The 1860s saw the official beginning of the ‘gold rush’ times in New Zealand and those that followed. Thousands flocked to goldfields all across New Zealand, seeking to make it big with the help of this soft, dense, yellow metal.
Largely ignored by its original discoverers, the native Maori of New Zealand, gold was immensely favoured by early European settlers who found value in its tradability as a currency. The elusive hunt for gold and all that it entailed was the pursuit of many, many migrants.
For most, it was the dream of striking it rich, a way out of poverty during the Great Depression. But for many, it was their greatest folly. A harsh reality complete with injury, death and long separations from family and loved ones. It was, however, the collective value of this gold that enabled New Zealand to kick start its emerging economy and establish itself as a young nation.
Why Was Gold So Sought After?
Before to the Second World War, European currencies were directly tied to the “Gold Standard”. This meant that all money needed to be backed by a corresponding amount of gold or silver which was stored in bank vaults or circulated as coins.
The problem was the war caused the depletion of gold reserves for many countries as they sought to finance wartime necessities such as ammunition and machinery. The rapid inflation that followed led to The Great Depression and the need for more gold to be found to aid in efforts to stifle its adverse effects.
Understandably, the global demand for gold skyrocketed, which led to frantic gold rushes around the world, one of those countries caught up in the gold rush was New Zealand. Discovering gold was a guaranteed way out of the poverty brought about by the Great Depression.
Gold Rush Fever In NZ
Miners braved all kinds of treacherous conditions to be the first to stake a claim and make it rich. However, the reality of the gold rush did not always live up to the dream. Many people lost their lives, and even more, never made more than enough to break even. But there was always the possibility that tomorrow may bring that gold nugget big enough to make it all worth it!
As most gold mining locations were beyond the existing settlements of civilization, this drove the population of more remote areas. The influx of miners to an area would immediately bring with it a scramble to build small villages and supply lines to cater to the miners and hopefully cash in on their riches. However, these remote settlements often only lasted the duration of the rush and were left deserted as the miners moved on to the next big thing.
In New Zealand, although gold was sought after in the North Island, it was the wild and rugged South Island that claimed the bulk of the great gold rush years. The main New Zealand goldfields at the time were located in the Coromandel, Nelson/Marlborough, Central Otago and the West Coast.
NZ Gold Mining History
New Zealand’s gold mining history officially began in 1852 in the Coromandel, where a merchant named Charles Ring found a small amount of gold. A mini gold rush ensued with disappointing amounts recovered, and before long, prospectors were branching out to other areas of New Zealand with the help of local Maori to guide them.
In 1856 another small rush followed in Golden Bay, near Nelson, with a further small find in Marlborough in 1864. At this time, it was known there was gold for the taking deep within the valleys of the West Coast and also the Otago region. However, access and difficult terrain made these areas unattractive to miners until the Gabriels Gully discovery in 1861 (the Otago Gold Rush) and Greenstone Creek on the West Coast in 1864 proved too promising to ignore.
The Central Otago Gold Rush 1861
Beginning with the Gabriel’s Gully discovery in 1861, the Otago Gold Rush was New Zealand’s largest gold strike and with it came an influx of miners from around the world. This led to the discovery of further goldfields spread throughout much of the Central Otago region.
The frenzy of gold mining activity in Otago meant many settlements rapidly sprang up out of nowhere, some of which became the towns and cities we know today. One of these was Dunedin which grew to become NZ’s largest city at the time, and another was Queenstown.
The West Coast Gold Rush 1864
Stemming from the first official Greenstone Creek discovery in 1864, the West Coast Goldrush was the second richest gold mining region in New Zealand. Gold was found throughout the region’s many valleys and rivers, including the Grey River, Bruce Bay, Charlston, Stafford and Ross. However, access was treacherous through mountainous terrain and thick native forest.
By 1867 the initial mass gold rush began to fade, however gold mining on the West Coast stood the test of time and continues to this modern-day era of commercial gold mining. Waiuta was the South Island’s largest gold mine and one of the most regular and persistent gold reefs found anywhere in the world. Massive gold dredges were placed on all the major gold bearing rivers on the West Coast. The largest nugget ever found in New Zealand was found on the West Coast in Ross just south of Hokitika in 1909.
The Coromandel Peninsula Gold Rush 1867
After having a bit of a false start in 1852, over ten years later gold was struck again near Thames in 1867. However, the gold was embedded in hard rock, making it too difficult for individual miners and simple tools, so larger mining companies took over the extraction using heavy machinery.
The Martha Hill Mine at Waihi was a prominent feature for many years, and it produced more gold than any other mine in New Zealand history. In fact, the Martha Hill mine is still in operation today, having been reopened in 1987 as an open cast mine and with several underground subsidiaries added in recent years.
How Was The Gold Mined?
Gold is mined in different ways depending on how it occurs in nature. In New Zealand, there are two main types of gold mining, ‘hard rock’ quartz mines, and alluvial or placer gold mining. The most common gold mining in New Zealand is alluvial.
Hard Rock Mining
Gold is found as very small flecks in the quartz veins of hard rocks. Hard rock mines were mined using a series of tunnels and shafts that followed the natural path of the vein or “reef” of the gold deposits through the rock. Explosives were used to break down the rock, and rail-based carts or wheelbarrows were used to transport the rock up and out of the mine shafts (using pulley systems).
Stamping machinery was then used for crushing the rock into finer particles, after which it was mixed with water and passed over concentrating tables. Traditionally these tables were coated with copper sheets and mercury, which attracted the gold particles separating them from the rock, the cyanide separation process was also used in more recent times. This involved large vats of cyanide and gravel and was far more efficient than the traditional method. This type of mining was used in the Coromandel as the gold was found in Quartz rock which is very hard.
Alluvial Gold Mining
Sometimes referred to as river gold or placer, alluvial gold mining is when gold is gathered from within streams and riverbeds (or where streams, rivers and glaciers used to be). Alluvial gold still comes from within the rock but from those rocks that have been worn down into sand and gravel over many thousands of years by natural erosion processes.
Mining for alluvial gold included 3 possible approaches, the process of panning, sluicing, or dredging for gold. This type of mining was popular at the Otago and West Coast goldfields. The idea behind this mining process was to use the continual motion of the pan or sluice box design in combination with water to shake loose the gold particles from the surrounding gravel. Because gold is heavier than the rock, it will fall to the bottom of the pan/sluice box and is able to be collected. Modern day mining is with large mechanical rotating hydraulic screens.
Panning For Gold
Panning was a labour-intensive process and was mainly used for prospecting with more productive methods such as sluicing, dredging, and rotating hydraulic screens employed on established goldfields. The pans themselves are a wide round shape, much like an oversized bowl but with shallow sides or between 35 and 40 degrees.
Some pans were made of wood, some metal and more often these days, plastic due to its rust, acid and corrosion-resistant qualities. Plastic pans are almost always dark in colour, making the gold easier to spot. Common sizes of gold pans would typically range from between 25 – 43 cm.
Gold Dredging And Sluicing
Dredging and sluicing were larger versions of gold mining equipment following much the same theory of using motion and water to separate the gold from the gravel. Sluicing involved the use of piped water at high pressures to wash the gravel down slopes and into sluice boxes.
Sluice boxes were essentially long, terraced wooden boxes. The gold-bearing gravel was washed through the box and over its inbuilt ledges or terraces that created traps for the heavier gold and allowed the lighter materials to wash away the bottom, mimicking a river bed’s natural landscape. Dredging was a more complicated process whereby the gravel was dredged up from the bottom of river beds using machinery. The gold was then extracted using various on-shore methods before returning the gravel to the river bed.
Many of the same techniques used by the old-time miners are still used today, but with the advent of modern equipment and machinery. Water races have been replaced with electric or diesel water pumps. The pick, shovel and sluice water cannon, with earth moving excavators, and the sluice box or cradle with mechanical rotating hydraulic screens.
Can Gold Still Be Found In New Zealand?
The short answer is yes; both commercial gold mining and recreational gold fossicking, you can still pan for own gold in NZ! The government have set aside 19 areas for the general public to fossick for gold without the need for a permit. These areas are all located within the South Island of New Zealand.
• Nelson-Marlborough in designated areas of the Kahurangi National Park and Glenhope Scenic Reserve.
• The West Coast throughout designated areas in the Ross, Lyell, Denniston, Greymouth, Westland Tai Poutini National Park, Victoria Forest Park, Southern Paparoa range and the Goldsborough (Waimea) to Kumara area.
• Central Otago in designated areas within the Gabriels Gully Historic Reserve.
• South Otago in designated areas in and around Queenstown.
If you wish to mine more seriously and in other areas of New Zealand, a permit is required. Mining permits cost around $6000 to apply, and there are additional fees payable each year if your application is successful. It is necessary to understand you can only use non-motorised hand tools when fossicking for gold in these areas. This means the following tools are permitted; pick, shovel, pan, a metal detector, and a sluice box.
For more information on the locations of the permit-free gold fossicking in New Zealand, see here. Or take a look here to find out about the largest gold nugget ever found in New Zealand!