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July 2021 Issue

Walk these four trails for their mining history and stay for the magnificent scenery.

Names on a map are often a clue to history, and the backcountry is no exception. 

It’s fascinating how many seemingly remote and wild places have seen past human activity, including attempts to extract minerals. Take, for example, copper mining. 

Although copper is not common in New Zealand, mining attempts have occurred in a few places, most notably at Kawau Island. Opened in the 1840s, the Kawau Island copper mine was the country’s first underground mine and produced a credible 2500 tonnes. There’s a Coppermine Island in Northland’s Hen and Chicken Island group, and Marlborough has a Coppermine Bay on D’Urville Island.

Of more interest to trampers though are these four places, all worth visiting as much for the scenery as for the history.

1. Coppermine Stream, Ruahine Forest Park

Copper was discovered in the lower Ruahine Range in 1887, after which there were four attempts to mine the area. Tunnelling later replaced open cast mining but was fraught with cave-ins and difficulty mining the ore in payable quantities. At ‘The Forks’ seven men worked for two years between 1923-25, and one of their huts was later used by hunters and trampers until a flood destroyed it in 1971. The last mining attempt occurred during the 1930s Depression. 

These days, a well-benched track leads up Coppermine Stream, with information panels detailing the area’s history. The relics include some old rail lines, along which ore was transported, and the entrance to a magazine shaft. An enjoyable circuit of the area takes about 2-2.5hr.

2. Coppermine Creek, Aorere Goldfields Conservation Area

The Aorere Goldfields Track makes a 3hr circuit of this historic mining area, which was the site of sluicing activity during the 1880s. There’s a dam, two caves to explore (with a torch) and the trail is also open to mountain bikers. While gold was the main mineral exploited, traces of copper also existed in the area, as the name of the creek testifies. 

3. Coppermine Saddle, Mt Richmond Forest Park

The well-graded Dun Mountain Trail follows an old railway line, built in the 1850s to mine the mineral-rich area of ultramafic rock surrounding Dun Mountain. Emerging from the bush just before Windy Point, the trail winds up to Coppermine Saddle, where old mining relics are much in evidence. Although copper was present, miners recovered far more chromite. After exploring the fascinating area, trampers can spend a night at Rocks Hut or continue down the trail to the Maitai Valley. 

4. Coppermine Creek Hut, West Coast

Before the construction of the highway through South Westland during the 1960s, the Haast-Paringa Cattle Track provided the main means of travelling overland between Haast and the north. Some 50,000 cattle were driven through the route in its nine decades of use.

These days, the historic route serves as an interesting tramping trail beginning from the highway at the Waita River, where it heads inland. Coppermine Creek Hut (eight bunks) is the first of three huts on the three-day track; the others are Maori Saddle and Blue River (though a slip has recently closed access to Māori Saddle Hut). The recent opening of Mataketake Hut on the range above gives the option of extending the tramp onto these tarn-strewn tops. 

As for the copper, this proved to be a false lead. Explorer Charlie Douglas thought he’d found copper traces in the area, but a later geologist identified it was in fact just iron pyrites.