Glimpse into the past
The story of Annie Fox and Henry Chaffey captured me when I first read of it in Gerald Hindmarsh’s Kahurangi Calling. The runaway lovers lived in remote Asbestos Cottage for nearly 40 years and I was delighted to discover it’s possible to visit their former home, now restored as a DOC hut.
The first section of track is easy walking along the broad disused mine access road, through beech and mānuka forest. Tree canopies from either side of the path knit together overhead creating a light-dappled corridor of green.
We kept a steady pace on the gentle uphill gradient. The forest felt quiet; even the ordinarily lively bellbird and tui calls seemed languid in the hot haze of the day and we managed to get fairly close to a kererū before he decided, with a few lazy wingbeats, that he’d be happier elsewhere. A couple of weka proved to be less lethargic, tumbling mid-squabble from the upper banking onto the path.
On approaching the disused asbestos mine, the vegetation thinned and the serpentine rock, from which the green asbestos fibres were extracted, became prominent. The Hume Pipe Company operated the quarry between 1943 and 1963, at its peak extracting around 5000 tonnes of high-grade asbestos a year. Back then, demand for the mineral was high worldwide; due to its insulative and fire-retardant properties, the fibre was popular as a building material. Today, gnarled boots, broken shovel-heads and other rusty relics of the era are strewn across the mining site, though most have been collected into a pile around the directional signage that lets you know Asbestos Cottage is 30-minutes away.
We stopped every so often on the rocky and exposed track with the excuse of looking back at the old mine and the dark green spurs beyond, the harsh sunlight fading the more distant hills to greys and blues.
The true seclusion of the cottage becomes apparent as it’s approached. It’s not until you step across Camp Creek and bash up a short steep slope that you see it, suddenly only metres in front in all its red corrugated glory.
Originally built by asbestos miners in 1897, the cottage is over 120 years old. Excavation work in the late 1990s uncovered a number of tools and other relics which adorn the inside of the building and I spent some time examining these as well as various other bits and pieces on the shelves, such as powelliphanta shells, a wallet containing newspaper clippings and detail on the restoration work, and, rather touchingly, a note from Annie’s great-great-great nephew.
We ate our lunch outside the cottage, under a shady spot of trees. whilst admiring the blonde grass swaying in the sunlight. From here, it is a 30-minute walk to the Bullock Track which leads onto Cobb Ridge. An unmaintained track directly behind the cottage also leads to the ridge. An early start or an overnight stay could turn this into a loop walk as the ridge eventually joins up with the Cobb Dam Road again.
After lunch, we retraced our steps back to the car but not without one last long look from the slope behind the cottage. I don’t know that I could live there for 40 years but it would be a long time before I tired of the views.
– Elaine Dillon
- 5km to hut
- Total Ascent
- 3.5 - 4 hours return
- Asbestos Cottage (free, four bunks)
- From Cobb Dam Road, 2km past the powerhouse