theory, as you sluice the gravel around in the water-filled pan, the gold sinks to the bottom, and the lighter rock comes to the top. You simply wash or pick out the larger pieces of gravel, slowly working more and more of it out until you’re left with a handful of fine (often black) sand. Then, it’s just a matter of carefully washing the remaining debris away – and, if you’re lucky, all you have left is gold!

Now, without sounding like a gold-fossicking-braggart (there’s a label for you!), I struck gold with my first pan! And I suddenly understood how the term ‘gold fever’ came about: seeing those gold flakes appear in the bottom of my pan was pretty darn exciting! I can only imagine what it must’ve been like for those early prospectors – some of whom must’ve panned multiple thousands of dollars’ worth in one wash!

The amount I found would, if I was lucky, buy me a lollipop …

As it happened, my biggest obstacle to finding more gold was overcoming the fear that my precious yellow flakes were being lost over the side of the pan. Although, apparently, that’s not likely to happen. Gold loves to sit at the bottom. And the only difference between an experienced ‘panner’, and, er … me, is how long it takes. Which is why, after clearing just a few more pans (due to my impressive speed), it was time to pack up and leave.

While I didn’t strike it rich, I did strike gold, and I did thoroughly enjoy myself. The experience had given me a small taste of what those early prospectors must’ve felt 150 or so years ago … and let me tell you, I can’t wait to go back!

Actually, now that I think about it, I do feel a fever coming on …