Dave Mitchell visits Reefton where he rides an old gold trail on the Waiuta to Big River Track
We can thank New Zealand’s early gold miners for many of the best mountain bike tracks we ride today. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the South Island’s West Coast, and no town is better endowed with historic mining relics, tracks and trails than Reefton.
Reefton began life in 1870 on the opposite bank of the Inangahua River to where it is now. Originally called Quartzopolis, as it grew and migrated across the river its name was changed to reflect the gold-bearing quartz reefs in the surrounding hills. At its industrious peak, Reefton boasted the largest quartz goldfield in the South Island and in 1888 gave birth to the Southern Hemisphere’s first commercial electricity supply.
The Big River Track was formed in 1886 to provide mining access to Big River Flats, a remote area in Victoria State Forest. It’s now a popular 4WD track that passes a number of old mining claims and the Merrijigs Hotel site. Big River is home to a 20 bunk DOC hut. From Big River, the track magically transforms into technical benched singletrack that winds its way out to Waiuta.
From Reefton, head west over the Inangahua River to the town’s outskirts and south along the Soldiers Big River Road. The road soon goes gravel and cruises through a small forest of pine and eucalyptus heading east to Progress Junction and the site of an old town. Continue straight across Devils Creek and climb gradually to the start of the Waiuta-Big River Track.
The Track winds its way through tall beech forest passing the Drake Shaft, Golden Lead Mine and A1 Adit. Their wet and uninviting entrances are home to glow worms and the large long- legged weta.
The 4WD trail is rough and rocky in places with plenty of small stream crossings as it ducks and dives through the many damp south-facing gullies on the way out to Big River. There is a final fast descent to the first of three coppery-coloured fords.
Open river flats and five large cyanide tanks mark the start of the Big River mine site. On top of the adjacent terrace, DOC’s Big River Hut delivers a great lunch spot and a commanding view of the whole mining operation. The remains of the Big River Mine stamping battery are across the river and only chimneys remain of the old town on the terrace above.
On the adjacent hill, towering over a vertical mine shaft, is one of the Coast’s few remaining hardwood poppet head structures. It was used to winch buckets of quartz rock down to the processing plant by the river. The power plant, consisting of two huge boilers and their winding gear, is housed in a modern shed to protect it from the elements. All this can be explored if you have time up your sleeve.
From the hut, head south onto benched singletrack. The trail climbs to a pakihi clearing – an area with such poor soil it cannot support forest growth – and then through open tussock country. The track meanders for a while before returning back into the bush.
At Big River South Mine, the track crosses Sunderland Creek and heads up a side stream before being reunited with the benched track on the terrace above. The track continues to climb, passing numerous mining relics, to the very top of the ridge.
From the ridge-top, the track descends gradually, revealing glimpses of the Snowy River and expansive Upper Grey River catchment. The descent is leaf litter singletrack at its very best. Regenerating mānuka populates the lower section which eventually pops out onto an old forestry road that’s a stone’s throw from Waiuta and the Prohibition Mine site.
Waiuta must have felt like the centre of the universe in its heyday, with a vast industrial complex surrounding what was then the deepest mine in New Zealand. Established in 1905, it produced more gold than any other West Coast mine but never gave up all its wealth. In 1951, the wheels fell off when the main ventilation shaft collapsed. The town closed for business soon after but its atmosphere still remains and rumours of it reopening persist.
From Waiuta, the metalled Blackwater Road descends to the tiny settlement of Blackwater from where the Waiuta Road leads to SH7.
With a tailwind and a bit of drafting you will be back to Reefton in time for dinner or you can car shuttle to save your legs.
- Reefton to Waiuta via Waiuta-Big River trail, 55km; Waiuta to Reefton, 25km
- From Reefton on Soldiers – Big River Road
- BS21, BT21