Boom and bust

Waiuta miners pause for crib. Photographer and miner Joseph Divis is fifth from the left. PHOTO:...
Waiuta miners pause for crib. Photographer and miner Joseph Divis is fifth from the left. PHOTO: JOSEPH DIVIS
A new documentary captures the phenomenon that was Waiuta, writes Tom McKinlay.

Gold created the town of Waiuta, so when the gold stopped, so did the town. It all but emptied, as quickly as it had filled.

There’s not much there now, in the West Coast bush northeast of Greymouth. Tailings, a few scattered structures, fewer still habitable, the remnant footprint of other buildings.

But there are stories, hardly creditable, of community, work and riches beyond dreams, and also of poison, dust and death. All this shoehorned into less than half a century of a young colony’s history.

That compressed drama is what struck Hokitika-based film-maker Dave Kwant, who has laid out the tale in the documentary Whispers of Gold: A tale of boom and bust and a West Coast town that refused to die.

"I think what it is, is that it is just a really neatly wrapped-up story. It tells a lot of those stories from that time in a nicely wrapped-up bundle. It has the whole mining-versus-environment issue. It has the foreign mining company that came in and got what they wanted then just pulled the pin when it suited them. Then it has the pioneering tales of hardship in the bush, that kind of stuff, backed by the really rich resource.

"On a global scale it is a very significant gold reef, you know. I think it is quite famous in goldmining circles."

Here’s what happened; the story Whispers of Gold tells it with such compelling style.

In 1905 some prospectors stumble across gold in a West Coast creek, on the King’s birthday. What they’ve found is evidence of the Birthday Reef, a long, thin cord of quartz running straight down into the earth. Rights to the reef pass through a couple of hands before ending up the property of UK company Consolidated Goldfields.

The company first builds the Blackwater Shaft, in 1908, then later the Prohibition Shaft, and mines three-quarters of a million ounces of gold worth $1.6billion in today’s money, before a shaft collapses in 1951, spelling the end of the whole. They clear out, leaving a landscape poisoned by arsenic, mercury and cyanide.

It’s not exactly an untold tale, but the Friends of Waiuta, an energetic association that includes many descendants and some former residents, wanted it told on film.

Kwant got the job and was pleased to find a wealth of material to weave into his narrative, including the photographs of one Joseph Divis, a Czech import who worked in the mine but also happened to be a keen and very fine photographer.

"Once we started looking through the material, we had this fabulous archive with those photographs of Joseph Divis, which are just amazing, and then there was the home video that one of the guys had shot. That combination really helped bring it alive."

There were first-person accounts too.

"A lot of the residents, many who were children then, are still around and can still remember living at Waiuta."

Kwant says they were very careful to achieve a balance, avoid either too rose-tinted a recall of the place or an overemphasis on the tough conditions of work that led to many early graves.

"When you talk to people there, they talk about how terrible the company was and how they didn’t care for people’s health and people were just dying and how they had to do everything themselves. But at the same time they are very excited by the idea that people are going to go down and get the rest of this gold."

Because, yes, there’s gold there still and plans to get at it.

Beyond telling the story of the time — of class, dances and sporting prowess during the upheaval of the interwar years — Kwant says the film also speaks to concerns today, about the relative importance of worker safety, environment and economic activity.

"In many ways it is a story that is quite romantic in terms of the notion of what being a Kiwi is, you know? But at the same time still quite pertinent in terms of the issues that collide when you have that kind of stuff going on."

Kwant says he’s been surprised by the reception the film has had already. The Waiuta diaspora has responded with great enthusiasm. During that process, new stories have come to light that he’d liked to have included in the final cut.

"There is another quite cool little story that another couple of people have told about how they remembered the noise at night-time, the tapping."

It seems that when you walked through Waiuta at night you could hear tapping coming from the houses, people hammering away on their kitchen benches at quartz rock from the mine they’d smuggled home.

The film

Whispers of Gold screens at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum on the next two Saturdays (October 17 and 24) at 2pm. 

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