Hard knock life of a New Zealand gold miner


Left, a gold miner’s rock shelter as seen from the river; right, Casey contemplates going inside one of the ghostly abodes. Photos by David Lansing.

We take our time moving up the Clutha River with Laurence zig-zagging from one side of the river to the other to point out the primitive rock shelters built in to the schist cliffs of the Roxburgh Gorge. This is where Chinese and Scottish miners lived in the 1880s as they tried to make their fortunes panning for gold.

As cold as we are—wearing our polartec jackets and gloves and woolen caps—it’s stunning to think how difficult life must have been for the men who, with few supplies, spent their winters living in rocks caves with little food and nothing to sleep on but a small cot with a few blankets. And the thing is, there aren’t just one or two of these rock shelters along the river—they’re everywhere. We see a new one every few minutes. And so you begin to get the idea of the desperate nature of these people, living by themselves in the most primitive of conditions, no doubt suspicious and guarded of their neighbor down the river who may or may not cut their throat at night to claim their turf.

At one point Laurence runs the boat up on shore and we hike up the gorge a short distance to have a closer look at one of the shacks. There’s not much to see. A single room, maybe eight by eight feet, with a small fireplace for cooking and heat and a rock shelf built in to one of the wall where a miner would carefully stack everything he owned—matches, a tin cup and a plate, maybe a knife and fork.

One by one we enter the shelter, have a quick look around, and leave. There’s a spookiness to the place, and a sadness, that makes you want to quickly get back out in to the daylight.

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  1. Allan’s avatar

    Something I have never thought to ask about, but the mine reminded me: are there snakes in New Zealand? I have such a snake phobia. Two of my friends were staying on some obscure island off Australia when she Googled and found out that 10 of the 12 most dangerous snakes in the world were found where she was.

  2. chris’s avatar

    New Zealand has no snakes, and if fact no venomous animals of any kind. It’s hard to believe that NZ and Australia, which seem so close can be so different in this regard. You’re safe to visit there Allan.

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