Coal once a draw to Shag Point

Buffeted by wind and swept by waves breaking with heaving kelp over slippery rocks, Shag Point’s story is long. It is the earliest known settlement in Otago possibly dating back to the 12th century, when Ngāi Tahu built the Matakaea pā at the Waihemo/Shag River mouth, taking advantage of the plentiful moa, seals, shellfish and fish. The name Matakaea is linked to Ārai-te-uru waka, which is said to have brought kūmara from Hawaiki, which transformed into round boulders embedded in the sandstone rock shelf of the point.

It was coal that made it valuable to Europeans. The bituminous coal was used by early whalers to fire their try pots, but it became a serious economic venture from 1862 that warranted a branch railway line to the coast. The small, natural harbour which had been its early attraction made export easy, but the mine extended 356m out under the sea and the venture was beset by issues and problems from the outset.

There were labour disputes about poor ventilation, seepage of sea water, wages, a fire in the mine not properly put out, and miners losing consciousness. Miners working below the seabed could hear the throb of ships’ propellers overhead. An 1880 letter to the "animadverting upon the management of the mine" (to use the terminology of the time for "criticising") was investigated and substantiated. Presumably there were some improvements as mining lasted until 1972, when flooding eventually closed the shafts.

Little evidence remains of all this vigorous mine activity and Shag Point is now known for its magnificent coastal scenery and wildlife (particularly seals and penguins) and two short walks near the end to the road lead down to the shoreline.

With only a tiny permanent population Shag Point’s somewhat wild and windy past is largely a distant memory. The houses, a mix of old miner cottages and modest cribs, are sheltered from the wind below the road and all with magnificent views over Kaitiki Beach.

Shag Point is 47km north of Dunedin on SH1.

The book

High Hopes and Big Dreams: 165 New Zealand small towns in their twilight, by Peter Janssen and Elizabeth Anderson (White Cloud Books from Upstart Press, RRP $49.99)